The ’toons that got away

This book was inevitable. When 12 debatably offensive cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten” in September 2005, the ensuing international controversy, moral crusade, civic violence and political strife demanded more than press coverage; this story begged, and will continue begging, for an explanation.

In her account and analysis of the globalized culture-storm stirred by incensed Muslims from London to Lahore, Jytte Klausen, who spoke on campus yesterday about her book, deftly navigates the complex saga. Her insight cuts through hearsay to the incident’s true causes and effects. The book takes a remarkably balanced stance on the conflict, citing not only Muslim politicians and leaders (including the Danish imam who heaped ideological kindling on the incendiary debate) but also outspoken proponents of the cartoon/free speech, and even the cartoonists themselves.

Less fated, however, was the fresh controversy the book incited — not so much instigated by its author as by her publisher, Yale University Press. Two pages before Klausen’s text even begins, conspicuously brief publisher’s and author’s statements attempt to validate the book’s gaping exclusion of those damned cartoons that did all the shaking. The publisher claims that reprinting the hyper-publicized art from Danish cartoonists including Kurt Westergaard (who also appeared in New Haven yesterday at a vocally protested Branford Master’s Tea) runs “the risk of instigating violence.” The author, in her more nebulous and subtly regretful statement, says that she “agreed with sadness to the Press’ decision” and hopes “the book can still serve its intended purpose without illustrations.”

As a result, Klausen’s window into a house wracked with discord and deception is shrouded in the curtains of omission. The book can serve the purpose of educating, of explaining how the Muslim reaction grew less from an impassioned cultural defensive and more — surprisingly enough — from political motives concerning Egyptian and Danish elections as well as the power-brokering of Islamic extremists. But “The Cartoons that Shook the World” cannot, at least until the current fervor dies down, answer the moral and ethical questions that the cartoons posed in the first place. Without supplementing her succinct, critical argument with images of those cartoons, Klausen appears a puppet of the Yale Press, that big bad string-pulling free press-flouter. It’s easy to blow all this out of proportion; but in reality, if the press of a liberal, research institution like Yale can’t risk possible danger in the name of upholding rights, what is that press worth? This book was a chance for objective truth-seeking, and the Yale Press failed at the feet of political correctness. Instead of addressing those evasive moral and ethical concerns inherent in the cartoons, this book introduced more desperate questions.

When her publisher excised the cartoon images from her original manuscript, did Klausen fight back? Did she look for a new publisher or attempt to reconcile how this new contention might undermine her aims at debunking a former controversy? Moreover, why must the Yale Press accept the impending prospect of violence, effectively reinforcing cultural expectations of Muslim extremist brutality? The answers to these questions and more are, like the cartoons, omitted from the book. The seven-line author’s statement only admits failure.

Sometimes, wicks must be lit. “The Cartoons that Shook the World” does an excellent job of conveying why and how the Danish cartoons detonated. Klausen draws sound comparisons to the famed 1894 Dreyfus Affair as well as the more contemporary Rushdie Affair, illuminating how these formative acts of press freedom influenced cultural conflict, but moreover, political manipulation. Yet Klausen leaves her readers hungry for another manuscript, one untouched by the hand of editors, public relations experts or other strategists. She did not premeditate the outcry against her book; yet its cartoon black hole, though perhaps unintended by Klausen, has dwarfed her noble pursuits. The book simply treads too softly on the controversy it created.

A reticent “The Book without the Cartoon that Shook the World that Shook the World”: next on the Yale Press’s agenda?

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