Notes & Comments November 2009
Yale & the veil
On Islamist pressure in New Haven.
Yale & the veil -->
In September, we reported in this space on the controversy over the decision by Yale University Press to censor Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons That Shook the World. The cartoons at issue, of course, are the now-famous caricatures of Muhammad that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. As we noted, Yale’s iconoclasm went further. Not only did it insist that a book about the Danish cartoons be published without the cartoons—more or less like publishing a study of the Mona Lisa without deigning to include an illustration of the painting—Yale also insisted that Professor Klausen omit various other artistic and historical representations of Muhammad, e.g., an illustration by Gustave Doré of a scene in the Divine Comedy.
Yale’s deplorable behavior was a double capitulation. Terrified of being charged with “Islamophobia,” Yale administrators capitulated, first, to the forces of politically correct multiculturalism. But Yale’s behavior was also a capitulation in a deeper and finally more troubling sense: to the insidious pressure of Islamification—the pressure, that is, to define the debate in terms dictated by Islam. Although both dimensions of Yale’s capitulation attracted widespread obloquy, it was Yale’s assault on free speech that drew the most pointed and extensive criticism. Cary Nelson, the President of the American Association of University Professors, spoke for many when, in an open letter titled “Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press,” he rightly thundered, “We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.”
In response to the barrage of criticism, the YUP—prodded by the Yale University administration (president pro tem. Richard C. Levin)—circled the wagons. Unnamed “experts,” the administration said, had “unanimously” advised against including the cartoons that were the subject of the book.
As it turned out, that panel of “experts” was not unanimous—a fact that we believe Yale has yet to acknowledge. And the proffered reason for the censorship—that it might incite yet more violence among adherents of “the religion of peace”—appeared to be little more than a pretext. We do not, nota bene, positively assert that there would not have been violence had the book been published as Professor Klausen had intended. After all, you can never tell what will goad Islamists into reaching for their scimitars. It is part of Professor Klausen’s argument to show how various Islamic radicals fanned the flames of hatred to produce a wave of violence against Danish interests some months after the original publication of the cartoons (how amazing that Islamists the world over suddenly had access to Danish flags to burn). In the end, that episode saw not only the torching of several Danish embassies but also the murder, all told, of some two hundred people.
Or consider (to pick another instance at random) the Miss World contest for 2002. That pageant was supposed to take place in Nigeria. But a Nigerian journalist, casting an eye over the contestants, cheerfully suggested that Muhammad might have liked to marry one of them (only one?). Bad move! Enraged Muslims (Why does that seem like a pleonasm?) rioted. They destroyed the offices of the paper that published the supposed calumny, and then proceeded to kill some five hundred people, ripping Christian women and children from cars and burning them. When the rampage was over, another thousand-odd were left injured and twelve thousand homeless.
A touchy bunch, these apostles of peace. Of course, that was in 2002. Fast forward to … yesterday. In London, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest against the UK’s decision to allow Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician and filmmaker, to visit the country. In a widely disseminated video, some of the ringleaders are interviewed. The burden of their remarks, repeated with “damnable iteration,” is that the penalty for insulting Muhammad is death. One suggested that Mr. Wilders dismiss the police and come outside to “face the Muslims.” Then, like Theo van Gogh, who was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004 by Muslims, Geert Wilders would understand what happens to those who dare criticize Islam. Wilders’s primary sin was making the movie Fitna, which condemns Islam for its violence against non-believers and women. The irony of the response seems lost on the sequacious rabble calling for his head.
So, was Yale’s decision to bowdlerize Jytte Klausen’s book justified? No. For one thing, this is (still) a free society. The spectacle of a major university press engaging in preemptive censorship because a group of radicals might take offense is not just cowardly, it blights the very roots of freedom by substituting expediency for truth. That’s not all. As we noted in September, Yale’s recourse to the “threats-of-violence” trope is the opposite of convincing. Yale really does seem to be afraid of offending Muslims. But not because of any threats of violence—there were none. The unspoken threat that really worries Yale concerns money, not mayhem.
In September, we outlined some of Yale’s interests involving Arab support. The Middle East specialist Martin Kramer subsequently pointed out that a new Yale World Fellow this autumn is Muna AbuSulayman, executive director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, which is planning to invest some $100 million to create centers on American universities to promote “Muslim-Christian understanding.” Yale was in contention a few years ago when Harvard and Georgetown each snapped up a cool $20 million. The Bulldogs didn’t prevail that time, but President Richard Levin has clearly been in training for a second round.
