The Current Discussion: A London publishing house was firebombed for agreeing to publish 'The Jewel of Medina', a controversial novel about Muhammad's wife, which Random House dropped earlier this year because it feared terrorist threats. In hindsight, was Random House in the right? Does this justify censorship of this kind in the future?
I live in London just up the road from the publisher whose house was firebombed. To say that Random House is responsible for the firebombing would be silly - but by its timorous decision not to publish The Jewel of Medina, it certainly made it more likely. And the firebombing does not make me feel kindly towards Random House.
Now that the financial meltdown is making us all reconsider some of our priorities, perhaps large and successful publishing houses like Random House might remember that they are not just in business to make money but to defend certain principles of the open society. They have the resources to defend themselves and their authors against extremists, unlike small publishing houses like the one up the road from me.
It seems extraordinary to recall, from today's vantage point, that Penguin never wavered in its commitment Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (published almost exactly 20 years ago). Many liberals have now joined forces with "deep believers" to declare that it is morally unacceptable to give offense - hence all the decisions to drop books and plays or to censor cultural productions of various kinds. But these actions are slowly going to destroy public space in liberal societies. In a pluralistic society - where there are widely divergent views about what matters most - clashes of values are unavoidable. And, as the writer Kenan Malik has argued, it is vital that these clashes are not suppressed. If they are, then mutual suspicion reigns and people retreat into their cultural ghettos, undermining not only shared public discourse but in the end the very idea of the public interest.
David Goodhart is the editor of the London-based Prospect Magazine, which published one of the famous Danish Muhammad cartoons.
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