The NY Time: Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book

I’m sure you’ve already read that before but it escaped me until today – I must be reading the wrong papers at the wrong time?!

In any case, in a few weeks’ time Yale University Press will publish a book by Jytte Klausen entitled The Cartoons That Shook the World. And, already it is generating headlines – or rather, Yale UP’s decision not to reprint the Danish cartoons that sparked the crises a few years back. I don’t know whether that should come to anybody’s surprise – not that they decided against their publication but the controversy that caused. What I mean, either way their decision would probably have generated a heated debate …

Why am I including this here? Well, let’s face it without the whole controversy I would probably not have gotten my funding. Submitted in the aftermath of the crisis, my application to conduct research into artistic traditions in Nigeria, a part of the world where more people than anywhere else are said to have died in riots related to the cartoons, ticked the right boxes. We had talked about this as a subject for my PhD research already during summer 2005 while I was writing my MA dissertation and the topic, before all else, was inspired by a gap in the literature on contemporary arts in Nigeria. But, in 2006 my proposal ticked the right boxes. Also, it was in a discussion about these cartoons that I realised most strongly that there are limits to my understanding – and I here don’t mean the intellectual kind of understanding but to actually comprehend, to grasp … you know what I mean? Raised in a strongly secular tradition and shaped by assertions of freedom of speech following the Falling of the Wall in 1989 I stood there looking at my close friend shockingly unable, on the one hand, to comprehend the extent to which she personally had taken offense with the cartoons and, at the same time, to communicate why freedom of speech, opinion and press was supposedly so much more important than her feelings, why these cartoons just didn’t merit the attention they were given. Almost a year on, I still consider this one of the most confusing moments of my year in Nigeria, one of the most challenging. On a personal and philosophical level two values I hold, or claim to hold dearly clash here (hey, I’m not claiming to always live up to them or even most of the time): respect, respect for the feelings of my fellow human beings and the opinions (which ironically informs the idea of freedom of speech that offended my friend’s feelings) on the one hand and the secular values I grew up with - I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it, right? This moment, my inability to actually grasp my friend’s feelings (I mean why? For God’s sake, she’s my friend, my very good friend, so why am I unable, frighteningly unable to grasp how she can feel the way she does?) has been at the back of my mind while I was reading about religious piety, iconoclasm, the cartoon crisis etc.

I touched upon all this in an earlier blog entry and mentioned Brain Goldstone’s article in Anthropology Quarterly and, in one of the following entries, a more immediately art related argument can be found by David Morgan in the Sacred Gaze (though I can't recall whether he actually references the Danish cartoons themselves). Well, so yes, this is the background against which I find the controversy Klausen’s book already sparks quite fascinating. But anyway, here is the NY Times article that first revealed that Yale UP decided not to republish the cartoons:

Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book

By PATRICIA COHEN, August 12, 2009

It’s not all that surprising that Yale University Press would be wary of reprinting notoriously controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a forthcoming book. After all, when the 12 caricatures were first published by a Danish newspaper a few years ago and reprinted by other European publications, Muslims all over the world angrily protested, calling the images — which included one in which Muhammad wore a turban in the shape of a bomb — blasphemous. In the Middle East and Africa some rioted, burning and vandalizing embassies; others demanded a boycott of Danish goods; a few nations recalled their ambassadors from Denmark. In the end at least 200 people were killed.

So Yale University and Yale University Press consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What’s more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.

The book’s author, Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., reluctantly accepted Yale University Press’s decision not to publish the cartoons. But she was disturbed by the withdrawal of the other representations of Muhammad. All of those images are widely available, Ms. Klausen said by telephone, adding that “Muslim friends, leaders and activists thought that the incident was misunderstood, so the cartoons needed to be reprinted so we could have a discussion about it.” The book is due out in November.

John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, said by telephone that the decision was difficult, but the recommendation to withdraw the images, including the historical ones of Muhammad, was “overwhelming and unanimous.” The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, Mr. Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous.

He noted that he had been involved in publishing other controversial books — like “The King Never Smiles” by Paul M. Handley, a recent unauthorized biography of Thailand’s current monarch — and “I’ve never blinked.” But, he said, “when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question.”

Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” is a fan of the book but decided to withdraw his supportive blurb that was to appear in the book after Yale University Press dropped the pictures. The book is “a definitive account of the entire controversy,” he said, “but to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic.”

In Mr. Aslan’s view no danger remains. “The controversy has died out now, anyone who wants to see them can see them,” he said of the cartoons, noting that he has written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction. He added that none of the violence occurred in the United States: “There were people who were annoyed, and what kind of publishing house doesn’t publish something that annoys some people?”

“This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press,” he continued. “There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry.” He added, “It’s not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary.”

Mr. Donatich said that the images were still provoking unrest as recently as last year when the Danish police arrested three men suspected of trying to kill the artist who drew the cartoon depicting Muhammad’s turban as a bomb. He quoted one of the experts consulted by Yale — Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations and the former foreign minister of Nigeria — as concluding: “You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria.”

