Yale University Press’ decision to publish Jytte Klausen’s upcoming book on the Danish Cartoon Crisis, The Cartoons that Shook the World, without reproductions of the cartoons themselves is distressing news. In its press release, the Press expresses concern that including them would risk triggering new episodes of violence and they cite consultation with a number of experts to back up their decision.
Apparently, however, the opinion of these experts was not as unanimous as the press suggests and although such events as the 2008 bombing of the Danish embassy in Islamabad was carried out with reference to the cartoons, there has not been much reaction traceable to subsequent publications of the cartoons since the initial flareup. The Press’ decision appears first and foremost one of apprehension rather than the rational, responsible one they want to pass it along as. As the American Association of University Professors express it: “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.”
While I maintain a highly sceptical attitude towards the alleged necessity — not to mention the wisdom — of the initial publication of the cartoons, and while I have only the vaguest idea of how the events are presented in Klausen’s book, it is still alarming to see one of our foremost academic publishers fail so egregiously in maintaining the integrity of their mission to maintain scholarly standards for their publications. A critical work of scholarship that doesn’t include reproductions of the objects of study is an amputated one, just as reporting a story without showing the object of same — as so many newspapers did during the crisis — is flawed journalism. A large part of the people who responded violently to the original publication of the cartoons had never seen them and the Press’ attempt to absolve itself by referring to the fact that they are easily available online contributes to the perpetuation of the pernicious mystery they hold. I won’t go on, since Christopher Hitchens has already expressed it all better than I could.
One thing I wanted to note, however, is the further censorship of imagery depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the book. Apparently, this includes an illustration for a Danish children’s book, an Ottoman print, and the 19th-Century illustration by Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, made for the Dante’s Divine Comedy. I assume the former is from Kåre Bluitgen’s illustrated book on the life of the Prophet that initially prompted Jyllands-Posten to commission the cartoons, and which was subsequently published to a mercifully deafening silence, while the latter is a ubiquitous image from one of the greatest illustrators of the Western tradition.
Both would surely be inflammatory to many Muslims (Bluitgen’s book is an opportunistic piece of partisan hackwork disguised as an unassuming children’s book, Doré’s illustration poignantly conveys not only the Islamophobia of 14th-Century Italy, but that of his own time as well), but they are part of history and censoring them is denying us access to the understanding of the cultural reception of Islam in the West, which has contributed to the widespread animosity between Westerners and Muslims that gave us the crisis in the first place.
Even more depressingly, however, and much less obvious, is the decision to excise the ‘Ottoman print.’ I don’t know what image is referred to, but I have included an example from the 16th Century at the head of this piece. The fact that Muslims, especially in the Ottoman Empire and Persia, would routinely depict the Prophet in seeming contradiction to the prescriptions of the Koran, is evidently lost on many Muslims as well as non-Muslims today. (I remember participating in a panel on the cartoons at Pembroke College here in Cambridge, during the height of the crisis, on which a scholar no less distinguished than Geoffrey Khan categorically maintained that no Muslim had ever depicted the Prophet). But some did, and these illustrations exist and provide a more complex picture of Islamic aniconism than current discourse tends to allow. By suppressing this image, the Press is contributing to the flattening of this discourse and impeding insights that are crucial if we are to transcend these great difficulties of our time.