Although I am a believing Muslim, my thoughts about the refusal of Yale University Press to publish Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World - a study of the 2005-06 controversy over the Danish caricatures of the prophet Muhammad - without reproducing the images themselves in the text, have less to do with Islam than with events in which Yale had previously distinguished itself for its boldness and scholarly integrity - especially its starkly different response to the habit of the Stalin regime in Communist Russia in removing pictures of liquidated and otherwise inconvenient personalities from the photographic record.
Excising images of Muhammad, whatever their content, from books on Islam, appears to have the same intent as that of Stalin’s minions - to recast history for the benefit of a perverse ideology. The Nazi regime similarly erased the name of the German Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine from school textbooks, ascribing his poems - among the classics of world literature - to “anonymous” authorship.
Yale’s abominable behavior in this incident, and its mimicry of totalitarian examples, reflects badly on the institution’s immediate past. Yale University Press is well-known for its distinguished series, “Annals of Communism,” in which it published, with commentaries, translations of original documents from the Soviet archives. One of the most important such volumes, Spain Betrayed, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, has been printed in Spanish as well as English, and has thoroughly transformed the historiography of the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. What was once denied - that the Soviets intervened in Spain to subvert the defense of the Spanish Republic - is now proven, thanks to Yale. The “Annals of Communism” also disclosed unquestionable evidence of spying by American Communists. Thus, Yale revealed and restored much valuable information that had been hidden or expurgated by Stalinism. But if Yale was brave about a Soviet legacy with, at least then, little remaining influence, Yale has been cowardly in its encounter with radical Islam. The university press forfeits the credit it accumulated in publishing the “Annals of Communism” by effectively padlocking the annals of Islam.
This moral failure is perhaps understandable, in that Islamist terrorists kill people. But given the extraordinary corruption of Middle East studies in the American academy, such an ethical disaster is not particularly surprising. I am not convinced, however, as some friends and colleagues of mine argue, that Yale was motivated to “Stalinize” Jytte Klausen’s book by an intention to scrounge cash from rich Saudis like the well-known prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The global recession has diminished Saudi economic excesses no less than those of Westerners. Rather, I believe the scandal at Yale has simpler explanations: spinelessness, ignorance, and irresponsibility.
I have been shocked repeatedly, when examining the past habits of Saudi power-brokers in dealing with the U.S., by the cheap price - sometimes no price at all - for which American officials and academics surrendered to Saudi and Wahhabi blandishments. The former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, did not need to throw much money around to get unannounced access to U.S. presidential cabinet meetings. Indeed, Bandar allegedly boasted that while the “Jewish lobby” had to engage in real political mobilization of its friends and supporters, the Saudis gained the silence they sought about their brand of radical Islam, without asking for it. Before September 11, 2001, nobody on the American side said no to them. Disgracefully, Yale has also shown its incapacity to say no to tyranny.
Humanistic universities should exist to protect and disseminate knowledge, not to suppress it in the name of questionable religious norms. Yale has not merely emulated the disciples of Stalin and Hitler, but has imitated the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia who have levelled old Islamic buildings, and the Al-Qaida fanatics in Afghanistan that, with the complicity of the Taliban, demolished the Bamyan Buddha statues. Such an act by Yale represents a significant incursion of radical Islam into the heart of American intellectual life.
In the case of the Danish cartoons, rewriting the past was intended to benefit Saudi Wahhabism, a phenomenon as power-centered, radical, and destructive as Communism and Nazism, and deserving of the provocative term “Islamofascism.”
Other moderate Muslims and I have repeatedly asked why our co-religionists were summoned to protest against the Danish caricatures but are commanded by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists to remain silent in the face of Saudi destruction of the Islamic architectural legacy in the Arabian peninsula. The deliberately-obliterated heritage sites in the Saudi kingdom include the house where Muhammad was born - a matter incomprehensible to non-Muslims and outrageous to non-Wahhabis.
Not all Muslims, however, acquiesce to Saudi vandalism. A mass demonstration against “Wahhabi fascism,” and particularly its devastation of religious monuments, was held at the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington in 2007 and a second is scheduled for later this year [see: http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=090309A, and http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=090509A].
At the time of the original cartoon controversy I published an examination of the issues in The Weekly Standard, available here: [http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/699xftsa.asp]. Author Jytte Klausen participated in a conference on Islam in Europe, cosponsored in 2006 by our organization, CIP, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC [see: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=topics.event_summary&event_id=185188&topic_id=1422]. Though I have yet to read her book, it appears that Professor Klausen’s argument is correct: the murderous protests against the caricatures were deliberately organized by radical clerics, and did not represent spontaneous rage by ordinary Muslims. Those killed in the ensuing riots died in Muslim lands.
The news that Yale had chosen to censor the caricatures, as well as some typical images of Muhammad in Christian art, from Professor Klausen’s book, was accompanied by suggestions that Yale would publish no images of Muslim religious figures in any context.
The Islamic opinion on the depiction of living beings, including Muhammad himself, is not uniform. Many valuable Muslim manuscripts from the classic period depict the prophet. Among Shia Muslims, posters of Imam Ali, Muhammad’s fourth successor or khalifa, as well as of Imam Husayn, the prophet’s grandson, and 10 other Shia imams, are produced, sold, and displayed ubiquitously. Non-Muslims on first seeing them may mistake them for images of the disciples of Jesus.
Religious opinions against such illustrations are not limited to some Muslims; Orthodox Judaism also forbade them as a violation of the Second Commandment, prohibiting the creation of likenesses of any living being, and medieval Jewish books rarely include comparable images. But as shown by the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, some Jews, even then, ignored this convention, to the benefit of religious feeling and artistic excellence.