FOR THE WEEK OF FEB. 06, 2006
Muslim cartoons provoke debate over faith and freedom
Every U.S. newspaper runs editorial cartoons, usually supplementing the work of a staff artist with samples of drawings from elsewhere. Invite pupils to explore the role of opinion page cartoons in stimulating thought, discussion, action and interest in learning more about news topics.
Have students examine several days’ worth of local cartoons to see if they might offend someone because of how people are drawn or how viewpoints are presented. Let them debate the benefits and any drawbacks of editorial page drawings that purposely are instruments of satire or ridicule.
Editors and other press freedom advocates condemn censorship as undemocratic, dangerous and intolerable. Yet good journalists practice self-censorship all the time. Challenge students to list types of photos, words and even opinions that their city’s newspaper voluntarily decides not to print.
Street protests, fires, trade boycotts, diplomatic complaints and other expressions of outrage have spread across the Muslim world from the Middle East to Asia in response to the publication in Europe of a set of editorial page cartoons that show the prophet Muhammad in negative contexts, including as a terrorist. The volatile dispute raises weighty issues involving respect for religious symbols, cultural sensitivity, tolerance, censorship and – at the core of this clash – differences between Western and Islamic values.
The drawings that have become a global flash point originally ran last September in Denmark’s largest daily newspaper, which noted that a Danish author could not find artists to illustrate his book about Muhammad because the Islamic religion prohibits visual images of the prophet. So the paper printed a series of cartoons showing the prophet, along with an opinion page article criticizing self-censorship.
The caricatures by several artists are inflammatory. One shows Muhammad in a bomb-shaped turban; in another he waves a sword; a third has him referring to suicide bombers. The editors at first refused to apologize, saying only that they meant no offense. Last week, amid a tumultuous response that includes death threats and fires at Danish diplomatic sites in Lebanon and Syria, the editors apologized for being provocative – but defended their right to publish the cartoons. Newspapers across Europe ran the cartoons to show solidarity, a move that Egypt’s president warned could spark terrorism. Even a newspaper in Jordan published three of them with an editorial urging Muslims to be reasonable. That paper’s editor soon was fired and arrested. And the pressure builds, with a widening Arab boycott of Scandinavian food and dairy products, plus a withdrawal of ambassadors from Denmark.
Muslims say: Outsiders should not openly violate Islamic law, which says the prophet Muhammad should not be represented visually. “The press is very disrespectful if they see the outrage as Muslims rebuking free press. It’s about respecting our religion,” an American Muslim, Michelle Mashraqi, writes on her blog.
U.S. government says: The cartoons should not be published, although the administration hasn’t directly asked editors to withhold them. “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims,” a State Department spokesman said. "We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” Earlier, former President Bill Clinton condemned the cartoons and voiced concern about anti-Islamic prejudice in the West.
Media defenders say: Protesters using threats and violence are trying to force Westerners to submit to Islamic values that contradict free speech and freedom of the press. “A Danish government can never apologize on behalf of a free and independent newspaper,” Denmark’s prime minister said after meeting a Muslim delegation. A London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, editorialized: "The right to offend within the law remains crucial to our free speech. Muslims who choose to live in the West must accept that we too have a right to our values, and to live according to them." Time magazine essayist Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog: “Free countries do not ban blasphemy. There is a real struggle here between the non-negotiable right of people to write or portray what they think or believe, and the refusal of some religious fanatics to allow them.”
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