Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Book About Pictures -- Without the Pictures

This fall, Yale University Press will publish, The Cartoons That Shook the World, a book about the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad which caused such a huge -- and deadly -- uproar a few years back. However, the cartoons themselves will not actually appear in the book. In fact, the book will contain no images of Muhammad whatsoever.

This seemingly odd decision was made after the publisher said it consulted with two dozen different authorities on Islam who reached the unanimous conclusion that publishing the cartoons could be inflammatory. The authorities further advised that none of the images of the prophet planned for inclusion, including a print by Dore, an Ottoman image, and an illustration from a children's book, be used.

Not surprisingly, Yale Press's decision has caused a lot of concern, in particular from the book's author, Jytte Klausen, who wondered how her discussion of the cartoons be fully effective if the cartoons themselves weren't shown. In addition, the American Association of University Professors has condemned the press for "acceding to the anticipated demands" of terrorists.

John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, insists that his company does not shy away from publishing controversial material, but after he received such a strong negative reaction from the experts he consulted he decided he did not want to be left with "blood on my hands." And it should also be mentioned that at the time the controversy erupted, a number of news organizations and commentators discussed the cartoons without showing them. Still, this is a serious scholarly work, not a news article. And the cartoons have been shown a number of times over the years, in publications and on websites, without further problem. At any rate, it seems a bit strange that this controversy should emerge so close to the book's publication date; why wasn't this issue resolved at the inception of the project? All in all, it is not a decision that is likely to add to the prestige of one of this country's most famous university presses.

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