Author Talks Muslim Cartoons

The unique global reach of the 2005 controversy surrounding 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper reflected mounting religious and ethnic tensions in Europe and the Muslim world, said the author of a new book on the subject at a Barker Center talk last night.

“It was a very unusual crisis in that the scope of actors was extraordinary,” said Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen, citing the involvement of European parliaments, presidents, the European Union, the United Nations, pan-Islamic conferences, universities, and religious officials.

Klausen said that she has witnessed the redefining of conservatism in many European countries in a way that increasingly views Islam as a challenge to national identity, the issue of immigration emerging as a source of underlying tension. The Muslim response to the cartoons—according to Klausen—represented the breakpoint of existing hostile attitudes.

“There was a generalized sentiment that enough was enough,” she said. “Muslims were being stereotyped and vilified at a level they found unacceptable. The cartoons were the last drop in a glass that was already pretty filled with bitterness.”

But Klausen stressed that the editorial cartoons were not published with malicious intent and that the editor was only aiming to break taboo, a point that resonated with attendance members.


“It’s interesting that something that seems so benign to one side ends up being such a big deal to the other,” said Freeha Riaz, who attended the event, part of the “Islam in the West” lecture series sponsored by The Harvard Center for European Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Islamic Legal Studies Program, and the Humanities Center.

But, in addition to the uproar surrounding the 2005 editorial cartoons, Klausen’s book, titled “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” has itself emerged as a point of controversy. Yale University Press, the book’s publisher, decided this August to omit the original cartoons for fear of provoking a resurgence in violence. The move drew the ire of the editorial boards of The Washington Post and The New York Post among others. “In effect, Yale University Press is allowing violent extremists to set the terms of free speech,” wrote the Post’s editorial staff. “As an academic press that embraces the university’s motto of ‘Lux et Veritas,’ it should be ashamed.”

“It is a difficult moment for me as an author to see my own book perpetuating misunderstanding,” Klausen said. “In order to grasp why Muslims were upset we need to look directly and discuss. That can’t be done now.”

Some audience members also expressed surprise at Yale’s decision.

“Yale missed the point of [the book] completely,” said John T. Trumpbour, a Harvard Law School staff member who attended the talk.