Citing potential threats of violence, Yale University Press removed 12 Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad that sparked a series of riots in 2006 from a forthcoming book about the cartoon controversy. Other historical images of Muhammad, including a drawing for a children's book, an Ottoman print, and a sketch by 19th-century artist Gustave Doré, were also deleted from the book, titled "The Cartoons That Shook the World."
In an August 14 statement, Yale University Press wrote that the decision to omit the images was difficult, but that numerous experts had advised against republishing the cartoons. The statement said that Yale University Press is "deeply committed to freedom of speech and expression," but the threat of loss of innocent life had caused it to omit the images.
"It was fairly overwhelming that the people who knew the most about this kind of situation said 'Don't do it,' that this was likely to provoke violence," Yale Press director John Donatich said in an October 26 report on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
NPR reported that one of the experts who advised against publishing the photos was former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. "I felt that there was a considerable risk that more violence, possibly even resulting in serious injury or death, could occur as a result of the publication of these images," Negroponte said.
Protests and riots in the Middle East and Africa following the initial publication of the cartoons in 2006 resulted in the deaths of over 200 people. (For more on the Danish cartoon controversy, see "Controversial Cartoons Lead to Worldwide Concern For Speech, Press Freedom, and Religious Values," in the Winter 2006 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
In the October 26 NPR story, Yale student Fatima Ghani said she was glad Yale University Press removed the cartoons from the book, and that the drawings represent hate speech, not freedom of expression.
"People don't see this the same way they would see a swastika or they would see the N-word," Ghani said. "They see bigotry against Muslims in a separate category as they see bigotry against other races or religions."
Elsewhere, the decision to omit the images was met with criticism. In an August 14 story in The Guardian, the book's author, Jytte Klausen, said that she had argued "every step along the way" to include the images, and was disappointed by their omission. "You can walk up and down the high street in the UK and pick [the Doré sketch depicting Muhammad in Dante's "Inferno," one of the images that was removed from the book] out of antique bins. The ubiquity of this illustration moved me to want to include it," Klausen said.
In an August 12 story in The New York Times, Klausen also said she was disturbed by Yale's insistence that she could not read summaries of the expert recommendations unless she signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibited her from talking about them. "I perceive it to be a gag order," she said, after declining to sign.
In an August 29 column in The Washington Post, Mona Eltahawy called Yale University Press's decision to remove the images a victory for extremists. "Both Yale and the extremists distorting this issue should be ashamed. I say this as a Muslim who supported the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's right to publish the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed [sic] in late 2005 and as someone who also understands the offense taken at those cartoons by many Muslims," she wrote.
"Sunni Muslims observe a prohibition on depictions of the prophet - but since when has Yale?" Eltahawy wrote. "One by one, regimes and Islamists competed in outrage, whipping up a frenzy that at times spiraled out of control. Unfortunately, those dictators and radicals who want to speak for all Muslims - and yet care little for Muslim life - have found an ally in Yale University Press."
Other groups also condemned Yale's decision, including PEN American Center, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the American Association of University Professors, which published an open letter written by its president, Cary Nelson. In the letter, Nelson wrote that the organization's members "deplore this decision and its potential consequences. ... 'We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.' That is effectively the new policy position at Yale University Press."
A group of Yale alumni calling themselves "The Yale Committee for a Free Press" also decried the decision in a letter written by Washington lawyer Michael Steinberg and signed by 44 Yale alumni. The letter, which was published in the Yale Daily News on October 1, urged the Yale Corporation, the governing body of Yale that appoints members to the board of Yale University Press, to insist that the Press reprint the book with the images of the cartoon. "Simply stated, Yale must not be the arbiter of what is 'safe' to publish," Steinberg wrote. "Such censorship corrodes the intellectual freedom that is the foundation of the entire university community. ... In a world where light and truth are under siege, the entire Yale community has a vital stake in preserving a free press."
In a September 30 interview on the Web site of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, said that Yale's censorship was "very damaging."
"Academic freedom is based on the right to free inquiry," Rose said. "And that fundamental precondition for any path-breaking academic work has been undermined by one of the most prestigious academic publishers in the world. What kind of message does this send to other academic institutions?"
In response to the controversy over the Yale University Press incident, Voltaire Press, an independent publishing company founded byProfessorGary Hull, director of the Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace at Duke University, published "Muhammad: The 'Banned' Images" in November 2009. The book includes full color reproductions of all the images that were removed from Klausen's book.
The book also included a "Statement of Principle" as an afterward that was signed by many prominent academics and attorneys, including Nelson, Rose, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, and former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, among others.
"A number of recent incidents suggest that our long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence," the statement, which specifically mentions Klausen's book, said. "It is incumbent on those responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition."
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant