Every so often, I read something that I find simply astounding. The latest is news that Yale University Press is publishing a book entitled The Cartoons That Shook The World, without putting any of those cartoons in the book.
The cartoons referred to are the dozen satiric drawings of the prophet Muhammad. They first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September 2005, and were later reprinted throughout Denmark and in scores of publications around the world, causing riots by Muslims in many countries, with police firing into crowds. At least 200 people were killed in the disturbances and Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were set afire.
Many Muslims consider any picture of Muhammad to be blasphemous. And all these cartoons were considerably less than respectful. Especially the one that shows the prophet wearing a turban that looks like a bomb with a burning fuse. Another shows him telling disappointed terrorists arriving in heaven: "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins."
A spokesman said Yale University and its press decided not to print the cartoons so as not to risk further violence. Yale also decided not to include in the book, which is due out in November, any other depictions of Muhammad, including some that have been around for years. The university made its decision after consulting with two dozen outside authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, all of whom recommended that all the pictures be left out. According to the New York Times:
John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, said by telephone that the decision was difficult but the recommendation to withdraw the images, including the historical ones of Muhammad, was "overwhelming and unanimous." The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can accurately be described in words, Mr. Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous.
Get that: gratuitous. The head of Yale University Press is telling us that it is gratuitous to include the cartoons in a book about the cartoons! Next he might argue that it's gratuitous to include Milton's poems in a book about Milton's poems! Donatich goes on to explain that he's published controversial books before and "never blinked," but that "when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question." He went on to point out that the situation was still dangerous as recently as last year, when Danish police arrested three men suspected of trying to kill the cartoonist who depicted Muhammad's turban as a bomb.
One who strongly disagrees with Yale is Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author and a Muslim, who withdrew his complimentary blurb about the book after the pictures were removed. Aslan told the Times that "not to include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic...This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press," he added. "There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry. It's not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary."
The book's author is also unhappy about Yale's decision. She is a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University named Jytte Klausen. Prof. Klausen told the Times she had reluctantly agreed to the publisher's decision to leave out the cartoons but was disappointed. "Muslim friends, leaders and activists thought that the incident was misunderstood, so the cartoons needed to be reprinted so we could have a discussion about it," she said. Noting that the outside experts hadn't read her book, Prof. Klausen added that she was even more disappointed by the university's determination to leave out the other pictures of Muhammad.
It's important that Yale's decision not be viewed alone. It's the latest in a long series of Western reactions to violent threats to freedom of expression, real and anticipated, by radical Muslims around the world. The president of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, got it just right in his scathing reaction. He says Yale's policy amounts to this: "We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands."
Those demands have sometimes been very real. Most Americans first learned about Islamic bans on free expression in 1989, when Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a death sentence against the Muslim author Salman Rushdie for the allegedly irreverent depiction of Muhammad in his novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie spent the next decade in hiding, with a $2.8 million bounty on his head. A would-be Rushdie assassin, a Lebanese Muslim, blew himself up in his London hotel room trying to make a bomb. The Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death, and three others survived assassination attempts. Two bookstores in Berkeley, California were bombed, as were bookstores and a department store in Britain, where Rushdie was living.
Beginning in the 1990s, radical Muslim acts spread from violence against individuals to violence against nations and institutions -- including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the 1998 attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and against the U.S. destroyer Cole two years later; the Sept. 11 strikes against the trade center and the Pentagon; and subsequent bombings in Madrid, Bali, London, Jakarta and elsewhere.
Individuals, too, continued to be targeted. Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was brutally murdered in 2004 -- shot eight times and his throat cut -- after release of his short film critical of Muslim treatment of women. His killer, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, is now serving a life sentence.
American author Sherry Jones reported threats against her, and a firebombing that caused her British publisher to stop publication of her novel depicting sex scenes between Muhammad and one of his wives. She told Fox News her original American publisher, Random House, pulled out because of concerns that its content would be offensive to Muslims. Jones says other authors have had similar problems, although her novel was finally brought out by another publisher.
Sounds like Yale's decision to keep the cartoons out of the book about the cartoon controversy is only the latest example of a major Western institution caving in. Prof. Nelson of the AAUP declares: "We deplore this decision and its potential consequences."
So do I. In fact, without the cartoons, I wonder if Yale would be better off not publishing the book at all.