The Chronicle Review

The Book That Shook Yale

Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Palestinian women and children in Gaza City protested the 2005 publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.
September 29, 2009

Late last month, Jytte Klausen, a professor of politics at Brandeis University, addressed a crowded room at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington. She began by reading from the author's statement that appears at the front of her new book, The Cartoons That Shook the World (Yale University Press), to be published this month. An account of the global crisis that erupted in 2005 when a Danish newspaper published 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the book itself was at the center of a crisis this past summer when the press announced it would not reprint the cartoons.

"Muslim scholars, friends, and political activists and leaders urged me to include the cartoons in the book with the purpose of encouraging reasoned analysis and debate on the cartoon episode," the author told her audience. "I agreed with sadness to the press's decision not to print the cartoons and other hitherto uncontroversial illustrations featuring images of the Muslim prophet." Klausen, who has short blond hair and a tight, expressionless face, stopped reading and looked up at the audience. "It is obviously a strange situation for an author to end up becoming another chapter in her own book," she said. "Maybe this happens to novelists, but it usually doesn't happen to social scientists."

Klausen's journey from author to subject began in July, when she was informed by John E. Donatich, director of the Yale press, that all illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad would be removed from her forthcoming book out of concern that they might provoke violence. "I threw up my hands," an obviously incredulous Klausen recalled during a recent interview. Yale's decision, made public in The New York Times in August, has been heatedly debated. "This misguided action established a dangerous precedent that threatens academic and intellectual freedom around the world," warned the National Coalition Against Censorship. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, called the press's action "fundamentally cowardly." Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, withdrew his blurb from the book.

Klausen is plainly exhausted by the controversy. "It has been hard to see the book being sucked into the same polarization that took place around the cartoons." She does not support Sarah Ruden, a poet and classicist who has previously published with Yale, who has called for academics to boycott the press. The press has already suffered, Klausen says. "Why pile it on?"

In conversation, it is clear that Klausen is relieved, at last, to be discussing the substance of her book, a detectivelike narrative that turns on this question: How did 12 drawings in a provincial daily newspaper provoke an international crisis?

The cartoons that challenged the Muslim taboo against pictorial representations of the Prophet Muhammad were published on September 30, 2005, in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. A few of the images did not actually depict Muhammad, while others, like a caricature of the prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban, seemed designed to offend. The pictures appeared with an essay by the culture editor of the newspaper, Flemming Rose, who explained the decision to commission and print the cartoons as a principled response to a disturbing trend toward self-censorship in Europe. He condemned Muslim hypersensitivity. In a free society, Rose wrote, "everybody must be willing to put up with sarcasm, mockery, and ridicule."

Within days of publication, a coalition of four prominent Danish imams called for a retraction and an apology, emphasizing their demands by staging a rally in front of city hall in Copenhagen. After that, the outrage in Denmark seemed to ebb. But six months later, violent street demonstrations against the cartoons broke out in the Middle East and North Africa. Five hundred thousand people turned out to protest the cartoons in Lebanon; a militant organization in Pakistan placed a bounty on the head of the Danish cartoonists; the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference lodged formal complaints with the Danish government; Denmark's consular offices were attacked in some Middle Eastern countries; Scandinavian products were subjected to a global boycott.

Distilling four years of research into a slender volume, Klausen meticulously traces the motivations and misunderstandings that inflamed the events. She interviewed many of the chief protagonists—high-ranking Arab diplomats and government officials, Muslim leaders, and the editors of Jyllands-Posten—and concludes that the affair is Rashomon-like in its complexities and contradictions. "Each understood the facts differently," Klausen writes, "and was poorly equipped to understand the motives that drove the actions of others." The Dutch tended to view the outcry as a challenge to democratic values like free speech, while many Muslims were genuinely aggrieved by what they believed to be blasphemous cartoons. Denmark has legal prohibitions against both blasphemy and racial hate speech.

What were the actual motivations? The protest movement was not a coordinated effort. In fact, it was quite fragmented. Danish mosque activists and other European Muslim associations tried to seek legal redress for what they perceived as the cartoons' Islamophobic derision of their faith; radical extremists seized upon the cartoons in the hopes of destabilizing Western-allied governments in the Muslim world; and those governments—especially in Egypt—looked upon the cartoons as an opportunity to push back against the West, which was pressuring the country to liberalize. By stoking the outrage, Arab governments sent a clear message to America and its allies in Europe: The alternative to our friendly authoritarianism is effigy-burning mobs attacking your embassies. The Danes became a proxy for the larger argument of Arab countries, who "felt squeezed between Western Islamophobia and the pressure to democratize on one side and, on the other side, Muslim radicals."

Cartoon-related violence ultimately claimed at least 200 lives. As a result of the tumult, Klausen says, there has been an uptick in censorship and self-censorship in the West. In December, 2006, for instance, a Berlin opera house canceled a performance of Mozart's opera Idomeneo in which the severed head of Muhammad was to be used as a prop. No protests or threats had been made against the production. Other examples abound, including, now, Klausen's own book.

During the height of the cartoon controversy, one popular retired Danish politician declared that "a little self-censorship is not a bad thing." But when does respect for cultural sensitivities drift into a curb on freedom of speech? What is the proper balance between responsible and free speech? "I don't think free speech gives you license, particularly not as an academic, to say or print anything you want," Klausen says. "As academics we have an obligation to speak on the basis of evidence and facts, but with sensitivity to religious precepts. But those precepts—be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—can't dictate what we do." The removal of the cartoons from her book, she says, violated that commitment to evidence and facts. "Worse," she adds, "this is historical evidence that has been removed from eyesight."