A book slated to be published by the Yale University Press about violent controversy stirred some academic controversy of its own this summer.
After the Yale University Press decided to omit the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons that Shook the World,” an account of the uproar that ensued after a Danish newspaper published 12 caricatures in 2005, academics and writers debated the merits of the self-censorship.
While the decision to remove those images and others of Muhammad in the text stemmed from concerns about a possible resurgence of violence, and reflected the opinions of a more than a dozen experts, it was not made by the Press alone. John Donatich, the director of the Press, worked with University President Richard Levin and Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer to determine whether republishing the cartooons might spark an outbrek of violence, as similar republications have done as recently as 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.”
Since word of Yale’s decision first began to leak out, the University and the Press have come under fire for the decision to omit the cartoons. An editorial in The New York Post called Yale “cowardly” and “shameful,” and The Washington Post added that “Yale’s self-censorship establishes a dangerous precedent. If one of the world’s most respected scholarly publishers cannot print these images in context in an academic work, who can?”
Some bloggers and writers also speculated that Yale might have been afraid to republish the cartoons because the University is currently trying to improve its relations with Middle Eastern nations.
But Levin rebutted those claims. He said in an interview that he and Lorimer made sure that the University did not factor its involvement in the Middle East into its decision.
“You could worry about the University’s own interests in the Middle East but we tried to set that aside,” he said. “You could worry about the rationale for not publishing that would rest on offending the sensibilities of others and we set that aside too because generally speaking we encourage free expression and think the University’s responsibility is to hear all views. It really did come down more to the concern that this is an issue that has served to incite violence and led to many deaths as recently as 2008.”
Levin added that it was “ridiculous” to say that fundraising concerns played a role in the decision. He said while top University officials became involved in the matter, the decision was ultimately Donatich’s.
Donatich said the decision was made easier for him because the Danish cartoons and other images of Muhammad are easily accessible on the Internet and so he “didn’t feel that [Yale was] suppressing original information.”
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.
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.”
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.