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Yale's Misguided Retreat

By Mona Eltahawy
Saturday, August 29, 2009

In deciding to omit the images from a book it is publishing about the controversy sparked by Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Yale University Press has handed a victory to 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 Muhammad in late 2005 and as someone who also understands the offense taken at those cartoons by many Muslims, including my mother. After a while, she and I agreed to stop talking about them because the subject always made us argue.

For more than two months in 2006, I lived in Copenhagen, where I debated the issue with Danes -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- including Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, who commissioned the images, and Naser Khader, Denmark's first Muslim parliamentarian, who launched the liberal Democratic Muslims group just as the controversy unfolded.

Speaking at a conference that Khader hosted at the Danish parliament a year after the cartoons' publication, I warned of two right wings -- a non-Muslim one that hijacked the issue to fuel racism against immigrants in Denmark, and a Muslim one that hijacked the issue to silence Muslims and fuel anti-Western rhetoric.

Sadly, both groups are celebrating Yale's decision because it has proven them "right."

The controversy that many might recall as "Danish newspaper publishes cartoons of the prophet; Muslim world goes berserk" was actually much more complex. What occurred across many Muslim-majority countries in 2006 was a clear exercise in manufacturing outrage. Consider:

Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons in September 2005. The widespread protests in majority-Muslim countries that eventually left more than 200 dead did not start until about four months later. Indeed, when an Egyptian newspaper reprinted one cartoon in October 2005 to show readers how a Danish newspaper was portraying the prophet, no backlash was heard in Cairo or elsewhere.

Jytte Klausen, the Danish-born author of the Yale Press's forthcoming book, "Cartoons That Shook the World," recognizes that lag. According to Yale Press's Web site, she argues that Muslim reaction to the cartoons was not spontaneous but, rather, that it was orchestrated "first by those with vested interests in elections in Denmark and Egypt, and later by Islamic extremists seeking to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya, and Nigeria."

I'm perplexed why Klausen agreed -- even "reluctantly" -- to Yale's decision to pull the cartoons. Ironically, she told the Guardian that she wanted to publish the cartoons to make the case "that some of them are Islamophobic, and in the tradition of anti-Semitism" -- the latter a view that would hardly inflame many Muslims.

Yale also cut from the book images of the prophet meant to illustrate the history of the depiction of Muhammad in Ottoman, Persian and Western art. Sunni Muslims observe a prohibition on depictions of the prophet -- but since when has Yale? It says it pulled the images on advice from Islamic and counterterrorism experts that they could incite violence, but at least one author and expert on Islam, Reza Aslan, has criticized the move as "idiotic" (he also retracted a blurb he had written in support of the book).

The cowardice shown by Yale Press recognizes none of the nuance that filled my conversations in Copenhagen nor discussions I had with Muslims in Qatar and Egypt during the controversy. Many told me they were dismayed at the double standards that stoked rage at these Danish cartoons yet did not question silence at anti-Semitic and racist cartoons in the region's media.

Does Yale realize that it has proven what Flemming Rose said was his original intent in commissioning the cartoons -- that artists were self-censoring out of fear of Muslim radicals?

Yale has sided with the various Muslim dictators and radical groups that used the cartoons to "prove" who could best "defend" Muhammad against the Danes and, by extension, burnish their Islamic credentials. Those same dictators and radicals who complained of the offense to the prophet's memory were blind to the greater offense they committed in their disregard for human life. (Indeed, some of those protesters even held banners that said, "Behead those who offend the prophet.")

When a group of Danish imams flew to the Middle East in late 2005 with "offending images" of the prophet -- some cartoons from the controversy and other images taken from the Web sites of extremist groups -- the timing was ripe for the bandwagon of outrage to roll: The Muslim Brotherhood had become the largest opposition group in the Egyptian parliament. In January 2006, Hamas had just won the Palestinian elections.

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.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born commentator based in New York, writes and lectures on Arab and Muslim issues. She is a columnist for the Danish newspaper Politiken. Her e-mail address is info@monaeltahawy.com.

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