A good cartoon ought to make its reader shake with laughter, but that was neither the intention nor the effect of the twelve cartoons depicting “the face of Muhammad,” published by the Danish newspaper Jylsend-Posten in September 2005. Over the course of five months, the cartoons became the impetus for Muslim protests and riots across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East that ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than two hundred people. The cartoons stood at the center of what seemed to be a monumental clash between the West’s reverential respect for free speech and Muslim piety.
And now they stand at the center of the meticulously researched new book The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University. Well, figuratively speaking. The cartoons, in fact, don’t stand anywhere in the book—front, center, or back—because just before the book went to press, Yale University president Richard Levin and Yale University Press pulled the twelve cartoons as well as several other depictions of the prophet—including Gustave Doré’s illustration to Dante’s Inferno depicting Muhammad burning in hell. (The New York Times reported this at the time the press made its decision and Roger Kimball has done a good job covering the story since.) The publisher says it made the decision to delete the illustrations after consulting “extensively with experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields,” whose overwhelming judgment was that republishing the cartoons ran “a serious risk of instigating violence.”
In other words, Yale felt that they would be culpable for other people’s violent reaction to the book, a classic example of the battered wife syndrome. As Australian theologian Mark Durie described it in a recent talk on efforts to penalize critical speech about Islam: “If there’s anything critical said about Islam, we’ll be attacked and it will be our fault. . . . You’ve been abusing me and it is my fault.” To which the response must be given: “Yale, it is not your fault.” It is, instead the imperative of the university to promote the free circulation of ideas essential for the discovery of truth.
Yale’s decision not only goes against this imperative, it also makes for some awkward passages in the text. Klausen is forced to describe all twelve of the cartoons with no visual aid. An example: “[The] cartoon depicts Muhammad with a Semitic nose and an unruly gray beard but equips the Prophet with a menacing sword. The sword is used simultaneously to threaten the viewer and to hold back two apparently pretty, though veiled, young women.” She also reminds the reader repeatedly in the introduction and first chapter that the cartoons can be found easily on the Internet. One suspects that Klausen’s judgment of Border Books’ decision not to distribute a magazine that republished the cartoons also sums up her feelings about Yale: “It was a meaningless gesture because the images were at the time freely available over the Internet. It was also a misinterpretation of what angered Muslims about the cartoons and an unwise decision for other reasons.”
The Cartoons That Shook the World—even sans cartoons—offers a good analysis of the events following the original publication of the twelve cartoons in the Jylsend-Posten that caused the escalation of conflict that became the “Cartoon Crisis.” While the cartoons gave the protests that took place in London, Copenhagen, Beirut, Damascus, and elsewhere a patina of uniformity, Klausen argues that the Muslim outcry over the cartoons was no spontaneous and unified social movement. It was, rather, the result of a confluence of particular interests: The governments of some Muslim countries, like Egypt, saw the cartoons as an opportunity to defend some of their own domestic practices oft criticized by Western nations.
Radical extremists yoked the cartoons to their larger complaints against “Zionist-Crusader nations”—protestors in Peshawar carried posters with George W. Bush’s face—and against their own governments. And Muslim organizations like the Organization of the Islamic Conference sought to influence international debates about human rights. In this endeavor they have had sizable success. One immediate product of the effort was the OIC’s Islamaphobia Observatory, which monitors purported incidents of Islamaphobia in Europe and reports them annually to the United Nations, and just this year the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution proposed by the OIC to condemn defamation of religion, particularly Islam, which “is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”
Klausen does an excellent job of untangling the facts and identifying the actors involved in the Cartoon Crisis and aptly shows that the global Muslim protests were not a unified reaction to the breaking of a taboo. But she doesn’t quite succeed in debunking the “clash of civilizations” explanation. Whether because the cartoons broke a qur’anic prohibition of depicting Muhammad or because they were disrespectful of him, Muslims did believe that they had a to demand such cartoons not be published, a right that should trump free speech.
What Westerners saw as simply derogatory, Muslims saw as defamation. Dr. Mark Durie discussed this in a talk at the Hudson Institute last month, arguing that Muslims’ objections to criticism of Islam and Muhammad are, at base, theological: Muhammad himself interpreted criticism and mockery of Islam as persecution of Muslims, and his life is the theological bedrock of Islam. There is no distinction for Muslims between criticism of Islam and criticism of the people who hold that faith. Such a position must necessarily conflict with the Western view that there cannot be, in the words of Salman Rushdie, “fences erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes, or beliefs.”
Meghan Duke is a junior fellow at First Things.