The only thing surprising about the decision last week of a distinguished Ivy League university press to, in effect, censor a key element of a book about censorship is how predictable the result was.
The book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” by Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University, deals with the deadly controversy that erupted in 2006 after a Danish newspaper printed 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a satirical way. Muslims in the Mideast and Africa staged violent acts of protest, incensed over what they considered to be a blasphemous act, since Islam forbids images of the prophet. More than 200 people died as a result.
Fearful of causing further violence, Yale University Press, the book’s publisher, consulted with two dozen experts on Islam and counterterrorism as to whether or not the cartoons that set off the riots should be reproduced in the book. The unanimous response was “no,” and extended to other depictions of Muhammad, including a drawing for a children’s book, that were to be included.
One of the experts who was consulted, Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations and former foreign minister of Nigeria, asserted: “You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria.”
How sad that we have come to this stage of cowering fear and self-censorship in the face of fundamentalist bullies. And that’s in the United States, a country far less subject to Islamic fundamentalism than the European continent, and from Yale, whose university motto is the Hebrew “urim v’tumim,” meaning “light and truth.”
Some academics here like Reza Aslan, who writes on Islam, called the move by Yale University Press “frankly, idiotic” and beyond “academic cowardice.” But the fact is that outspoken critics of Islamic extremism have been murdered — most notably, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was stabbed by a young Muslim man for making a film critical of how Islamic women are treated — or threatened with death, like Ayaan Hirsi, the Somali-born Dutch feminist and politician who fled to America.
The director of the Yale University Press, John Danitch, told The New York Times last week that he has never wavered about publishing controversial books, but in this case he did not want blood on his hands.
Thoughtful Americans are looking closely at what some are calling the “revolution” of Islam across Europe, where Muslim immigrants not only are reproducing in far greater number than native Europeans but seem resistant to assimilating into mainstream society. No doubt it is a minority of immigrants who prefer a parallel, insular society, but alarmists warn of the coming of “Eurabia,” a planned takeover of democratic, tolerant and largely passive countries by those advocating Islamic hegemony.
For example, Bernard Lewis, the distinguished Princeton University expert on Islam, writes of a coming clash of civilizations and the possibility of Islamic dominance of Europe.
The issue is highly flammable, touching on immigration, identity, racism, religion, politics and sociology, for starters.
Yehudit Barsky, the American Jewish Committee’s director on Middle East and international terrorism, says our community should be paying close attention to the situation in Europe, and at home. She notes that most American Jews want to see immigrants become part of mainstream society, “but we have to be concerned about extremists” of all kinds in terms of security and “the uptick in recent attacks against Jewish targets in the U.S.”
She points out that while ours is a country of immigrants where people feel comfortable with dual identities, like Italian Americans, Irish Americans and Jewish Americans, that is not so in Europe. Laws in France, for example, prohibit the public display of Muslim garb, creating tensions in schools and elsewhere, some of which have led to riots in the streets.
That effort to impose a national culture on all citizens seems alien to Americans, who are taught to extol diversity as a positive value. That may well be one of the reasons Muslims in this country have been more accepted, and accepting, than their European cousins.
Christopher Caldwell’s new book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West,” is making waves because it builds a reasoned case for concern about Europe’s democratic future. “Caldwell’s account is subtle, but quite honest and forthright in its reading of this history,” wrote Fouad Ajami in his recent review of the book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
He cites Caldwell’s observation that “Islam is a magnificent religion that has also been, at times over the centuries, a glorious and generous culture. But, all cant to the contrary, it is in no sense Europe’s religion and it is in no sense Europe’s culture.”
Some see what is taking place now in Europe, with a dramatic infusion of Muslim immigration, as a testing ground for a clash between Western and Islamic values in the 21st century. They call for greater vigilance and resistance to the newcomer’s demands. Others are confident that the great majority of Muslim immigrants seek to blend in, not dominate, and insist that the path to conciliation must be paved with tolerance.
As usual in dealing with topics of high sensitivity, much of the rhetoric surrounding these issues has produced more heat than light. What is required is more nuance, more putting ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes, and learning how not to repeat Europe’s mistakes
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. His column previously appeared in The Week.)