Self-Muzzled at Yale

Sunday, August 23, 2009

AN ILLUSTRATION from a children's book. An Ottoman print. A 19th-century artist's depiction of "Dante's Inferno." These are among the images Yale University Press has decided it's unsafe to reproduce in a scholarly work, lest they incite violence from Islamic extremists. The Press's John Donatich explained that the publisher doesn't shy away from controversy, but "when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question."

This is simply wrong.

The scholarly work in question is Jytte Klausen's "Cartoons that Shook the World," a book about the 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad whose 2005 appearance in a Danish paper ignited a worldwide controversy. Yale University Press is publishing it in the fall -- or some of it. Not just the picture of the newspaper's controversial page of cartoons but all of the book's illustrations, which include a historical range of artistic depictions of the prophet, will be omitted. Why? Because what the Press described as a group of "counterterrorism officials . . . U.S. diplomats . . . foreign ambassadors from Muslim countries . . . and senior scholars in Islamic studies" -- without so much as reading the book -- deemed them too inflammatory to publish. This was after the book had passed Yale University Press's own vetting process, was examined by lawyers and read by multiple Islamic reviewers who agreed that the images should be included. Worse, the book's author could not even read the objections from the largely unidentified group of experts unless she signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Yale's self-censorship establishes a dangerous precedent. If one of the world's most respected scholarly publishers cannot print these images in context in an academic work, who can? To be sure, the cartoons are inflammatory and tasteless, depicting the prophet with a bomb as a turban or telling a group of suicide bombers to "Stop! We have run out of virgins!" But it's difficult to imagine a more legitimate place for them or to understand why a prohibition on images of the prophet that is not even observed by all Muslims should have to apply to a scholarly work by a nonbeliever.

In effect, Yale University Press is allowing violent extremists to set the terms of free speech. As an academic press that embraces the university's motto of "Lux et Veritas," it should be ashamed.

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