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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Maestro of Dissent: A radical proposal: Advocating cartoon freedom

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot

On Mar. 15, HBO aired an episode of its series “Big Love,” which depicted temple rituals that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regard as sacred. For members of my faith, the temple is a place where individuals receive holy covenants, which are not spoken about outside of the temple. It is a centerpiece of our faith and deeply revered. Many members were outraged by the episode and some spoke about organizing boycotts of HBO and Time Warner. The church released a statement a week before the airing of the episode saying that it did not support boycotts because they could only engender additional attention and increased audiences for the series. The church urged members to conduct themselves with dignity and thoughtfulness and that such conduct would reflect the “strength and maturity of Church members today.” Most importantly, in its statement the church reiterated “This isn’t 1830, and there aren’t just six of us anymore,” and that as a church with “a global membership of thirteen and a half million there is no need to feel defensive when the Church is moving forward so rapidly.”

The maturity of this response struck me even more strongly as I once again reflected over the violence and mayhem provoked by the publication of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. Even more than four years later, one of our major academic presses, that of Yale University, was still willing to censor Professor Jytte Klausen’s (POL) book that studied the cartoon controversy in a scholarly light.

Yale reportedly consulted experts which, when only shown the images out of context and not with the academic work, declared that Muslims around the world could not help but react to the images with violence. The expert consensus and Yale’s decision, aside from being dangerous to free speech, is utterly patronizing and insulting to Muslims and views a faith of 1.2 billion adherents as immature and perpetually irrational.

I was very disappointed by the campus response to the censorship. People argued that Muslims would inevitably respond violently to this sort of provocation and that the blood would be on Yale’s hands. Violent uproars are never inevitable and blood, if any, would be solely on the hands of extremists that try to distort the debate and draw attention to their hate-filled rhetoric.

Hearing Professor Klausen speak Tuesday about her extensive travels throughout the world, carrying a folder with the 12 purportedly incendiary Danish Muhammad cartoons as she spoke to Muslim, Middle Eastern, and European leaders underlined the absurdity of Yale’s decision to censor her book.

Clearly, the amount of intensive research required in order to compile the book reveals that at the very least, the climate is currently stable enough for serious academic research. Just as Klausen was able to conduct her research inconspicuously, it is unlikely that a relatively obscure academic work would have set off protests or any sort of violence. At the very least, it has become clear that there were no active threats and that Yale Press was merely responding to the illusory specter of political correctness.

Likewise, Klausen’s research uncovered the fact that Muslim leaders initially responded to the controversy with moderation and reason. Diplomats from Arab countries attempted to engage in intergovernmental conflict resolution. Danish Muslims attempted to use legal means—though I think blasphemy and hate speech laws are regressive and need to be overturned—to try to get back at the cartoonists. For several months after publication, civility reigned. At the talk, Professor Joseph Lumbard (NEJS) pointed out moderate statements put out by Arab governments just several days before the major flare up of violence. At first, the flare-up seemed like a very reasonable discussion over the extent of free speech and limits of tolerance.

As Klausen has revealed in her book and spoke about on Tuesday, radicals then began to use the cartoons as a tool to further their pre-existing agendas. Although America had no involvement, cartoon protests took an anti-American tone. Likewise, violence emerged in regions already torn apart by civil war and conflict. Extremism was magnified and dominated the story.

Unfortunately, several years later all we remember is the extremism and chaos. Anti-Islamic writers such as Daniel Pipes have had a field day over the incident using it as an excuse to argue that Islam is incompatible with Western liberal democracy. The radicals have been allowed to frame the context and obscure a reasonable debate. Yale University Press’ decision continues to reward the most extreme elements by precluding any real discussion beyond the realm of terror-induced paranoia. Worse, Yale is submitting its decision-making to the whims of violent extremism.

As such, Yale’s actions only further the completely wrong lessons to be learned from the incident. Instead of trying to work with moderate Muslims to strengthen interfaith dialogue and reduce misunderstanding, we are appeasing extremists that need not be placated and assuming that they speak for all Muslims. We should be adamantly opposing Yale’s choice because we should not allow extremists define our discourse. Muslims in the Western world deserve a chance to analyze what went wrong, and to learn how to respond to similar incidents.

I urge all those that have been silent up to this point to get involved. This is not just about 12 cartoons, but about a major academic institution allowing its decisions to be hijacked. The Student Union should pass a measure in support of the freedom of Klausen and opposed to the backhanded policies of Yale.

Students should write critical letters to Yale which may have a significant impact. Professors in all departments should stand up even more clearly with their fellow colleagues in opposition to such violation of an author’s freedom of speech and association. Yale’s actions violated industry standards and set a new low for inquiry. One does not have to love the cartoons or have animosity towards Islam in order to realize that Yale needs to be vigorously opposed. It is only if we take charge now, that we can transform the legacy of the cartoon saga into one of revival and freedom of expression.