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On August 13, the New York Times reported that Yale University Press had decided to omit from one of its upcoming academic books, against the preference of the author, a reproduction of the controversial cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper in 2005. Other images of Muhammad were also expunged from the book, again to the author’s dismay.
The public response was immediate and irate. Critics, from the Washington Times to the Atlantic to the American Association of University Professors, assailed the decision as “censorship” and “appeasement.” The Yale Press issued an account of its own, stating that it had asked Yale for counsel, that the university had consulted with a number of experts, and that “the experts with the most insight about the threats of violence repeatedly expressed serious concerns about violence.”
To explore the complex questions raised by this incident and to provide a forum for different points of view, the Yale Alumni Magazine has invited parties to the events and several outside experts to share their opinions here. More commentaries and coverage will be posted as they come in.
Jytte Klausen, the author, writes for the first time about her own views of the decision and what it means for her book: “I had good grounds for thinking that there was no real danger in reproducing the images.”
John Donatich, head of the Yale Press—and an author himself—reminds readers that the cartoons were “deliberately grotesque, … designed to pick a fight” and that “the press did not suppress any original content.”
Critics and Defenders
Fareed Zakaria '86, editor of Newsweek International, writes, “As a journalist, I believe deeply in the First Amendment,” but “the republishing of these images would have reopened old wounds.”
On September 4, several alumni sent a statement to the Yale Alumni Magazine decrying “Yale’s once-free press.” The first signatories included John R. Bolton '70, '74JD, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, and former presidential speechwriter David Frum '82, '82MA.
Marcia Inhorn, a cultural anthropologist specializing in the Middle East, writes that portrayals of Muhammad are considered blasphemy in many countries and “violate a strongly held and religiously inspired cultural taboo.”
Yale’s “dangerous precedent,” asserts Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, erodes academic freedom and points toward a future of “proactive self-censorship.”
Charles Hill, who served in the State Department during the Reagan Administration, argues, “There is a difference between defending the freedom of even vile speech and putting the legitimacy and reputation of your institution … behind it.”
When Sheila S. Blair, a professor of art history at Boston College, was consulted by Yale about omitting the two other illustrations of Muhammad, she replied, “To deny that such images were made is to distort history.”
John Negroponte '60, a former ambassador to Iraq, applauds the Yale Press “for its brave and principled decision.”
Gideon Rose '85, managing editor of Foreign Affairs and a former associate director at the National Security Council, writes that the decision “gives de facto veto power over the press’s core editorial decision-making to unspecified anonymous parties.”
Even if “there is a '24/7 open season' for offending and desecrating,” argues Yale theology professor Miroslav Volf, exercising that “right to offend” may be wrong.
The Yale University Press could have better understood the potential threat by carefully reading Klausen’s book than by consulting counterterrorism experts, argues Zareena Grewal, who teaches at Yale about Muslims in America.
Whatever the decision, it should have come earlier, writes Donald Lamm '53, a former chair of the Press’s Board of Governors.
The Campus Clip in the September/October 2009 issue of the Yale Alumni Magzine about Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons that Shook the World, which Yale University Press will publish sans cartoons, provides valuable lessons.
The “experts” who advised Yale that publication of the cartoon “images might incite violence” were security and counterterrorism experts, according to a Boston Globe piece on the same subject. Let us recall that terrorists took 200 lives worldwide in reaction to the original publication of the cartoons in Denmark in 2005, so the conclusion of the “experts” is easy to accept.
Some important lessons flow readily, I think, from Yale’s reaction to edit out the cartoons from Prof. Klausen’s book.
Violence by Islamic terrorists has acquired so much credibility that the chance of more violence has been enough to change Yale’s behavior. Yale has surrendered and will do its stuff the terrorists' way, without them having to do their stuff. The Islamic terrorists are winning.
Even more scary are the lessons the terrorists are surely drawing from these same facts: More violence may not be necessary in the the U.S., nor do they have to make explicit threats. U.S. “experts” are ready to provide implicit threats that work just as well to get Americans to be more accommodating to their Islamic terrorist world view.
It has worked at Yale. Where next?
It was disappointing to see Yale University Press act in such a cowardly fashion when it pulled the controversial cartoons. If political correctness and fear are more important than allowing facts to be published, then editorial standards have fallen.
The Yale University Press apparently fears that the Islamic community is just waiting to erupt in violence if the cartoons are published. If that is the case, the press’s action is an insult to that segment of our population.
Freedom of speech vs. freedom of religion
It is symbolically poignant that the Yale Daily News chose the date 9/11 to publish former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s opinion that Yale Press did “the right thing” in censoring the controversial cartoons of Muhammad which caused such a firestorm around the world, resulting in bloodshed and death.
Mr. Blair (now teaching a course on religion at Yale up the hill where I studied) provides the antithesis to the thesis of John Bolton '70, '74JD, former ambassador to the United Nations, who called Yale Press’s decision not to publish the controversial cartoons about Muhammad “intellectual cowardice.”
Allow me as an alumnus of the Divinity School to be presumptuous enough to offer a synthesis.
It is ironic that the Judeo-Christian world has been so intolerant of the censorship imposed by the Moslem world on the image of Muhammad. The Old Testament is full of censorship. The face of God could not be looked upon, nor his name (Yahweh) written or spoken—hence the millennia-old text-message-type abbreviation, YHWH.
Ham is cursed (Genesis 20-28) for “viewing” his father Noah’s nakedness, and the 3000-plus-year history of racism begins.
And unless my memory fails me, one of the central pillars of the Protestant Reformation was the taboo against images: hence the ransacking of Roman Catholic churches and the breaking of statues and desecration of stained glass and painted images, something Mr. Blair’s country knows about firsthand. (Ever use the word “iconoclasm"?)
So Mr. Bolton and his friends shouldn't get too huffy and puffy in their smug rejection of Moslem taboos which prompted Yale Press’s censorship. Nor should Mr. Blair fail to see the fascinating and horrifying stalemate created between different aspects of First Amendment rights here: freedom of speech vs. freedom of religion.
When a taboo is elevated to the level of zeal, bloodshed has often been the consequence. If I recall correctly, the Christian Crusades slaughtered a few folk in propagating its own taboos.
Restore the cartoons
I urge the university to restore the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to the upcoming book. Yale University Press states that they are deeply committed to freedom of speech and expression. However, the university is definitely caving to Muslim extremists. Even though Muslims may be offended by portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, others are offended when Christ is presented in a negative way, yet freedom of speech is just that: freedom. Being offended has nothing to do with freedom of speech.
Yale is not a Muslin university and as such does not have to adhere to the Qur'an or Muslim teachings.
It’s sad to see a fine university like Yale sink to such low standards.
Just this brief note to congratulate the Yale Alumni Magazine for publishing the column by Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, reflecting on the sorry decision of the Yale Press in excising relevant photos in a serious and worthy book. What was sadly lost at Yale by the shabby action in thus censoring that book has, in turn, been significantly redeemed in your own publication of Professor Nelson’s compelling criticism.
Statement by Yale University Press
New York Times: “Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book”
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