Jytte Klausen, Brandeis University professor of comparative politics, has completed her second book about relations between the Muslim world and the West, centering on editorial cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad published in Denmark in 2006 that became the focus of diplomat protests and riots that claimed more than 200 lives.
The book, "The Cartoons That Shook the World," is not scheduled to be published until November, but has been attracting broad international attention since theNew York Times reported that Klausen's publisher removed the cartoons and all other images of Muhammad from the book out of fear of violent repercussions.
In the following interview, Klausen discusses the findings of her research for the book and her perspective on the current controversy. The Boston Globe also ran a front page story on the controversy in its Aug. 22 edition, and you can read an earlier BrandeisNOW story on the controversy here.
BrandeisNOW: What is the core message of this book?
Jytte Klausen: The book is a detective story describing how a newspaper's editorial cartoons in the course of six months became involved in… a unique international crisis. People were killed, but not because of the cartoons, they were killed in places where already conflict was brewing – in Nigeria, in Tripoli, in Libya, in the Northwest Frontier Province and in Islamabad and Peshawar. The cartoons moved from being something directed against Danish Muslims to becoming emblematic of all that was wrong with the West.
BrandeisNOW: Were they also used in Denmark for political purposes?
JK: After publication of the cartoons, 11 ambassadors asked in a letter to meet with the prime minister about how Danes were speaking about Muslims. The cartoons were mentioned, but so were comments by a member of parliament and a radio personality, both of whom were later disciplined for making racist statements under Danish law. But for political reasons, because immigration and Muslims are among the hottest issues in the Danish elections, the Danish prime minister at no point in time wanted to appear as if he was speaking for Muslims or recognized Muslims' complaints. So he wrapped himself in freedom of speech. He refused to meet the ambassadors, which is unheard of, a diplomatic faux pas. The ambassadors got angrier and angrier, and the government in Cairo [which is also the site of Arab League headquarters] decided to make an international diplomatic incident out of it.
BrandeisNOW: Egypt is generally perceived as relatively friendly toward the West and the United States. Why did its government want to do that?
JK: The Egyptian government, acting through the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference, wanted to make a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Commission -- using the cartoons and the Danish government as surrogates – to prove to the international court of public opinion and human-rights organizations that the West abridges human rights. This was important particularly because it was right before Egyptian elections, at a time when the United States and the European Union had been putting tremendous pressure on Egypt [to allow broader participation in the elections]. At the core, this was a diplomatic spat, an effort to change the facts on the ground in terms of the alignment in human rights terms between the United States and Egypt.
BrandeisNOW: Have there been lasting consequences of the uproar over the cartoons?
JK: There was a permanent realignment, in human-rights terms, between the Muslim countries and the West, reflected in a number of votes in the human rights council and passage of an amendment… to say it is now a human-rights offense to insult religious figures. The United States and all the European Union adamantly opposed and lost the vote. Latin America, the Muslim countries and Russia joined forces. It means that any time there is any kind of to-do about the Prophet Muhammad the international human-rights apparatus immediately swings into action.
Another consequence of the crisis has been an abridgement of free speech. The Arab League passed a document sanctioning the censoring of satellite television channels and denial of rights to broadcast if they are found to be disrespectful of religious figures or persons in authority. That is also, for sure, a lasting consequence.
We have also in the West created our own little soap opera about the cartoons and what one can do, and say, and not say. In my case, every news service, scholar, public intellectual, journalist, people interviewed in my book thought yes, it was time to publish the cartoons in a serious book with a discussion about why exactly Muslims got so angry [but the publisher is refusing to include the cartoons in the book].
BrandeisNOW: Why did you consider it essential to publish, or republish, the cartoons and other images of Muhammad in the book?
JK: Not all the images are readily available. Some have been removed from Islamic art collections. And some – there is one by Gustave Dore [of Muhammad in hell in Dante's Inferno] – you can walk up and down High Street [in London] and pull it out of bins and antique bookstores – people know the image, they have seen it, but never really looked at it. My point in reproducing it was to show that this image is all over the place, you have seen it a million times, but you don't know what you are looking at. This picture – Muhammad's Torment -- has become a completely secularized depiction of extreme psychic pain.
This book was intended as a scholarly discussion of these issues. Were I teaching and writing about sex education, I would expect my students to know about the reproductive system. You can't talk about images, you can't talk about the history of images, you can't talk about how images play on our collective consciousness and understand what's really going on without looking at the pictures.
BrandeisNOW: Actually, you were not planning to reproduce the cartoons as stand-alone images.
JK: Right. I was planning to reproduce the whole page from the newspaper so the reader could see how the cartoons were secondary to the text…. Many of the cartoons – about half of them – it is debatable if they even portrayed Muhammad.
BrandeisNOW: You talk about – and had planned to show -- Ottoman and other Muslim-world images of Muhammad in the book. Are people simply misinformed that there is a general prohibition against images of their holy people? What makes some images okay and others – like the cartoons -- not okay?
JK: Shi'a Muslims have religious art that shows Ali, Hussein and Fatima – but always beautiful. The Muslim tradition is to show the prophet as a warrior, a statesman – the secular side of the man's life. His biography is very important…. That's why this [editorial cartoon] depiction of the prophet was so insulting. The prophet's life is an ethical model for everyday Muslims to follow.
BrandeisNOW:. This, then, comes to the issue of what if this were Jesus.
JK: Muslims and Christians are not that different in this regard. Many believing Christians were quite sympathetic to Muslims' complaints about sacrilegious and disrespectful representations of Muhammad. There have been many instances in which Christian groups and also Jewish groups have joined hands in protest against such things. The difference here is really between secularists, who regard rules disallowing blasphemy as contrary to the principles of freedom of speech, and religious groups – Christian, Jewish or Muslim – who think that religious people have a right to be protected against the sort of things that secularists say and do.
BrandeisNOW: Why is there no objection to the image of Muhammad that is included in the friezes that ornament the U.S. Supreme Court?
JK: It is simply not the case that Muslims rise up in anger over images. The image [at the court] has been there since the 1930s, but there hadn't been many Muslims in the United States. Then, in 1997, a group of Muslims on a tour of the Supreme Court noticed the frieze and became concerned about what to think about it, and therefore asked for a fatwa from a learned authority in Mecca. Thefatwa said that this was a respectful depiction of the prophet as a statesman, as a law-maker, and that Muslims should be proud that a Christian state in its highest court would recognize the contribution of the prophet to Western law and its own history.