Far too many people seem to be criticizing Yale University Press' decision to remove the controversial Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad from Brandeis Prof. Jyette Klausen's (POL) book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, to be released in November. Prominent alumni from Yale, including a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under the most recent Bush administration, a speechwriter for Bush and a liberal doctor, have signed a letter asking Yale to reinstate the cartoons to the book. Some people are calling Yale's actions cowardly, claiming that the actions violate the author's freedom of speech.
I, on the other hand, commend Yale for its decision to intervene in this instance of freedom of speech taken to a negative extreme.
Yale University Press consulted about a dozen Muslim diplomats before reaching its decision. Yale released a statement explaining that these cartoons were removed from the book because "there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims." Director of Yale University Press John Donatich also argued that this was not a case of suppressing freedom of speech because the press did not censor any original content of the writer.
Most of the diplomats who advised Yale remain unidentified, but one of the known who were consulted was Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host and Newsweek editor. He was quoted by The AP saying, "As a journalist and public commentator, I believe deeply in the First Amendment and academic freedom, but in this instance Yale University Press was confronted with a clear threat of violence and loss of life." Moreover, Yale University Press isn't the only publication that decided not to publish these images. The New York Times and other newspapers had decided not to reprint them back in 2006.
Any images of any of the prophets are completely forbidden in Islam because Islam tries to avoid any sort of idolatry. Not only did the Danish cartoons depict an image of the Prophet Muhammad, but one of the cartoons had him wearing a turban shaped into a bomb. Several months after these cartoons were published in 2005, there were many riots linked to the cartoons that ultimately resulted in over 200 deaths. Also, many Muslim countries boycotted Danish products as yet another result. Why publish the same cartoons again that have already caused so much mayhem?
I realize that the reason the cartoons were published the first time differs from the reason they are included in Prof. Klausen's book. This book is meant for academic purposes and is meant to document the whole controversy behind the cartoons. People could argue that removing the cartoons from the book makes it harder to understand the controversy behind it and ultimately decreases the value of the book. The people who are so curious to see the cartoons, though, should just look for them online where information is not regulated by publishers. It's not necessary to have the cartoons in the book in order to describe the turmoil; a written description of them is sufficient.
To have a cartoon of an Arab dressed up as a terrorist is one thing, but to draw a cartoon of Islam's holiest figure in such garb is taking it too far. That's just the ultimate way of saying that all Muslims are terrorists, which is absolutely not true. This is abusing freedom of speech. As a Muslim, I wouldn't buy a book that contained such images no matter how neutral the book. Now that the book won't have these images, I might buy it after all.
Brandeis' Imam (Islamic chaplain) Talal Eid gives another good reason for Yale's decision to remove the images. Brandeis promotes ideals like peace and social justice. But imagine, says Eid, what people would think if a professor from a nonsectarian Jewish university like ours publishes a book with these offensive cartoons. What would that do for Brandeis' image? He thinks that this book being published by the Brandeis professor could tarnish Brandeis' image of a peace-promoting organization focused on tolerance and multiculturalism.
Ultimately, yet reluctantly, Klausen accepted Yale's decision to remove the cartoons. No matter how wrong people think Yale's self-censorship is, I believe Yale made the appropriate decision. Sometimes freedom of speech needs to be regulated just for the sake of peace.