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.
But that's only if you believe Yale Press -- and there may be good reason why you shouldn't. Jytte Klausen, the Brandeis University professor who authored the book, reported this suspicious fact to the Times:
Aside from the disagreement about the images, Ms. Klausen said she was also disturbed by Yale’s insistence that she could read a 14-page summary of the consultants’ recommendations only if she signed a confidentiality agreement that forbade her from talking about them. “I perceive it to be a gag order,” she said, after declining to sign. While she could understand why some of the individuals consulted might prefer to remain unidentified, she said, she did not see why she should be precluded from talking about their conclusions.
Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president and secretary of Yale University, who had discussed the summary with Ms. Klausen, said on Wednesday that she was merely following the original wishes of the consultants, some of whom subsequently agreed to be identified.
So all 24 people originally did not want to render their unanimous opinion on the record? If you think this story is getting weirder and weirder, you're not alone.
It all begins to make more sense, though, when you survey the attitude that became apparent in too many corners of American academia when the cartoons were first published in 2005. At Century College in Minnesota, Professor Karen Murdock was repeatedly censored in her efforts to post the cartoons on a bulletin board, eventually resorting to the absurdity of putting a curtain and warning sign over the cartoons. University of Illinois student Acton Gorton, editor of The Daily Illini student newspaper, was fired for printing the cartoons in that student newspaper alongside a column he wrote about the controversy. (We are proud to say that Acton later became a FIRE intern.) Students at the University of Chicago and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also faced censorship for posting the cartoons.
And in the worst example of all (and the one most directly analogous to the present controversy), New York University hosted a panel discussion about the cartoons but decided that since the event was open to the public, the cartoons could not actually be shown. Instead, blank easels stood on the stage. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff was part of that panel, and as you can imagine, he had some choice words about NYU's decision, saying, "Those blank easels were a testament to campus repression and a climate of fear." NYU even forced a student who was wearing a t-shirt depicting the cartoons to remove it. The fact that NYU President John Sexton, a self-styled free speech advocate, supported his institution's decision is particularly disturbing. (Maybe Sexton is one of the anonymous two dozen people who told Yale University Press that publishing a book about cartoons without printing those cartoons made all the sense in the world!)
This cravenness in the face of controversy is a very bad sign for the culture of academia, which increasingly seems willing to privilege "sensitivity" and political correctness over the traditional rights to dissent and to discuss and research controversial topics. In 2005, one could almost understand the reluctance to publish the cartoons -- after all, people were dying in the riots that the cartoons' publication launched. But when, nearly four years later, an academic publishing house feels that it still cannot publish these historic cartoons for fear that violence will occur, that publisher has allowed the rage of the least rational and most violent to overwhelm the very real need for historical analysis of important events. That's a grim precedent indeed.