It wasn’t censorship. Fine. It was cowardly, it was craven, it was a manifestation of dhimmitude, and it most certainly was “an episode in some ‘showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech.'” I am not so much interested in Stanley Fish’s pedantic point about the definition of the word censorship as I am in his cavalier dismissal of the possibility that this is a skirmish in a larger battle over free speech. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has been clear about its plan to compel Western countries to curtail free speech so as to end criticism of Islam and jihad terrorism, and Random House was clear that they did not publish this book because they were afraid of violent reprisals.
How, then, could this not be “an episode in some ‘showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech'”? Fear rules the day: even blowhard conservative talking heads on TV are afraid of discussing the elements of Islam that jihadists exploit to justify jihad violence and Islamic supremacism, for fear of being called “bigots” and “racists.” Others, like Random House, are afraid of making any move that Muslims might dislike, up to and including publishing a trashy Harlequin-Romanceization of Muhammad’s marriage to the nine-year-old Aisha, for fear of suffering violent reprisals.
So perhaps Fish is right: there is no showdown, because on the Western side no one is showing up. For a showdown in the Old West you needed two gunfighters standing toe-to-toe, not one standing up and the other running to meet his every demand.
But is there an attempt by the Islamic world to muzzle Western speech about Islam? Certainly. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of OIC, recently crowed: “In confronting the Danish cartoons and the Dutch film “˜Fitna”, we sent a clear message to the West regarding the red lines that should not be crossed. As we speak, the official West and its public opinion are all now well aware of the sensitivities of these issues. They have also started to look seriously into the question of freedom of expression from the perspective of its inherent responsibility, which should not be overlooked.” And now Random House has obediently fallen into line.
Stanley Fish, and everyone, ought to be aware of what’s at stake, and ready to defend our values.
“Crying Censorship,” by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, August 24:
Salman Rushdie, self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment, is at it again. This time he’s not standing up for free expression on his own behalf, but on behalf of another author, Sherry Jones, whose debut novel about the prophet Muhammad’s child bride had been withdrawn by Random House after consultants warned that its publication “could incite racial conflict.” […]
It is censorship when Germany and other countries criminalize the professing or publication of Holocaust denial. (I am not saying whether this is a good or a bad idea.) It is censorship when in some countries those who criticize the government are prosecuted and jailed. It was censorship when the United States Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, stipulating that anyone who writes with the intent to bring the president or Congress or the government “into contempt or disrepute” shall be “punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.” Key to these instances is the fact that (1) it is the government that is criminalizing expression and (2) that the restrictions are blanket ones. That is, they are not the time, manner, place restrictions that First Amendment doctrine traditionally allows; they apply across the board. You shall not speak or write about this, ever. That’s censorship.
So what Random House did was not censorship. (Some other press is perfectly free to publish Jones”s book, and one probably will.) It may have been cowardly or alarmist, or it may have been good business, or it may have been an attempt to avoid trouble that ended up buying trouble. But whatever it was, it doesn’t rise to the level of constitutional or philosophical concern. And it is certainly not an episode in some “showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech.” Formulations like that at once inflate a minor business decision and trivialize something too important and complex to be reduced to a high-school civics lesson about the glories of the First Amendment.