Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"Commitment to freedom of expression" - Protesting censorship at Yale

No doubt everyone recalls the world-wide ruckus that erupted after satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed were printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005. (For a few more reminders, see here & here & here.) Well, the cartoon wars continue.

Yale University Press is bringing out a book about this controversy, The Cartoons That Shook the World, by the Danish-born political scientist Jytte Klausen. (I haven't read the book, but by all accounts it offers a careful, balanced, well informed, and perceptive analysis.) But in August of this year the Press decided to remove all reproductions of the cartoons themselves--that is, precisely the images central to the book's whole subject--and, for good measure, they also insisted on deleting reproductions of earlier portrayals of Mohammed, both western and Islamic, that Klausen had included for historical perspective. What makes this decision especially stupid is that (as the Director of the Press noted himself) all those images are readily available on the internet and/or elsewhere.

This was an unambiguous case of censoring a scholarly book. To make matters worse, Yale University and the Yale University Press justified this censorship by unapologetically explaining that they were pre-emptively caving in to potential threats of violence by Islamic extremists. In other words, this incident was a victory for censorship by intimidation. And Yale spokespeople didn't quite seem to grasp the fact that it constituted, by the same token, a clear defeat for the most basic principles of freedom of expression, of scholarly inquiry, and of open public discourse.

[...] Yale University and Yale University Press consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What’s more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.

The book’s author, Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., reluctantly accepted Yale University Press’s decision not to publish the cartoons. But she was disturbed by the withdrawal of the other representations of Muhammad. All of those images are widely available, Ms. Klausen said by telephone, adding that “Muslim friends, leaders and activists thought that the incident was misunderstood, so the cartoons needed to be reprinted so we could have a discussion about it.” [....]

Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” is a fan of the book but decided to withdraw his supportive blurb that was to appear in the book after Yale University Press dropped the pictures. The book is “a definitive account of the entire controversy,” he said, “but to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic.”

In Mr. Aslan’s view no danger remains. “The controversy has died out now, anyone who wants to see them can see them,” he said of the cartoons, noting that he has written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction. He added that none of the violence occurred in the United States: “There were people who were annoyed, and what kind of publishing house doesn’t publish something that annoys some people?” [....] "It’s not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary.”

Mr. Donatich [Director of the Yale University Press] said that the images were still provoking unrest as recently as last year when the Danish police arrested three men suspected of trying to kill the artist who drew the cartoon depicting Muhammad’s turban as a bomb. He quoted one of the experts consulted by Yale — Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations and the former foreign minister of Nigeria — as concluding: “You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria.”

Aside from the disagreement about the images, Ms. Klausen said she was also disturbed by Yale’s insistence that she could read a 14-page summary of the consultants’ recommendations only if she signed a confidentiality agreement that forbade her from talking about them. “I perceive it to be a gag order,” she said, after declining to sign. [....]

Ms. Klausen, who is also the author of “The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe,” argued that the cartoon protests were not spontaneous but rather orchestrated demonstrations by extremists in Denmark and Egypt who were trying to influence elections there and by others hoping to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya and Nigeria. The cartoons, she maintained, were a pretext, a way to mobilize dissent in the Muslim world.

Although many Muslims believe the Koran prohibits images of the prophet, Muhammad has been depicted through the centuries in both Islamic and Western art without inciting disturbances.

Rather than sign a joint editor’s note for the book and the removal of the images, Ms. Klausen has requested instead that a statement from her be included. “I agreed,” she said, “to the press’s decision to not print the cartoons and other hitherto uncontroversial illustrations featuring images of the Muslim prophet, with sadness. But I also never intended the book to become another demonstration for or against the cartoons, and hope the book can still serve its intended purpose without illustrations.” [....] “The book’s message,” Ms. Klausen said, “is that we need to calm down and look at this carefully.”

Admittedly, things could have been worse--the Press did publish the book, rather than dropping it entirely--but this victory for censorship by intimidation is bad enough.

What is also alarming is how many people seemed unable or unwilling to grasp why such censorship might be a problem, or why the principles of freedom of expression and of scholarly inquiry might be worth defending. According to the Director of the Press, the recommendation to mutilate Klausen's book by the assembled "experts" was “overwhelming and unanimous." That's a bit worrisome in itself.

And back in 2006, when the cartoon wars were at their height, a lot of people who should have known better showed themselves quite eager to compromise or abandon the principle of freedom of expression, either from simple expediency or on the basis of pseudo-reasonable politically correct sophistries and rationalizations.

=> Apparently not everyone is that clueless, craven, confused, or unprincipled. Mick Hartley alerts us to "a statement of principle, written by Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, and endorsed by fourteen further organisations, [that] accuses Yale of failing to stand up for free speech." See below.

--Jeff Weintraub

Mick Hartley (Politics & Culture)
December 1, 2009
The Commitment to Freedom of Expression

In August, Yale University Press decided to publish Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World without the actual cartoons, citing the possibility that to include them might be seen as "gratuitous", and could lead to "violence that might take the lives of innocent victims".

Now a statement of principle, written by Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, and endorsed by fourteen further organisations, accuses Yale of failing to stand up for free speech:
A number of recent incidents suggest that our long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence. Not only have exhibitions been closed and performances canceled in response to real threats, but the mere possibility that someone, somewhere, might respond with violence has been advanced to justify suppressing words and images, as in the recent decision of Yale University to remove all images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. [...]

The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an academic institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence “somewhere in the world,” it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular.

The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it. It is time for colleges and universities in particular to exercise moral and intellectual leadership. It is incumbent on those responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, will get neither liberty nor safety.
(via MediaWatchWatch)