Among his initiatives was inviting Queen Rania of Jordan to Yale for a public chat with him in conjunction with Yale’s presentation of a traveling art exhibition (on view until December 12) called “Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World.” To forestall any misconception, let us explain that this exhibition is not meant to criticize the veil and assorted haberdashery in Islamic society (the burqa, hijab, niqab, and other emblems of women’s status as chattel in many Islamic societies). On the contrary, the exhibition—what President Levin apostrophized as a “magnificent” show—is intended to “combat” what the curators see as “misperceptions about the Muslim world and Arab nations” by the West. Item: a silkscreen by Leila Shawa, a Palestinian artist living in London, that “superimposes a United Nations resolution that established a special committee to investigate Israeli practices in occupied territories with the image of rubble, possibly a destroyed home.” Get it?
As the writer Diana West noted at her website dianawest.net, President Levin took the occasion of Queen Rania’s visit to celebrate Yale’s crescent Islamicization:
Yale’s new Modern Middle Eastern Studies Major, eight new faculty members in the field, the recent Ramadan banquet in the Commons, the new “coordinator of Muslim life for the University” (whom he didn’t mention but could have), all in order to make the case that “Yale is a place where Muslim scholars and students are welcome and embraced with respect.”
You betcha. But Ms. West was right to call attention to President Levin’s use of the word “respect.” Surely, she points out, it is an odd word to use about an ideology that does not
“respect” in return the equal rights of non-Muslims or women, let alone freedom of conscience and speech. In President Levin’s usage, however, embracing with “respect” really means embracing without question—taking an Islamic point of view about Islam. If “Islam” means “submission,” then “respect” is surely part of a submissive attitude toward it.
Ms. West goes on to note that Jordan is the only Muslim country where a majority harbors positive feelings about the anti-Semitic terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, while 95 percent of Jordanians register an unfavorable opinion of Jews (who are not, she points out, even allowed to own land in Jordan). Jordan’s prosecutor general has asked for the extradition of twelve Europeans, including Geert Wilders and Kurt Westergaard, the seventy-four-year-old artist responsible for one of the most frequently reproduced “Danish cartoons.” As it happens, Mr. Westergaard, who lives under a death threat from Islamists, was invited to a small forum at Yale within a week of Queen Rania’s triumph. But there was no Presidential greeting for him, no university-wide welcome and video, only strict security and the dismal protests of Muslim students at Yale who loudly objected to Westergaard’s very presence in their midst.
Queen Rania is a charming speaker and a very attractive woman—a sort of Princess Diana of the Arab world. Her speech, available online at Yale’s web site, was an amalgam of humanitarian clichés (Desmond Tutu, “the children,” our responsibilities as “global citizens,” etc.) undergirded by a current of anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian sentiment. She is an able rhetor. First, she declared the absurdity of assigning blame when discussing “the Palestinian issue”: that got many people on her side. Then she went on to speak of “the Occupation”—i.e., the state of Israel—and provided the audience with many touching descriptions of Palestinian suffering. She was particularly moving about the Palestinians who were “kicked out of the homes” in which their families had lived for “generations.”
Given this ostentatious concern for human suffering, you might have thought she would have dilated on (or at least mentioned) the events of September 1970—“Black September”—in which her father-in-law King Hussein of Jordan violently put down the Palestinian uprising in his country, killing thousands and driving thousands more into exile in Lebanon. Israel is not the only country in the Middle East for which “the Palestinian issue” has been a problem, but that’s a sliver of history you won’t hear repeated in Arab circles. It figured not at all in Queen Rania’s remarks.
Judging by the applause that greeted Queen Rania’s speech, the Yale audience loved it. For his part, President Levin responded with a grinning orgy of praise for her Majesty’s “inspiring” remarks. So many bromides in so short a time! It was a speech worthy of an Ivy-League university president. But contrast the airy nostrums pronounced by Queen Rania with the reality of Jordan as a political actor in the world. Then contemplate President Levin’s gushing commendation of everything he heard and his utter silence when Kurt Westergaard visited Yale. “Listening to President Levin,” Diana West wrote, “put me in mind of a university president in the 1930s praising the propaganda of an attractive young Nazi apologist. It is an act of moral depravity of historic proportions.” Harsh? Yes. Inaccurate? We fear not.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 3, on page 1
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