The Risks of Risk Management in Scholarly Publishing | Peer to Peer Review
Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN -- Library Journal, 08/20/2009
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It seems inconceivable that Yale University Press, or any university press, for that matter, publishing a scholarly book on the Danish newspaper cartoons of Muhammad that sparked violence would decide not to reproduce the images that are the subject of the book for fear it might cause further violence.
Stranger still, the press has decided to remove all images of the prophet from The Cartoons that Shook the World for reasons that are somewhat unclear—partly because they are secret. Even the author was not allowed to read the report of an advisory panel without signing a confidentiality agreement, which she declined to do.
According to the author, Jytte Klausen, "these illustrations were intended to awake the reader to the history of depiction of Muhammad in Ottoman, Persian, and Western art—and to show also how we live with images and do not examine them. Well, they will not be examined this time."
Anatomy of a decision
The Press did not make this decision alone; it consulted the university's administration, which convened an expert panel that issued the confidential report. According to a press release,
The publishing of the book raised the obvious question of whether there remains a serious threat of violence if the cartoons were reprinted in the context of a book about the controversy. The Press asked the University for assistance on this question.
The University consulted both domestic and international experts on behalf of the Press. Among those consulted were counterterrorism officials in the United States and in the United Kingdom, U.S. diplomats who had served as ambassadors in the Middle East, foreign ambassadors from Muslim countries, the top Muslim official at the United Nations, and senior scholars in Islamic studies. The experts with the most insight about the threats of violence repeatedly expressed serious concerns about violence occurring following publication of either the cartoons or other images of the Prophet Muhammad in a book about the cartoons.
Not everyone buys this argument. Some think it's an idiotic decision. The defense made by one scholar—that university press books don't have enough of an audience to spark anything—got an "ouch!" from Tony Sanfilippo of Penn State Press, who concluded "because Yale has such an international reach, maybe they also have a greater responsibility, not just to their staff, but also to scholarship."
Another Muhammad controversy
This reminds me of two other controversial books and their twisted paths to publication. Random House abruptly dropped Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, a romantic historical novel about Aisha, Muhammad's first wife, that the publisher had acquired in a six-figure deal.
The decision came after a pre-publication blurbist said it would be considered deeply offensive by many Muslims. The blurbist later denied the cancellation of the book was her fault, but said that Random had on her advice asked questions and had grown convinced that publication would be dangerous. (In fact, when the book was acquired by a Dutch publisher, his office in London was set on fire.)
What surprised me most was that it apparently never dawned on the editors and publishers involved at Random House that a novel with racy bedroom scenes involving the Prophet might be considered offensive by some. Backing out at the last minute wasn't just cowardice—it illustrated an astonishing lack of cultural competence.
Whether or not to publish a commercial title is one thing; trade publishers are to some extent in the entertainment business, and this novel seems to have been acquired for its commercial rather than literary qualities. (Try Assia Djebar's Far from Madina if you want a fine literary treatment of Aisha's life story.) University presses have a different mission and a different responsibility.
The controversy over Harmful to Minors
Which brings me to my other example, the courageous stance taken by the University of Minnesota Press a few years ago when it published a book considered "radioactive" by trade publishers. Judith Levine's thesis in Harmful to Minors is that the extreme anxiety that we have about teens and sex leads to situations that are more harmful to young people than sex is.
Before it was published, state legislators (who hadn't read the book) called for the press to halt its publication. Talk show hosts weighed in, and citizens suggested the staff should burn in hell and take all copies of the book with them.
An official at the university set up a process to reassess the press's peer review process, a step that some scholars considered "backpedaling." However, unlike with Yale's secret committee of experts, the Minnesota Press's reviewers did not conclude the book should be altered or suppressed and felt that the press had a process that worked very well indeed. The University of Minnesota didn't let fear play the censor. Yale did.
Fear takes hostages
There's no question that causes often take ideas hostage. Discussions about Darwin are hijacked to take positions on secularism or religious freedom, and Darwin's own views are trampled in the fray. Judith Levine's book became a hostage not because of what it said—the hostage-takers hadn't read it—but because the controversy was embraced by both the family values crowd and a fringe group that advocates legalizing sex with minors.
The Danish cartoons, according to the book that Yale is publishing, were deliberately used by vested interests to incite violence. They are a prime example of this kind of hostage-taking , and that's the subject of the book. But the visual evidence has been expunged.
The publisher says we can look the images up on the Internet. (Here they are, linked from Wikipedia.) If they published a book about anything else would they refer readers to the Internet for key primary source evidence? Is the Internet now supposed to shoulder all the risk for us?
When the cartoons were first published, I considered them a direct provocation intended to offend a class of people who are not always welcome in Denmark. They didn't have much value as cartoons, but they certainly had an effect—one that no doubt exceeded the newspaper's expectations.
More than 200 people died in the resulting violence. I don't fault the newspapers that decided not to reprint them when covering the story as it was unfolding. They are offensive images, and it is their public existence, not their artistic insight, that made them controversial.
But scholars should not have to build arguments without primary evidence, or to describe meaning without the images that impart it. It should be understood and accepted that publishing scholarship entails analysis of issues and ideas that are offensive and even dangerous. How else are we going to understand them?
Yale substituted risk management for editorial integrity. Let's hope they don't make a practice of checking with counterterrorism experts the next time they get nervous.
Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.
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