Yale University Press’ Capitulation

August 13, 2009

Yale University Press, in effect, gave into barely disguised threats masquerading as “advice” by agreeing not to include cartoons of Muhammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in early 2006, in a book to be published later this year, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” that treats the entire episode and subsequent riots that left 200 people dead. It appears that Yale U.P. consulted “two dozen authorities including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism”, and the experts predictably advised against publishing not only the cartoons but any depictions of Muhammad. One of the “experts” consulted was Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations and former foreign minister of Nigeria, who said, “You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria”. It is not clear exactly what Mr Gambari’s field of expertise is- I have never seen any article of note or book on Islam from his pen- but his words sounded almost like intimidation rather than “advice”.

We do not need the Ayatollahs when we have our own publishing housesdoing the work of censorship, and thereby betraying one of the main principles of democracy: freedom of thought and speech, which Yale should be proudly defending. And also, thereby, emboldening religious fanatics: threats work, is the lesson they will draw from Yale’s disgraceful behaviour. The Ayatollahs may object to the cartoons but they do not object to the depiction of Muhammad. Many shops in Tehran sell posters of the Prophet; the dress, pose, and composition copied, strangely enough, from ilustrations of the [Christian] Bible, painted by a minor artist called Harold Copping [1863-1932]. It should be noted with pride that our own Free Inquiry was one of the few magazines in the United States to publish the Muhammad cartoons.

The author of the forthcoming book, Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University, argues that the cartoon protests were organized and manipulated by Muslim extremists who used the affair to try to destabilize various governments in the Islamic World.

The Yale capitulation is nothing new among Western publishers since the Rushdie Affair in 1989. One publisher contracted to bring out Paul Fregosi’s Jihad- a few years before 9/11 went through a similar procedure: it asked Muslims and “experts” their opinion. They all opined pompously that riots wold ensue if Fregosi’s work were published. The publisher broke off the contract. I went to see Fregosi in London, and persuaded him to submit his book to Prometheus, who eventually published it: there were no riots. On the contrary, Prometheus did well out of it especially after 9/11.

Are we to submit all our books to Muslims before we publish hem? Why are Muslims’ sensibilities more important than anyone else’s? What of the sensibilities of the rest of us? What about the claims of Clio-the Muse of History? What about the Truth?