Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons that Shook the World will hit the bookshelves today, almost exactly four years after the editorial cartoons she focuses on were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The book examines the history and impact of those twelve cartoons, some of which feature controversial depictions of the prophet Muhammad and led to violent demonstrations in many countries. But if you're interested in looking at the cartoons themselves, you'll have to try Google (or click here). The Yale University Press decided to publish Klausen's book without them.
The YUP's statement about the decision in mid-August has brought about a flurry of angry letters and editorials from academics and journalists alike. Through it all YUP Director John Donatich has been firm, telling the public repeatedly that with the possibility of "blood on my hands, there was no question."
But there was no such talk when Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, signed her agreement with YUP three years ago. "It was a happy agreement from the start," she wrote in an email. Jonathan Brent, who was associate director of the YUP at the time, said in a phone interview that the Management Committee had approved publishing the cartoons after receiving the proposal.According to Brent, soon after the manuscript came in earlier this year it was sent to four different historians, all of whom "very very enthusiastically supported publication of the book, and…said the cartoons should be published." He even sent it to the legal department (which he said is an unusual move, but one he felt was necessary because of the nature of the subject) and heard no complaints. Even when the book went to the Publications Committee, he said, its publication and that of the cartoons was unanimously accepted.
Brent left the YUP on June 30 of this year, while the book was still in editing, and less than a month later the YUP told Klausen it would omit the cartoons. He said he wasn't involved in the decision and called it "highly unusual."
What changed since the book proposal? According to the YUP's statement, violence in response to the cartoons occurred as recently as June 2008. Ironically, though, Klausen's book argues that most of the bloodshed wasn't a spontaneous reaction to the cartoons. The book's promo on the YUP website sums it up nicely: "She concludes that the Muslim reaction to the cartoons was not—as was commonly assumed—a spontaneous emotional reaction arising out of the clash of Western and Islamic civilizations. Rather it was orchestrated" by political and extremist figures.
The YUP said it consulted dozens of experts, academic and governmental, domestic and international, before making the final decision. One of those experts was Sheila Blair, a professor of Islamic and Asian art at Boston College. She recommended including both the images she was asked to review (neither of which were the cartoons) and was dismayed by the outcome.
"They wanted to avoid the controversy, and hence they looked to terrorism experts, which is a sad commentary on academic publishing," she said. "I would hate to reach a stage where you can't show images for a historic process." Blair co-published a book with the YUP 13 years ago that contained portrayals of Mohammad. She said there was "no discussion, period" about removing the images, and felt that the current situation resulted from "the politicization of opinion."
Usually, when it comes to publishing with the YUP, "everything is within the scope of the author's vision," said Daniel Kevles, a member of the Publications Committee since 2002. "It is a mutually respectful process of suggestion, persuasion, and such." Although he was away from the committee during the book's discussion, he couldn't recall past decisions to omit materials that authors wanted included, beyond what he called "editorializing gratuitously on contemporary issues."
Besides any possible threat of violence, Yale's interactions with the Middle East and the wider global stage may have contributed to the YUP's decision. In recent years Yale has aggressively stepped up its involvement in the Middle East, even trying (and failing) to open up an arts institute in Abu Dhabi. The goal, at least in part, is close the gap with Harvard, which has much greater name recognition in the Middle East. Harib Ezaldein '11, a member of Yale's Arab Student Association, said that Yale is on an "active campaign to recruit Middle East students…and Yale doesn't want to identify with controversy." Not to mention, he added, that "there's a lot of money in the Middle East."
Klausen has said she does not think YUP was pressured into the decision. But it was made in a highly unusual way, involving officials in the upper echelons of the university. Yale English professor David Bromwich, a member of the Publications Committee, said in an email that to his knowledge, the university has never had this kind of involvement in an editorial decision. Among Yale officials who wouldn't normally be part of any YUP decision was University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, who, along with Donatich, was the first to inform Klausen of it in July. The anthropology professor and chair of Yale' Council on Middle East Studies Marcia Inhorn is also quoted in the YUP's statement supporting the decision. Lorimer and Inhorn did not respond to requests for comment, and Donatich declined to comment for this story.
The decision was unique and made in a unique manner, but Kevles said the YUP was in a unique situation. "Now we have a precedent," he said, "so we need to review way things were handled, criteria that were de facto put in place, and what kind of process should be applied when such a case arises again, which it could." Jytte Klausen's book has begun the conversation and the process.
Jytte Klausen will speak at Yale this coming Thursday night, in an event presented by the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Her talk is called "Blasphemy and Inquiry: The Cartoons that Shook the World." It will follow a talk by Kurt Westergaard, author of one of the editorial cartoons, in Branford College that afternoon.