Aside from the disagreement about the images, Ms. Klausen said she was also disturbed by Yale’s insistence that she could read a 14-page summary of the consultants’ recommendations only if she signed a confidentiality agreement that forbade her from talking about them. “I perceive it to be a gag order,” she said, after declining to sign. While she could understand why some of the individuals consulted might prefer to remain unidentified, she said, she did not see why she should be precluded from talking about their conclusions.

Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president and secretary of Yale University, who had discussed the summary with Ms. Klausen, said on Wednesday that she was merely following the original wishes of the consultants, some of whom subsequently agreed to be identified.

Ms. Klausen, who is also the author of “The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe,” argued that the cartoon protests were not spontaneous but rather orchestrated demonstrations by extremists in Denmark and Egypt who were trying to influence elections there and by others hoping to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya and Nigeria. The cartoons, she maintained, were a pretext, a way to mobilize dissent in the Muslim world.

Although many Muslims believe the Koran prohibits images of the prophet, Muhammad has been depicted through the centuries in both Islamic and Western art without inciting disturbances.

Rather than sign a joint editor’s note for the book and the removal of the images, Ms. Klausen has requested instead that a statement from her be included. “I agreed,” she said, “to the press’s decision to not print the cartoons and other hitherto uncontroversial illustrations featuring images of the Muslim prophet, with sadness. But I also never intended the book to become another demonstration for or against the cartoons, and hope the book can still serve its intended purpose without illustrations.”

Other publishers, including The New York Times, chose not to print the cartoons or images of Muhammad when the controversy erupted worldwide in February 2006.

Ms. Klausen said, “I can understand that a university is risk averse, and they will make that choice” not to publish the cartoons, but Yale University Press, she added, went too far in taking out the other images of Muhammad.

“The book’s message,” Ms. Klausen said, “is that we need to calm down and look at this carefully.”

Of course the topic has since been discussed by a number of other papers and, of course, you will find a variety of opinion about whether or not Yale UP has taken the right decision. I haven’t yet started collecting reactions, I’m not even sure I will take it that seriously. But, this is the statement/open letter of the American Association of University Professors:

Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press

August 13, 2009

"We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.” That is effectively the new policy position at Yale University Press, which has eliminated all visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from Jytte Klausen’s new book The Cartoons That Shook the World. Yale made the unusual decision not only to suppress the twelve 2005 Danish cartoons that sparked organized protests in many countries but also historical depictions of Muhammed like a 19th-century print by Gustave Doré. They are not responding to protests against the book; they and a number of their consultants are anticipating them and making or recommending concessions beforehand.

In an action that parallels prior restraint on speech, Yale also refused to give the author access to consultants’ reports unless she agreed in writing not to discuss their contents. Such reports typically have their authors’ names removed, but a prohibition against discussing their content is, to say the least, both unusual and objectionable.

Publishers often refuse to print color illustrations to save money or limit the number of black and white illustrations to reduce the length of a book, but Yale Press has not raised any financial issues here. The issues are: 1) an author’s academic freedom; 2) the reputation of the press and the university; 3) the impact of these twin decisions on other university presses and publication venues; 4) the potential to encourage broader censorship of speech by faculty members or other authors. What is to stop publishers from suppressing an author’s words if it appears they may offend religious fundamentalists or groups threatening violence? We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.

Cary Nelson, AAUP President

I might be overreacting here but don’t we here see the same arguments resurfacing again: the primacy of, here, academic freedom over the feelings of those who might potentially feel offended by the republication of those cartoons. And, I’m sure that the focus on potential terrorists in the opening of the AAUP’s statement reflects the reasoning behind Yale UP’s decision. But I also cannot fail to feel that this, intended or not, reproduces ‘a certain juxtaposition,’ to use Goldstone’s words again, of ‘Islamism” (shorthand for “Islamic fundamentalism”) to … the defining characteristics of democracy, freedom, reason, and pluralism - in short, to civilization,’ (p. 208) a juxtaposition that already informed much (Western) press argument during the initial cartoon crisis. See, there is a lot of debate about ethics, about responsibility towards and respect for the ‘subjects’ of our research. And I know, at least among Africanist scholars, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the ethics of reproducing or exhibiting images or artefacts that own their very existence to (colonial) violence and oppression. Here, the question whether their reproduction or exhibition does not reproduce the original act of violence as well has been seriously considered. – I have to confess that quite some time has passed since I have been reading these arguments and I cannot recall what concrete guidelines for academic practices were suggested on the basis of these considerations. But I fail to see any reflection of this in the AAUP’s statement. - My friend is certainly not a terrorist and still my friendship and respect for her requires me to take her feelings seriously (and, yes, against this background I find this emphasis on potential terrorists by Yale UP as well as AAUP somewhat offending) … although, I haven’t asked her (yet) how, as a lecturer herself, she would feel about the republication of these cartoons in an academic context. Having said this, of course, I have a lot of sympathy for the concerns behind the AAUP’s open letter – I have been raised in a secular environment that (at least ideologically) highly values freedom of speech, academic freedom. And yes, events like the Danish cartoon crisis need to be analysed and discussed (allow those who are willing to read and listen to learn from them) and illustrations, also of potentially offensive images, certainly render any argument more palpable. But, after I had to sit through hour-long lectures on ethics at the beginning of my PhD I expect those in the profession to take equally serious the ethics of republishing these cartoons, I want to see those arguments reflected in the arguments of whether or not the Danish cartoons should be republished. Shouldn’t senior academics like the professors of the AAUP or, indeed, scholars working with Yale UP through their actions and arguments in cases like this provide guidance to those coming to the profession a new, those like me?

