The cartoons that shook the publisher

By on August 28, 2009

The infirmity of free speech became abundantly clear when Prof. Jytte Klausen (POL) became the latest victim of the politically correct assault on academic freedom and discourse. Klausen is a leading expert on the growing Islamic population in Europe, and her latest book, "The Cartoons That Shook the World," focuses on the Muhammad cartoon controversy-arguing that rather than represent a truly deep seeded cultural animosity, the explosion of violence that followed the cartoons’ publication was incited by radicals looking to score political victories.

Thus, one would expect that the book would allow the reader to view images of the cartoons themselves as well as historic artistic representations of the Prophet Muhammad central to the author’s argument. However, Yale University Press, one of the supposedly most reputable academic presses in the world, bowed to fear and potential controversy when it exercised deplorable self-censorship. The press stipulated that if the book were to be published, all images of the Muslim prophet would have to be removed.

One of the arguments John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, used to justify his lack of integrity was shockingly inane. He argued that because "The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous." Today, anything can be accessed by the click of a track pad.

If all controversial images accessible online were to be removed from books, we’d have few left. Biology textbooks would be relieved of images of evolutionary descent because some creationists might get angry and cause mischief. Health texts would not be able to show visual representations of fertilization, because the "sexist" nature of these images might offend some diehard feminists (as was argued at length in an idiotic text I was assigned in a Women in the Health Care System class). Should international relations texts not feature images of the slaughter of Armenians by the Turks, in fear of offending Turkish national identity?

Is this really the path that Yale University Press wants to see us go down as a culture? Does the threat of violence justify the compromise of standards, when so many "controversial" images are already in print? The answer in this case is emphatically no! We cannot have a marketplace of ideas if it is held ransom to every threat of violence

Even more absurd is the fact that Yale was responding to an imaginary threat of controversy. There had been no reported threats and no actual confrontation over the publication of this book. It has already been several years since the publication of the cartoons. If the images are as widely disseminated as Donatich suggests, then what harm could their publication cause? Indeed, the images have been widely reprinted and many scholars have lectured extensively on the topic. Several years later, their publication and the violent reaction which followed should be treated as a matter of historical fact deserving analysis. Moreover, that a written analysis would be published without the images shows cowardice based on an obsessive desire not to offend.

What’s even more frightening is that this wave of censorship is not just being extended to new images such as the Danish cartoons from 2005. The book was not allowed to be published with historical images of the Prophet that have been published without fanfare for hundreds of years, including a 19th-century sketch by artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell. The scene has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí. Thus, the nebulous web of censorship extends not just to new discourse, but to already existing works.

Our obsession with not offending has led to schools banning the teaching of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It is this same culture of intolerant tolerance that led to a student at Purdue University being punished for racial harassment for reading a book celebrating the historic defeat of the KKK. When censors come and attempt to enforce tolerance, they are not just going to try to limit what can be said or written in the future, they will also want to turn to the past and limit access to ideas that are viewed as unseemly in the present. To have past images of the Prophet Muhammad censored, when one of the very purposes of this book is to point out hypocrisy by contrasting historical publication of the image of Muhammad with current reactions, is mind blowing and proves Klausen’s point more strongly.

The academic press and universities at large are supposed to be the bastions of freedom. They are supposed to defend free speech even when ideas are unpopular. Instead, when it comes to controversial matters, specifically in regard to Islam, it seems that such principles are conveniently ignored. In this culture, is it any surprise that the editors of a conservative paper at Tufts were found guilty of harassment for printing factually true statements about Islam, or that at San Francisco State University, students were nearly disciplined, were it not for the intervention of the Foundation For Individual Rights In Education, for stepping on flags of Hamas and Hezbollah?

At its core, we have our notions of academic freedom in place specifically to protect those writing about controversial content. Prof. Klausen should be commended for tackling such an important and controversial topic. Her writing should be treated as sacrosanct precisely because individuals are willing to use violent force to take away a privilege we have fought so hard for. Instead, the very institutions that we expect to protect our rights have cowardly betrayed them.

Schools: Yale University