Cartoonist’s visit causes stir

Students protest the appearance of controversial Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose work sparked violent riots in 2005.
Students protest the appearance of controversial Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose work sparked violent riots in 2005. Photo by Alison Greenberg.

Four years and a day after cartoons of the prophet Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper, Yale’s campus was abuzz with disagreement over those very cartoons.

Students protested Thursday afternoon in front of the Greenberg Conference Center while Branford College Master Steven Smith led a discussion with Kurt Westergaard, the author of one of the cartoons.

Kurt Westergaard cited Sept. 11 as the inspiration for his cartoons.
Kurt Westergaard cited Sept. 11 as the inspiration for his cartoons.
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Meanwhile, a group of alumni sent a letter to University President Richard Levin and members of the Yale Corporation calling for the Yale University Press to republish “The Cartoons that Shook the World,” a book about the Danish controversy, with the cartoons intact. The University and its press decided in the summer not to include the cartoons in that book, written by Jytte Klausen, who also spoke on campus yesterday.

There was extensive security at both events; University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said the Yale Police Department had consulted with federal and state law enforcement authorities about the necessary protection.

The protesters at the talk with Westergaard were peaceful, though. Faez Syed ’10, who organized the protest, rallied a diverse group of 15 students to condemn Yale’s decision to host the Danish cartoonist, holding signs that read “For God? For Country and For Yale,” “This is responsible free speech,” and “Cartoon Legal But Unethical.” Together, they chanted “no place for hate” as the event-goers filed into the conference center.

“We are here protesting what we think is a despicable act,” Syed said.

Participant Fatima Ghani ’10 also called for Smith’s resignation, saying that inviting Westergaard to speak ran contrary to a master’s mission of protecting the students.

“A master is entrusted with protecting the well-being of all Yale students and yet Smith gave a warm reception to a man racist toward members of the Yale community,” she said.

But Smith defended the decision to invite Westergaard to speak on campus and called it “a teachable moment.”

“At Yale, if we stand for anything, we stand for the free expression of ideas,” Smith said.

The Yale Muslim Students Association wrote in a statement on Sept. 29 that they were “deeply hurt and offended” by the decision to bring Westergaard to campus, but MSA president Tariq Mahmoud ’11 said on Tuesday they would not protest at the event. Instead, he said, they would attend and ask “critical and probing questions.

Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at the Divinity School and founder and director for the Yale Center for Faith and Culture Miroslav Volf said Westergaard’s appearance allowed the community to “reflect on the moral responsibilities that come along with free speech.”

Alumni voiced their opinions from afar, as well. Alumni Sharyar Aziz ’74, a member of the Yale President’s Council on International Activities, said he thought that having Westergaard on campus could give the wrong impression about Yale’s attitude toward the Muslim world.

“I’m all for freedom of speech,” he said. “But I’m deeply concerned that somehow an institution that has been so sensitive and so caring and so wonderful about the Muslim community in general and stuff that they’ve done in the Middle East, that somehow this event creates an adverse environment or adverse opinion of Yale’s sensitivities.”

Klausen opened her talk on Thursday evening, entitled “Blasphemy and Inquiry: ‘The Cartoons That Shook the World’ ” by saying she did not want to discuss the Yale University Press’ decision to omit the Danish cartoons and all other images of Muhammad from her book. That decision, made by University and Press officials in consultation with more than a dozen experts, stemmed from concerns about a possible resurgence of violence. More than 100 people have been killed in incidents related to the cartoons.

“I really would prefer to not talk too much about that today,” Klausen said.

Still, during a question and answer session after the talk, audience members persisted in probing the author about the Press’ decision, which has created a controversy of its own in recent months.

“I want to stress that, of course, the argument can be made that the cartoons are offensive,” Klausen said. “It is very problematic in my view because it assumes that Muslims really did respond to the cartoons based on the notion that they are taboo or bad and lack the self-control to deal with that. My book contradicts that argument.”

Meanwhile, the Yale Committee for a Free Press — a group of alumni decrying Yale’s decision to remove the cartoons — sent a letter, postmarked on Oct. 1, to President Levin and the Corporation requesting that the Corporation ask the press to reprint the book with the cartoons added back.

“In a world where light and truth are under siege, the entire Yale community has a vital stake in preserving a free press,” the letter, which was signed by 44 alumni, said.

The book “The Cartoons that Shook the World” is currently on sale.

Paul Needham contributed reporting.

Correction: October 5, 2009

A previous version of this article missated Fatima Ghani’s ‘10 involvement with the protest. Ghani was a participant, not an organizer.

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