Cohen starts with an understanding of why Yale UP decided not to reprint the notorious Danish cartoons in Jytte Klausen's book "The Cartoons That Shook the World." But the article approaches the topic with a simplistic approach to the issues. For example, claiming that Muslims throughout the world saw the cartoons as "blasphemous" without defining the nature of the blasphemy (or even what blasphemy means in the context of the Koran), is not very useful. Also, applauding Yale for diligently consulting "two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism" (who said [surprise!] that the cartoons should be excluded) without at least wondering aloud why someone like Oleg Grabar was not included, immediately places the story in the context of international affairs rather than art.
There is some great comic relief in the article when Reza Aslan (Twitter) reminds everyone that it's "an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press … There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry … It's not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary."
As I've said many times before, I'm not sure what the "blasphemy" is here. Cohen is right to point out that
Although many Muslims believe the Koran prohibits images of the prophet, Muhammad has been depicted through the centuries in both Islamic and Western art without inciting disturbances.
But I'd be very interested to hear more insight into whether those realistic traditions of Muhammad representation are largely in the Persian miniature style, as opposed to other traditions in Islamic art. I also have yet to hear any imams or other Islamic legal scholars weigh in on what exactly a representation of the Prophet entails. Does idolatry exclusively mean a realistic depiction, or can a cartoon constitute representation? What of a Cubist Muhammad (as in the rough image below, with thanks to this post) or a Fauvist Aisha?
It would surprise me if many imams had thought this through. Of course, that is hardly an indictment of their legal imagination, as studying art history is hardly a prerequisite to becoming a scholar of imam. When I asked several rabbis at a major Israeli yeshiva whether Cubist human figures or Fauvist celestial bodies violated the second commandment, I got blank stares (sort of like this joke, second-to-last blockquote on the page).
It remains my hope that a conference might be convened of Islamic legal and religious scholars, in which presentations would be made on what exactly the Koran permits for artists and what it forbids. This would be a great opportunity also to examine differences between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic interpretations of the Second Commandment, and also to include Buddhist and Hindu leaders, some of whom have told me that they resent the fact that their art is considered idolatrous and primitive.
Until then, we will continue to see more and more nonsense like this story.