Days after Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s visit to campus this past Thursday, a panel discussion held Tuesday in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, titled “The Cartoons that Shook Campus: Free Speech, Hate Speech and Yale,” continued dialogue over the controversial cartoons.
Political science professors Seyla Benhabib and Andrew March and American studies professor Zareena Grewal shed light on the context of the Danish cartoons and provided historical comparisons to an audience of about 40 students, faculty members and New Haven residents.
The speakers delivered short presentations describing what made the cartoons offensive for many people, why Muslims reacted strongly and how the West’s response heightened tension. The panel then moved into a question-and-answer session.
Grewal opened the discussion with a PowerPoint presentation and “a disclaimer.”
“This PowerPoint burned my eyes. It might burn yours,” Grewal said. “You will probably find something inappropriate in what I’m about to show you, whether you’re Muslim or not.”
Grewal’s presentation analyzed what she described as how and why Westerners treat Muslims as violent outsiders though Muslims are generally not aggressive.
After the cartoons were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, protests remained peaceful for months. The more than 100 deaths that began in February 2006 were largely the result of street violence and rough policing, Grewal said. She added that this contradicts the widespread assumption that Muslims will react violently to anything offensive.
“Why are counterterrorism experts being consulted to see if [Jytte Klausen, the author of the book “The Cartoons that Shook the World”] can publish images of Muhammad?” Grewal said. “This violence was not terrorist violence. I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between different types of violence.”
Klausen’s book, which discusses the widespread outcry over the Danish cartoons, created controversy itself in August when the Yale University Press decided the book would not reprint the 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad that had been featured in Jyllands-Posten.
March echoed Grewal in his presentation and argued further that analyzing the cultural and political context of the issue is the best way to understand the outrage among Muslims over the cartoons. Though March called the cartoons themselves objectionable, he said it was more alarming that they fit well with cultural stereotypes identifying Muhammad with violence.
Despite the controversy surrounding the cartoons, Benhabib said that in Klausen’s position she would have withdrawn the book rather than allow it to be published without the images.
“Yale University Press offended by trying not to offend, and they provoked by trying not to provoke,” she said.
Students in attendance said they were interested in acquiring additional perspectives on the issue.
“The more perspectives you are able to receive on an event, the better you are able to conduct yourself in the context of embracing diversity,” Julia Pucci ’13 said before the discussion.
Westergaard, who spoke last Thursday at the Greenberg Center, depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban as part of a special feature in Jyllands-Posten that asked cartoonists to draw Muhammad the way they saw him. Other cartoons depicted the prophet blindfolded, in a line-up with Danish politicians or wearing horns.