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EDITORIAL: Muhammad and man at Yale
Question of the Day
Yale has run up the white flag to terrorism. Yale University Press is set to publish "The Cartoons That Shook the World," an academic account of the caricatures of Muhammad printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Those drawings were exploited by Islamists to incite protests and violence worldwide. The best-known of these shows Muhammad with his turban shaped like a bomb. The book's author is Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University, a Carnegie Scholars award-winning expert on Muslim culture in Europe. By all accounts, the book is thoroughly researched and scholarly in tone -- not the stuff of controversy.
Enter academic politics. Yale President Richard C. Levin reportedly swooped in at the last minute with a censorship order prohibiting the book's planned illustrations. John Donatich, director of the nominally independent Yale press, complied. We are left with a book detailing every aspect of the cartoons but not allowed to show them. Other representations of Muhammad also were banned, including a 19th-century print by Gustave Dore of Muhammad being eviscerated by a demon in hell. This famous depiction comes from a scene in Dante's "Divine Comedy" that later inspired works by Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali. The Yale University Press mission statement claims that the publisher "continually extends its horizons to embody university publishing at its best." That claim would be hard to justify at the moment.
Yale contends that censorship was necessary as a matter of public safety. University elders argue that reprinting the cartoons could result in a "substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims." Yet Yale press has published images of Muhammad before. There were no specific threats against the school, and the cartoons have been reprinted a number of times in many venues without incident. Yale consulted with experts who unanimously concluded -- or so said the university -- that publishing the cartoons could incite violence. In actuality, Yale cherry-picked the expert opinions it released and refused to let Ms. Klausen see the full consultants' reports unless she agreed in writing not to discuss their contents. At the least, the code of secrecy calls into question Yale's credibility when trumpeting the putatively unanimous vote.
Yale's pre-emptive surrender to religious extremism has come under fire from thinkers across the political spectrum, including Alan M. Dershowitz, Roger Kimball and Christopher E. Hitchens. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, condemned the move as an assault on academic freedom, a blow to the reputation of the press and the university, and potential encouragement to "broader censorship of speech by faculty members or other authors."
Financial interests could be involved in the decision. Yale is actively pursuing grants from sources in the Middle East. In 2007, the university launched an initiative to expand its Middle East studies offerings, and this fall the Ivy League school appointed Muna Abu Sulayman as a Yale World Fellow. Ms. Sulayman is executive director of a foundation set up by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal that has awarded $20 million in grants for Arab and Islamic studies centers at Georgetown and Harvard. Yale has denied any linkage between the censorship order and its Middle East fundraising activities.
Ironically, Yale is playing into the hands of the people who orchestrated the anti-cartoon riots in the first place. Ms. Klausen's book demonstrates that the demonstrations and violence the cartoons inspired were not spontaneous outpourings of Muslim angst but a carefully orchestrated political campaign meant to exploit the situation. The extremists have an interest in promoting the romantic view that Muslims are hyperemotional fanatics with a hair-trigger response to any religious slights. This gives the Islamists leverage: Do their bidding or face unpredictable, violent consequences. Yale has bought into this borderline racist notion of all Muslims as knee-jerk militants. The message to the extremists is that violence works. We would not be surprised if Muslim activists protested the book's publication anyway, just to reinforce their success.
American universities have no problem questioning the most cherished Western values and American cultural norms. At times, the ivory tower seems to relish flouting propriety, self-righteously proclaiming that the mission of higher education is to push the boundaries of convention and defending their acts in the name of academic freedom. We are certain that if a book raised the ire of conservatives, Christians, gun owners or other politically incorrect members of society, Yale would double down on whatever made the work controversial. However, for whatever reason, whether financial motives or a new variant of liberal guilt complex, Yale has chosen to cave to the unspoken demands of Muslim militants and impose blunt censorship.
This is a shameful moment for Yale University. Its censorship is an affront to academic freedom, the First Amendment and religious liberty. We urge Ms. Klausen to pull her book from Yale University Press and find a publisher that believes academic freedom is more than just a feel-good slogan.
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