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This item is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

The American Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) is an agency of the Department of the Treasury whose defensive, and punitive, roles can be traced back to the War of 1812. It ‘administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States’. In May 2014 it passed a regulation forbidding, among a catalogue of other things, American publishers from publishing new books, journal articles, and by extension essays, stories and poems, written by Syrian authors. This prohibition extends to all sorts of publication. OFAC administers sanctions programmes, according to the Treasury website (consulted 3 February 2015), involving ‘the Balkans, Belarus, Burma (Myanmar), Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rough Diamond Trading (Kimberley Process), Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Zimbabwe’.

The mountains laboured and after nine months, on 22 January 2015, the Association of American University Presses, the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishers division, and the PEN American Center delivered a letter to the government demanding that the prohibition be revised. According to common sense, and to attorneys for the group, the blanket interdict on Syrian works in progress and new works, and on ‘substantive or artistic alterations or enhancements’ to existing works, violated the First Amendment to the Constitution and broke federal law. It was also ‘a terrible policy decision’, muzzling not only political spokespersons for the Assad regime but also its opponents and those who resist ISIS, not to mention writers in the arts and sciences engaged in ongoing dialogues and collaborations with colleagues in the United States and around the world.  

The Director of American PEN declared, ‘It would be utterly self-defeating for the Administration to prevent U.S. publishers from releasing the types of works cited in our letter. These include a scholarly article, “Syria in Revolt”, from a prominent Syrian intellectual, an English PEN award-winning anthology from Syrian writers and artists challenging the current culture of violence, medical articles on antibiotic resistance, and other scientific articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals by highly regarded academics.’ Another commentator said, ‘Syrian authors make vital contributions to the advancement of knowledge in numerous scientific fields, including medicine, geology, agriculture, and the study of ancient civilizations. It is imperative that Syrian scientists and doctors continue to be a part of the world community in their fields, and that American scholars continue to be able to collaborate with them.’

In light of the First Amendment, Congress has twice concluded that OFAC has no authority to regulate ‘information or informational materials’. OFAC in response devised a licence so that publishers could enter into transactions ‘necessary and ordinarily incident to’ the publishing and dissemination of literature in its various kinds, with some exceptions. Congress may be called on to speak for a third time. Will a Republican Congress respond?


In New York City, the handsome Appellate Division Courthouse, opened in 1902, overlooks Madison Square. Zoroaster stands on the 25th Street side of the building. Up until sixty years ago the Mexican sculptor Charles Albert Lopez’s eight-foot-tall turbanned, bearded statue of Muhammad, a sword of justice held by the blade in his right hand, a book in his left, occupied this spot on the roof balustrade, alongside nine other lawgivers. During refurbishment Muhammad was lowered and carted off and was last seen in 1983, lying on his side in a grassy wasteland in New Jersey. He is survived by Alfred the Great, Moses, Confucius, Lycurgus, Solon, St Louis, Manu and Justinian.

During the mayorship of Robert Wagner, at the request of the governments of Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt and a number of individual Muslims, Muhammad was removed. The New York Times on 9 April 1955 headlined a front-page story: ‘Mohammed Quits Pedestal Here on Moslem Plea After 50 Years’ (note the then-approved spellings; note the word ‘plea’ rather than ‘demand’). The newspaper went on to comment, ‘Figure paintings and sculpture are prohibited on public, religious and political edifices. […] Pictures or statues of the prophet himself are particularly rare.’ It published a photograph of the statue beside the article.

There was no objection. Twenty years later, however, The New York Times felt it had to apologise for running an image from a fourteenth-century miniature painting in the Jami’ al-Tawarikh manuscript, in which Muhammad receives a revelation from Gabriel. ‘Since it is an affront to Moslems to depict such likenesses, The Times expresses its regrets to those who were offended by the use of the photograph’; though, as it pointed out, it is not the Qur’an that forbids the depiction of figures divine, human and animal but the Sayings of the Prophet, the hadith, where the particular interdict falls on depictions of the creator, not his prophet.

The sensitivity and tact of earlier decades, described by a popular American blogger as ‘mindless, craven cultural relativism’, came to mind in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a collision of two kinds of cultural absolutism, one religious and the other civic. Yet cultural relativism has value: a civic value, as the seven appellate judges who responded to the diplomatic requests in 1955 demonstrated; and a religious value, as Avicenna, Averroes (whom Dante placed in Limbo, rather than in Hell with other infidels), and Fatimid culture in general show. 

This item is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

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