Satanic or Silly: Does Yale Press Censorship of Cartoons Insult Muslims?

Two decades ago, the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses caused a tsunami of protest in the Muslim world. The author was forced into hiding for nearly a decade after Ayatollah Khomeini called on Muslims to kill him and his publishers. Rushdie was accused of blasphemy, both for slandering the prophet Muhammad by subverting his character to Mahound (a medieval English term synonymous with the devil) and for reducing the holy city of Mecca to Jahiliya (a term used by Muslims to refer to the pagan past of Arabia). It was only a novel, but the fact that it was written by an Indian-born Muslim and published in the West was enough to frustrate even moderate Muslims.

Academic books rarely cause riots in the streets, but a forthcoming study on the recent Danish cartoon controversy may come close. At least this is the conclusion reached by Yale University Press, which consulted two dozen academic and diplomatic authorities on the likelihood of violence before making the decision to remove the negative cartoon images of Muhammad from The Cartoons That Shook the World. Brandeis University Professor Jytte Klausen, author of the scholarly assessment of the affair and the issue of depicting the prophet Muhammad, has reluctantly decided to accept the publisher’s censorship; even the removal of illustrations that have previously not been seen as controversial. While the publicity generated will no doubt boost sales, the author’s argument may be overshadowed by the assertions, pro and con, about potentially violent reactions by Muslims against the United States.

Klausen argues that protests over the original cartoons in 2005 and 2006 were orchestrated by Muslim extremists with the political goal of destabilizing regimes in a number of Muslim countries. It appears that the experts consulted by Yale University Press have accepted this argument, including the prediction by a former foreign minister of Nigeria that publishing the images would cause riots from Indonesia to Nigeria; a repeat of the previous protests that led to a boycott of Danish products, attacks on Danish embassies, and a number of deaths.

Last month in the New York Times, however, Reza Aslan countered that the controversy over the cartoons has died out and that in any case, there never was any violence over them in the United States. I agree with Aslan that the novelty of the cartoon depictions, which were intended to irritate Muslims, has worn thin by now—the Saudis, to take just one example, are once again importing Danish butter. Indeed, the images are readily available online anywhere in the world through a simple Google search, and sites like Mohammed Image Archive make far more offensive images than the dozen Danish cartoons readily available.

The cautious reaction by Yale University Press is understandable, but I find the rationale troubling, as it assumes that Muslims extremists await any new pretext to spur violence and that “moderate” Muslims are at their mercy. Given the ongoing United States military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, drone bombings in Pakistan and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, there are far more relevant pretexts available than an Ivy League book that may not even warrant review in major newspapers. The peddlers of Islamophobia in the media, popular trade books, and blogs would have us believe that radical extremists are lurking everywhere just waiting for an excuse to promote violence. To suggest that deadly protest over these images can be rekindled by a book that attempts to explain the whole affair in academic prose is an insult to the vast majority of Muslims, especially those in the United States.

Reaction by Muslims to visual images of the prophet Muhammad is not uniform, nor has it ever been. Predicting how Muslims will respond to images already widely distributed and discussed is not very helpful. Intolerant extremists like the Afghan Taliban banned much more than images of Muhammad, but many earlier Muslims depicted their prophet in drawings out of reverence; Islamic manuscripts before the 17th century did, in fact, portray Muhammad; at times in full and otherwise with his face whited out or veiled. Most Muslim scholars today condemn the illustrating of the physical features of Muhammad, but mainstream interpreters do not call for death threats against those who make such images. Muslims, like members of other faiths, express their displeasure in a number of ways over those who belittle their prophet. In 2008, for example, a petition was circulated online to remove a 17th-century Ottoman manuscript image of Muhammad from the Wikipedia article on the prophet. Despite accumulating over 455,000 signatures and the Wikipedia community’s refusal to remove the illustration, still no violent acts have resulted.

Lost in the debate is the original intent of the prohibition. Jews and Christians should remember that the children of Israel were commanded not to make “graven images” or “any likeness” of anything in the sky, on Earth, or in the water (Exodus 20:4)—though both faiths buried their iconoclasm a long time ago. The purpose of the ban was clear: since there was no other God, no one should make idols to worship. While some Protestants still rail at Catholics and Orthodox Christians for veneration of their icons and statues, the image of Jesus on the cross is ubiquitous in most churches. Islam as a strict monotheism rejects the worship of any other gods, but modern Muslims are no less interested in visual art and photography than their Jewish and Christian counterparts.

The Danish cartoons, like The Satanic Verses, angered Muslims because both were seen as deliberate attempts to denigrate the prophet of Islam. I doubt a major university press would censor quoted excerpts from Rushdie’s book in a literary analysis of that book, despite the furor that the original publication unleashed. I view Yale’s decision as pragmatic, following the advice they sought, rather than cowardice or giving into political correctness. Anyone who has not seen the original cartoons can view them after a few mouse clicks, so contextual appreciation of Klausen’s book is not compromised.

The main problem is not over the images—whether viewed as Satanic or silly—but with the lingering fear many Americans have of Islam. Fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic scenarios cast Muslims in the service of the Antichrist; Islamophobic films are obsessively distributed to create even more fear on college campuses; and major bookstore shelves are stocked with poorly-researched books warning about the dangers posed to modernity by Islam. We have more to fear from these fears than from a set of outdated cartoons.