Unexplained Mysteries in Mohammed Cartoon Controversy

Most of us remember the riots across the Islamic world that ensued in 2005 after the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten printed its now-infamous collection of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Now the  New York Times (which points out that it refused to run the cartoons) is reporting that Yale University Press has brought the controversy to the fore once again by refusing to print the cartoons in an upcoming book.

The name of that upcoming book? The Cartoons That Shook the World.

That's right: Yale University Press has determined that a book that is all about the reaction to the Danish Mohammed cartoons should not itself depict those cartoons. According to the Times, "The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, [Yale University Press Director John] Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous."

How wrongheaded! As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff pointed out back in 2006, "verbal depictions of editorial cartoons usually end up interpreting cartoons, but part of the art of editorial cartooning is that the cartoon may be interpreted in any of a range of ways." Written descriptions of the cartoons are virtually certain to include the interpretations of those reading the cartoons -- but like any examples of art, they can have different meanings for different people.

Further, merely from a historical perspective, the "hey, look it up on the Internet" defense is massively shortsighted. The possibility that the book may be picked up 30 years from now when the controversy is but a distant memory and the images might not be so easily available on the Internet (or some successor computer network) either did not occur to Donatich or was not considered persuasive.

Even more disturbingly, though, Yale University Press claims that its refusal to print the cartoons in a book in which they could not possibly be more relevant was widely supported by experts in the field:

So Yale University and Yale University Press consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What’s more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.

It is interesting that the Times says that Yale consulted "diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism" as opposed to "scholars in the field." While diplomats and counterterrorism experts (understandably) wish to avoid any possible inflammation of opinion in the Islamic world, this is hardly the basis on which an academic press should make its decision. Even odder is the fact that the decision was reportedly "unanimous," meaning that out of the 24 people asked to give an opinion, not one of them thought that printing the Mohammed cartoons in a book about the Mohammed cartoons was a good idea.