The New York Times reports this morning that Yale University Press has banned the publication of the 12 notorious cartoons of Muhammad first printed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Postenin September 2005. The images were intended to be included in a volume titled The Cartoons that Shook the World by Danish-born Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen. The most inflammatory of the images published in 2005 depicted Muhammad with a turban/bomb on his head. At the time they were published, the Muslim world decried the images and violence swept through Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, and many other countries. Europe, for the most part, defended its printing of the images and they were reprinted in French, Italian, German, and Spanish newspapers. The domino effect was stunning. More than 200 were killed. The cartoons proved a toxic catalyst that further widened the chasms of belief between the East and the West. Freedom of the press versus religious sanctity.
Considering the chain of events that followed the original publication of the cartoons, it's is not surprising that Yale decided to avoid publishing the images, therefore steering clear of any potential repercussions. But what the decision says about freedom of the press is paramount. And what it says about whether images that once incited violence can now inform and teach is not encouraging. The Director of Yale University Press went so far in The New York Times article as to quote Ibrahim Gambari, one of the many consultants who informed Yale's decision:
"You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria."
The statement does wonders to support Yale's conservative stance regarding the cartoons. However, it may not actually be accurate. Take, for example, when Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published a cartoon by artist Lars Vilks in August 2007 in which Muhammad's head was drawn on the body of a dog. The governments of Egypt and Iran both protested against the cartoon. Al-Qaeda in Iraq put out a bounty on the cartoonist's head. Yet nothing happened. In fact, both the European Council for Fatwa and Research and the 29-nation Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europedenounced Al-Qaeda's call to arms. In a September 2007 article, Vilks was quoted as saying that not only did he think "the work of art had developed well," he "described the events and the debate surrounding his drawings as a repeat of the Danish caricature row, except on a smaller scale and so far without bloodshed." As the debate surrounding Vilks' cartoon faded, so did the threat of violence.
In addition to the 12 images that rattled the world four years ago, Yale University Press also sought to omit other depictions of Muhammad from Klausen's book. Among them are a children's book drawing, an Ottoman print, and a sketch by Gustave Dore. Klausen, for her part, objected to the barring of the images and rather than sign a joint editor's note explaining their removal, she authored a letter expressing her opinions. From The New York Times article:
I agreed to the press's decision to not print the cartoons and other hitherto uncontroversial illustrations featuring images of the Muslim prophet, with sadness. But I also never intended the book to become another demonstration for or against the cartoons, and hope the book can still serve its intended purpose without illustrations."
Yale's decision is playing it safe, by all means. There is some danger in riots erupting over the publication of the images, and I can understand the university not wanting that on their hands. However, removing the images shows that the university believes they cannot be learned from, at least at this juncture. This thinking has to be replaced by an understanding that these events happened in 2005, that they were tragic, and that now we have to learn from them. Fear or avoidance of possible violence is not a deterrent against learning from tragedy and misunderstanding. This is why we read Maus by Art Spiegelman. This is why we study racism in this country in union with the racist cartoons published in newspapers throughout American history. One could make the argument that depicting Muhammad, since it can be considered blasphemous, is a unique situation. But I believe that Klausen's book does not seek to offend, merely to educate. Intent is important. Further, as Islam scholar Reza Aslan points out, the book is "a definitive account of the entire controversy." And in his opinion, not including the actual cartoons is "frankly, idiotic."