A book slated to be published by the Yale University Press about violent controversy has stirred some academic controversy of its own.
“The Cartoons that Shook the World,” a book by Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen, is an account of the uproar that ensued after a Danish newspaper published 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. But the book will not include those images because the University and the Press are concerned about a possible resurgence of violence.
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“There is a repeated pattern of violence when these cartoons have been republished,” University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said in an interview. Indeed, while the 2005 violence was the most severe outbreak, there have been subsequent incidents related to the republication of the images as recently as June of last year. In total, about 200 people have been killed in incidents related to the cartoons.
“The homework for us here this summer,” Lorimer said, “was to ask people in positions who could give expert counsel whether there is still an appreciable chance of violence from publishing the cartoons.”
Lorimer and the University first began that work in June, when John Donatich, director of the Yale University Press, alerted her to the book’s impending publication. The University then consulted with a number of experts, ranging from counterterrorism officials in the United States and the United Kingdom to American and Muslim diplomats and others.
Those experts, many of whom remain unidentified, told Yale officials that they had “serious concerns about violence occurring following publication of either the cartoons or other images of the Prophet Muhammad in a book about the cartoons,” University President Richard Levin said in a letter to top administrators sent Aug. 13, when The New York Times first reported the matter.
But the author, for her part, said in a phone interview that the opinion of the experts was “terribly alarmist.”
“I have a reputation as a fair and sympathetic observer,” Klausen said. “There’s absolutely nothing anti-Muslim about my book.”
She added that the experts were never actually shown the cartoons in the context of the book and were instead just shown the cartoons on their own.
“The purpose was to print the entire page from the newspaper,” she said. “Most people have not seen that whole page.”
Two of the experts the University spoke to – an art historian and a Danish museum director, both referred to Yale by the author – agreed that there was no real threat of violence from republishing the images.
But Lorimer said Yale “concluded that those people were not really in a position to make the evaluation of the threat of violence in the same way that senior folks in counterterrorism on both sides of the Atlantic were.”
One of the experts, Ibrahim Gabmari, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Senior Adviser to the Secretary General, said in a statement provided by Yale that “You can count on violence if any illustration of the Prophet is published. It will cause riots I predict from Indonesia to Nigeria.”
Still, since word of Yale’s decision first began to leak out last week, the University and the Press have come under fire for the decision to omit the cartoons.
An editorial in The New York Post on Sunday called Yale “cowardly” and “shameful,” and in a statement, the president of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, described Yale’s decision as akin to prior restraint. “What is to stop publishers from suppressing an author’s words if it appears they may offend religious fundamentalists or groups threatening violence?” he said. “We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.”
Donatich said, though, that there was no violation of free speech in this case because the images are easily accessible on the Internet.
“I didn’t feel that we were suppressing original information,” he said. “Freedom of speech is paramount.”
Donatich and Lorimer added that they were surprised Klausen has now expressed concern over the decision since she agreed to it at first.
“The author and I had many philosophical discussions about this and she agreed and she decided to publish the book with us as is,” Donatich said.
Klausen said she stayed with the Press because it is a “good press” and because the book had been enthusiastically received by editors there since they signed it in 2006. And she said she understands the predicament that the University found itself in, even as she wishes Yale had made a different decision.
“If you’re a responsible university administrator, I don’t know what else you could do,” Klausen said. “I think in the end Linda Lorimer was spooked by her own advice.”
“The Cartoons that Shook the World” will be published in November.