Anyway, here are some more opinions from the web – And, while the focus here will be on papers I’m reading anyway, note that the guys from Wikipedia have also already started compiling the different opinions … and, btw., in addition to all above said: yes, I feel strongly about Christopher Hitchens’ last argument, he has a point there as well, or?

Klausen herself as quoted by the Guardian:

Author Jytte Klausen said the book had been ready to go to print when the illustrations were pulled, after Yale received some "quite alarmist" statements from experts who had been sent copies of the proposed images. A professor of politics at a Massachusetts university, Klausen argued for inclusion of the cartoons in the book, which is due out in November in the US and January in the UK. "People think they know the cartoons and actually, by printing the cartoons, I'm arguing that some of them are Islamophobic, and in the tradition of anti-Semitism. If we can't look at them, how can we discuss this?" she said today.

She eventually consented – "reluctantly" – to removing them (she "didn't think it was necessary") but "argued every step along the way" against the excision of the other illustrations: the Doré sketch, an Ottoman print showing the Prophet with a veil over his face, and a reproduction of the cover of a Danish children's book depicting Muhammad.

"You can walk up and down the high street in the UK and pick [the Doré sketch] out of antique bins. The ubiquity of this illustration moved me to want to include it," she said. Admitting that it is "quite explicit" – it illustrates the Inferno canto which shows Muhammad with his entrails hanging out – she proposed substitutions: the same scene has been painted by Rodin, Blake and Dali, but these were not accepted.

"Sadness, not anger, characterises my feelings," said Klausen. "The cartoons ... one can discuss. The removal of the other illustrations poses problems for the text, which was written to the illustrations. I cannot yet judge how confusing it will be to the reader to follow my argument without the illustrations, but for sure these illustrations were intended to awake the reader to the history of depiction of Muhammad in Ottoman, Persian, and Western art - and to show also how we live with images and do not examine them. Well, they will not be examined this time."

Sheila Blair, professor of Islamic and Asian art at Norma Jean Calderwood University and, according to the Guardian one of those consulted by Yale UP reportedly

"strongly urged" the press to publish the images. "To deny that such images were made is to distort the historical record and to bow to the biased view of some modern zealots who would deny that others at other times and places perceived and illustrated Muhammad in different ways," she wrote in a letter to the New York Times which is yet to be published.

The Telegraph quotes the Nigerian-born Under Secretary of the UN Ibrahim Gambari and apparently also among those consulted over the republication of the cartoons saying that

You can count on violence if any illustration of the Prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria.

Several blogs and papers have accused Yale UP of bowing/surrendering to terrorists (I’ve already told you above how I feel about this limitation of considerations to potential terrorists). Take for example Christopher Hitchens in Slate Magazine:

The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn't even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism—particularly Muslim religious extremism—that is spreading across our culture.


His reply took the form of the official statement from the press's public affairs department. This informed me that Yale had consulted a range of experts before making its decision and that "[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence."

So here's another depressing thing: Neither the "experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies" who were allegedly consulted, nor the spokespeople for the press of one of our leading universities, understand the meaning of the plain and common and useful word instigate. If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it's a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it's a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won't wear the veil have "provoked" those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that "logic" as its own.

Let’s leave it there for the moment, I’m sure there is more out there … and, yes, what I have so far documented is largely Western press and academia talking to itself but this is, more or less what I have found so far – I’m not even sure whether the story has been published by al-Jazeera (I certainly couldn’t find anything on their English site) …

To be honest, I’m pretty confused as to where I stand with regard to this – as I said, here two of my beliefs clash: respect for my fellow human’s feelings (after all, don’t I always tell me dad that it doesn’t matter whether he considers the N-word offensive and racist – the German discussion here runs along similar lines to the Afro-American but, I guess, has found far less consideration in mainstream media and culture – but that those such labelled regard it as an insult?!) vs. the value of analysis, debate and academic freedom. What do you think? Where do you stand on this?


  1. I think this is an interesting comment on the topic at the Religion Dispatches website by Daniel Martin Varisco. Entitled 'Satanic or Silly: Does Yale Press Censorship of Cartoons Insult Muslims?' it can be found at

  2. Also, just found this on Inside Islam: Depicting the Prophet


  3. here's a update:


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