Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Might Makes Right

Yale University Press blinks.

by Christopher Caldwell
The Weekly Standard
09/07/2009, Volume 014, Issue 47

During the "cartoon crisis" of early 2006--when mobs in Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere attacked embassies, looted buildings, and murdered bystanders to protest the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten--Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born social scientist and a professor at Brandeis, was less sympathetic to the newspaper than most observers. "This all would have been very well," she wrote in Salon, "if the paper had a long tradition of standing up for fearless artistic expression. But it so happens that three years ago, Jyllands-Posten refused to publish cartoons portraying Jesus, on the grounds that they would offend readers."

Klausen has done serious scholarly work on the attitudes of Europe's Muslim elites. But she was wrong about this. Just because Jyllands-Posten was not neutral in its attitudes towards the world's religions did not deprive it of its right to say what it wanted. Freedom of speech means freedom of speech. It does not mean freedom to be neutral or freedom to be constructive. Even totalitarian societies have that kind of freedom of speech.

And that kind of freedom of speech has now claimed Klausen herself as a victim. Her account of the cartoon crisis is due to be published by Yale University Press (YUP) this fall. It is the product of years of work, and it was supposed to be illustrated. But in July, the press's director, John Donatich; the chair of Yale's Council on Mideast Studies, Marcia Inhorn; and the secretary of the Yale Corporation, Linda Lorimer, all traveled to Boston to let Klausen know that they had consulted a group of experts about her book. It included the Nigerian politician Ibrahim Gambari and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte. (It is a mystery what these people, none of whom read the book, are supposed to be experts in.) The panel warned of violence if the press published the cartoons and counseled against including them.

In fact, they counseled taking out all pictures of Mohammed, including an etching done by the French artist Gustave Doré in the 19th century. This is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the incident. According to YUP's catalogue description of the book (the press would not send THE WEEKLY STANDARD a copy this week), Klausen's thesis is that the cartoon riots were not a "spontaneous" outburst of religious anger. They were orchestrated by extremists to serve particular political ends in Denmark and in the Muslim world. This reading makes sense. But, by not publishing the Doré caricature, Yale leaves the impression that it is Muslims' religious sensibilities, and not extremists' political ones that are at the root of its self-muzzling.

Gustave Dore: Mohammed in Dante's La Divina Commedia (1861)

Of course, an illustrated history of the cartoon crisis which does not include the Danish cartoons themselves is something of a joke. There are lots of important historic episodes in which offensive graphics play a big role. Academic studies of the anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer or of the Ku Klux Klan have published, for illustrative purposes, material that is as offensive as offensive can be. Jyllands-Posten's provocation was not in the same league. It was an experiment in free speech, not an exercise in hatred. Klausen's book, moreover, reproduced only a shot of the spread with the caricatures on it, not the caricatures themselves.

Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement in which he described YUP's position as: "We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands." YUP is not the first institution to do so. The Berlin Opera three years ago canceled a production of Mozart's Idomeneo that included decapitated heads of Muhammad, Jesus, and Buddha.

But was this the whole story? Some of the most probing reporting on the matter has been done by the Islamologist and blogger Martin Kramer, whose short book Ivory Towers on Sand (2001) detailed how large gifts from Saudi Arabia and other oil magnates have eroded academic standards in the Middle Eastern studies departments of American universities. He suggests that fear of violence may not have been the real reason for Yale's demurral. The prospect of a gift from the Saudi decabillionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who has doled out tens of millions to set up sympathetic Islamic Studies centers at select universities, may have played a role. Kramer notes that Muna AbuSulayman, the executive director of Alwaleed's foundation and responsible for setting up mammoth donations to Harvard and Georgetown, will shortly be moving to New Haven, having been named by the university as a "Yale World Fellow."

The Yale editors declare themselves willing to be offensive, as if that were the heart of free speech, but unwilling to risk violence, as if that were a totally separate question which has nothing to do with free speech at all. There was a touching lameness to the explanations Donatich gave the New York Times. He had "never blinked," he said, when it came to publishing controversial books and gave as an example a "recent unauthorized biography of Thailand's current monarch." The message is that if you are offended and threaten violence, we'll obey you. But if, like the Thai royal family, you are offended and don't threaten violence .  .  . Well, there is another way of putting it. Might makes right.

Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.

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