We've been following with interest the different reactions to the decision of the Yale University Press, now preparing a scholarly work on the Danish cartoon depictions of Muhammad that inspired riots in 2005 and 2006, not to include the pictures themselves in the book. Yale reportedly consulted two dozen experts on the likelihood that their publication would lead to further violence before opting against it.
The decision has aroused concerns – which we share – about the power that it awards to the violent few to deny the free flow of information among the many. But one of the more interesting takes we've seen on it approaches the issue from a different angle: What it says about attitudes towards Muslims.
Entitled "Satanic or Silly: Does Yale Press Censorship of Cartoons Insult Muslims?" the piece by Daniel Martin Varisco over at Religion Dispatches reads in part:
The cautious reaction by Yale University Press is understandable, but I find the rationale troubling, as it assumes that Muslims extremists await any new pretext to spur violence and that "moderate" Muslims are at their mercy. Given the ongoing United States military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, drone bombings in Pakistan and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, there are far more relevant pretexts available than an Ivy League book that may not even warrant review in major newspapers. The peddlers of Islamophobia in the media, popular trade books, and blogs would have us believe that radical extremists are lurking everywhere just waiting for an excuse to promote violence. To suggest that deadly protest over these images can be rekindled by a book that attempts to explain the whole affair in academic prose is an insult to the vast majority of Muslims, especially those in the United States.
Reaction by Muslims to visual images of the prophet Muhammad is not uniform, nor has it ever been. Predicting how Muslims will respond to images already widely distributed and discussed is not very helpful. Intolerant extremists like the Afghan Taliban banned much more than images of Muhammad, but many earlier Muslims depicted their prophet in drawings out of reverence; Islamic manuscripts before the 17th century did, in fact, portray Muhammad; at times in full and otherwise with his face whited out or veiled. Most Muslim scholars today condemn the illustrating of the physical features of Muhammad, but mainstream interpreters do not call for death threats against those who make such images. Muslims, like members of other faiths, express their displeasure in a number of ways over those who belittle their prophet. In 2008, for example, a petition was circulated online to remove a 17th-century Ottoman manuscript image of Muhammad from the Wikipedia article on the prophet. Despite accumulating over 455,000 signatures and the Wikipedia community's refusal to remove the illustration, still no violent acts have resulted.