When Yale University Press, citing fears of violence, decided this summer to remove cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from an upcoming book, some alumni were outraged.
They said the publishing house, which is owned by the university, was practicing censorship and using foreign policy to dictate the contents of an academic work. And they wanted to let other alumni know what happened.
But the amount of attention from national and international media and bloggers was unexpected, they said. And for the book's author, Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., it has been unwanted. The attention that the discussion of the cartoons has prompted counters the point of her book, "The Cartoons That Shook the World," she said in an interview last week.
The cartoons, including one of Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, were originally published by a Danish newspaper in 2005 and reprinted by other media. The images were blamed for inciting massive protests and violence around the world. Klausen's book explains how the images were not the cause of the violence. Instead, she said, the violence was the result of extremists looking to further their cause.
Yale University Press released a statement last month saying the university had reached its difficult decision after consulting national and international experts about the possible effects of the images.
"The Press would never have reached the decision it did on the grounds that some might be offended by portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, Yale University Press has printed books in the past that included images of the Prophet," the statement said. "The decision rested solely on the experts' assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims."
The Press knew there would be some criticism, but the public's response was not a factor in the publisher's decision, said Tom Conroy, a university spokesman speaking on behalf of the publishing company.
"What Yale Press has done is to explain its reasoning and be responsive to the media who have thought to do objective stories about it," Conroy said.
Klausen said last week that she was surprised when the publisher told her the news in July, and she said she continues to be upset over the removal of the images and the ensuing debate.
"Instead of creating distance to the conflict or the cartoons, my book and my person are being sucked into the same craziness that characterized the cartoon itself," Klausen said. "Now my book is tied up in the debate about whether or not it's legitimate for Westerners to publish images about a Muslim prophet. ... My book was an effort to get away from that."
Others who expressed frustration with Yale University Press are pleased with the attention. They say it will force people to think about censorship, and they say they hope it will persuade Yale to reverse its decision.
Michael Steinberg, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and Yale graduate, signed a letter along with 24 others, and sent it to Yale Alumni Magazine "because we thought it was important that Yale's thousands and thousands of alumni knew what their school was doing. What's happened since then has been gratifying and now the question is will Yale reverse its shameful position and publish the book without censorship."
Reader comments on a Yale Daily News article were mixed. One reader said, "Yale made the right call," and another sympathized with the publishing house, saying, "Mostly I feel sorry for the Press being put in this situation — it must have been agonizing."
Other readers disagreed: "I am more than just ashamed at my university; I am angry at it. What cowardice." Another said, "Yale should have published the cartoons objectively because they were relevant to the academic subject of study."
Even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair weighed in. According to the Yale Daily News, Blair, who is teaching the seminar "Faith and Globalization" at the university, said Yale made the right decision.
Noah Pollak, a Yale student studying for his master's degree who signed the alumni letter, said he hopes the discourse continues.
"I think it's an important moment and an important issue," he said. "I think the more people think about it and the more they read about it, they'll realize that not publishing these cartoons was really a very poor choice on the part of the university."
The book's official publication date is Oct. 13. But Conroy said that the publishing company has "accelerated" its book distribution plans "to take advantage of all the attention."