Intoonfada Reborn: Self-Censorship An Insult to American Muslims


In my Rant from the May issue of Reason (you'd have enjoyed it already if you were a subscriber!), I poked fun at the high-minded excuses American newspaper editors gave for not running the Muhammad cartoons from Jyllands-Posten, and said journalists should be bold enough to admit that they self-censored because they were afraid for their lives. Was that presumptious? Daniel Pipes comes up with one or two pieces of evidence. As the Boston Phoenix put it:

Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year publishing history.

And in a form letter, Comedy Central says its decision to remove The Prophet from a South Park cartoon "was based solely on concern for public safety in light of recent world events."

Not a lot of evidence, and since as far as I know the American media have stuck to their original story, I can't just go on calling them chickens (though I'll reiterate that arguments about how U.S. papers were showing respect for religious beliefs or that the cartoons themselves were not newsworthy are laughable). Pipes includes the comment, "Admitting to intimidation is not good, but it beats denial." That's the same argument I made.

But while I'm pleased to see American papers (OK, one American paper) admit that intimidation was a factor, I'll move on and say that this admission just makes you guilty of something else: assuming, without evidence, that American Muslims would react with violence to seeing the cartoons published in a stateside publication. A handful of papers did show the cartoons, and there wasn't a single act of violence against any of them. The Austin American-Statesman, according to its editor, received one letter in response to the cartoons, the Philadelphia Inquirer attracted a peaceful protest of fewer than 30 people, and the New York Sun reported no trouble at all. Acts of violence against Fox News: zero.

The dark secret of newsrooms isn't that people are afraid their content will provoke violence. It's that they're afraid their content will provoke strong feelings of any kind. I don't know where the line between fear of mailbombs and fear of too many angry letters to the editor rests, but as Dr. Phil says, you teach people how to treat you. Fear that the intoonfada would erupt in America is a disservice to American Muslims. Expecting Muslims in the United States to react like Muslims in Pakistan is like expecting Antonin Scalia to get himself nailed to a cross on Good Friday because that's what Catholics do in the Philippines.