Kenan Malik
18 Dec 2009

Index on Censorship has in recent years chronicled many instances of what we’ve called “pre-emptive censorship”: the willingness to censor material because of fear either of causing offence or of unleashing violence. From the Deutsche Oper cancelling a production of Idomeneo to Random House dropping The Jewel of Medina to Yale University Press’s refusal to publish the cartoons in Jytte Klausen’s book, the list is depressingly long. It is a development that, writing in the magazine last year, I described as “the internalisation of the fatwa”.

It is both disturbing and distressing to find Index on Censorship itself now on that list. I profoundly disagree not just with the decision to censor the cartoons but also with the reasons for doing so: that publication may have endangered staff and was “unnecessary” and, indeed, would have been “gratuitous”.

The safety of Index’s staff is, of course, hugely important. But where was the threat? Index certainly received none because no one knew that we were going to publish. Nor is there any reason to believe that there would have been danger had the cartoons not been pre-emptively censored. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, describing Yale’s original decision as “idiotic”, pointed out that he has “written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction”. And, as Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, observed in an article in the Guardian earlier this year critical of Random House, pre-emptive censorship often creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. In assuming that an “offensive” work will invite violence one both entrenches the idea that the work is offensive and helps create a culture that makes violence more likely.

The question that now arises is this: what should Index do when the next Jewel of Medina comes along? After all, we cannot in good conscience criticise others for taking decisions that we ourselves have taken and for the same reasons. So, does Index now believe that it was right for Deutsche Oper, Random House, Yale University Press (and myriad others) to censor?

As for the suggestion that publication would have been “unnecessary” or “gratuitous”, I cannot see what could be less unnecessary or gratuitous than using cartoons to illustrate an interview with the author of a book that was censored by a refusal to publish those very cartoons. Almost every case of pre-emptive censorship, including that of Yale University Press, has been rationalised on the grounds that the censored material was not necessary anyway. Once we accept that it is legitimate to censor that which is “unnecessary” or “gratuitous”, then we have effectively lost the argument for free speech.

Index on Censorship is involved in many important campaigns, from libel reform to the defence of threatened journalists. Its authority in these campaigns rests largely upon its moral integrity. As a long-standing board member, I am deeply committed both to the cause of free speech and to the success of Index in pursuing that cause. What I fear is that in refusing to publish the cartoons, Index is not only helping strengthen the culture of censorship, it is also weakening its authority to challenge that culture.

14 responses to “Kenan Malik”

  1. […] controversial play set in a Sikh Templte.   Even the board of the illustrious Index on Censorship backed away from publishing a Mohammed cartoon earlier this […]

  2. Jonathan Dimbleby
    Board of Trustees
    Index on Censorship
    Free Word Centre
    60 Farringdon Road
    London EC1R 3GA

    Dear Mr Dimbleby

    We are deeply shocked and disappointed by the decision of Index to censor its own magazine from publishing one of the Danish cartoons to illustrate an article relating to the subject.

    We believe this is a betrayal of those who are putting their lives on the line to defend freedom of expression. We should be standing together. It is only through a united stance that we can protect each other and defeat the extremists and those who wish to use fear and threats to silence dissent.

    Index on Censorship, above all should not be indulging in self-censorship.

    Finally, this is not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with the content of the cartoons: as the famous quote goes: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it!” But it has everything to do with standing up to those who would take away our freedom to express ourselves and would enslave humanity. It has everything to do with not abandoning the growing numbers of brave people standing up for human rights, freedom and against censorship, around the world.

    Yours sincerely,

    Roy Brown, International Representative, International Humanist and Ethical Union
    Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Association
    Douglas Murray, Director, Centre for Social Cohesion
    Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All and Iran Solidarity
    David Pollock, President, European Humanist Federation
    Fariborz Pooya, Head, Iranian Secular Society
    Hassan Radwan, Management Committee Member, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
    Terry Sanderson, President, National Secular Society

  3. What a shameful day for the Index. Well done Kenan for standing up for free expression.

    Here something I had written on the issue at the time:

    And for those who want to see the cartoons, I have published in on my blog:

    Maryam Namazie

  4. L L says:

    Well, did every 1’s IQ just suddenly drop off the planet?

    Death threats, why worry!

    Remember that Salman Rushdie fella that wrote the Satanic Verses [1988]… was he worried about death threats [Feb 14th 1989]? Hell, NO! He could dither on and on about his right to expression, get full protection by the British Crown, and still make money… while others died in the meantime.

    Like that guy had the vocabulary 2 go on and on about his ordeal and rights. It always sounded so intellectual and honest while others, having died, were of little consequence. Just find a few of his audio programs and U’ll C.

    He was knighted, got the American Academy of Arts and Letters thing [2008]… Look he’s laughing all the way to his bank!

    It was only when it got too expensive to ‘secure his person’ that the British went out to cancel that fatwa thing.

    That’s all you have to do to. Get police protection! And if U’r an American at Yale… order up a few B52’s…. then U 2 can go to the bank with Rushdie!

    Sarcastic Yes!

    But, Freedom of Expression is never Sarcastic… ask a Black, ask a Jew, ask the ppl under a dictator!

  5. Clinton Fein says:

    I attempted to express my support for Kenan Malik’s dissent, and contextualize it based on my own decision to publish the cartoons on back in February 2006.

    My comment was rudely rejected on the following basis:”Your comment seemed to spammy. We are not big on spam around here.”

    Engaing in a dialog about an inmportant censorship issue of the Index on Censorship website does not constitute spam.

    For the record, I am President of the Board of First Amendment Project [FAP] (

    How unfortunate that such peculiar and inaccurate assumption obliterated a potentially interesting conversation. It makes Index on Censorship’s decision to refrain from publishing the cartoons less surprising.

  6. […] Ken Malik puts it rather more soberly than I. Over to you, Kenneth. Tags: blasphemy, hypocrisy, islam Share this post! […]

  7. […] be in a very dark place indeed. Kenan Malik, however, a board member who opposed the decision, shows that Dimbleby’s fears were probably misplaced… Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, describing Yale’s original decision as “idiotic”, pointed […]

  8. Don says:

    Very well said, Kenan.

  9. […] and broadcaster Kenan Malik has argued against the decision, saying: The safety of Index’s staff is, of course, hugely important. But where was the threat? […]

  10. Dave Kabay says:

    On 18th of December Jonathon Dimbleby wrote his infamous letter of surrender to censorship. By the 19th of December some 78,200 members of mankind via the web were showing their utter contempt for the man who single handed has destroyed the reputation of British freedom for speech and turned a fine Western Civilisation institution into a laughing stock. Where do I sign to get that man to change his mind. I want him fired but then that would be a form of censorship of his views. He just needs some support for his wobbley back so he knows someone will be there to protect him and help kick some Islamic arse if needed.

  11. Shatterface says:

    You should check out the regular Jesus and Mo cartoons here which are far sharper and funnier than any of the banned cartoons:

  12. Krysia Rozanska says:

    Go Kenan!
    I haven’t seen the cartoons and not sure how to find them.
    Some people are ‘allowed’ to see them and the rest of us not. I’m sure they’re very boring too! But we depend on Index on Censorship to let us be the judge of that – wherever we are. Index could be the first place to look and comment. Don’t you think we can make up our own minds? We’re not kids.
    If people want to criticise then can’t they on Index? Obviously not.

  13. […] notable dissenter on the board is Kenan Malik, who is understandably furious at the decision. He makes clear that IoC’s position is […]

  14. Sherry Jones says:

    Where are the heroes? Kenan, you’re one of the few remaining.

    Sherry Jones
    author, “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina”