DOHA, QATAR - It is a row that gives new meaning to the phrase, “publish and be damned.”
The convulsion of outrage across the Muslim world over the publication of editorial cartoons deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad is another reminder of the essential disconnect in perceptions that continues to drive the rift between the West and the Muslim world.
Beyond that, it also underscores the differences in how Western and Arab journalists see their role in society. “Europe joins ‘Crusade,’” declared a front-page headline in The Peninsula in Qatar, employing a term that resonates with those Muslims who see many Western actions as an extension of the thousand-year-old conflict between Christianity and Islam.
By week’s end, the controversy was shaping up to be a more modern clash between free speech and cultural respect. “Imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of different religions. What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak, even to come and go?” asked France Soir, one of several European publications that fueled the uproar on Wednesday by republishing the controversial cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper last September.
“We would have done exactly the same thing if it had been a pope, rabbi or priest caricature,” wrote Editor in Chief Serge Faubert in Thursday’s editions of France Soir.”We had no desire to add oil to the fire as some may think. A fundamental principle of democracy and secularism is being threatened.”
(According to the Washington Post, Faubert spoke out in defiance after the Egyptian publisher of France Soir fired the paper’s managing editor, Jacques LeFranc, late Wednesday night, saying, “We present our regrets to the Muslim community and to all people who have been shocked or made indignant by this publication.”)
In Egypt itself, the editor-in-chief of Egypt’s state-owned Al Gomhuriya, shot back, “It is not a question of freedom of opinion or belief, it is a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims which has been in the works for years.”
The controversy broke as journalists from around the world gathered here in Qatar for a conference organized by the al-Jazeera television network entitled, “Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility.” Several Western news executives found themselves scrambling to manage those very issues in real-time. The head of news for global satellite channel BBC World, Richard Porter, fielded a barrage of emails from deputies in London between sessions, despite the fact that the channel had opted to broadcast pixilated images of the cartoons in its coverage.
Google’s news manager, Nathan Stoll, faced a different problem: Computerized algorithms, not human editors, choose what stories appear on Google News, and the offensive images kept popping up on the site, producing a torrent of protest from offended Muslims around the world.
For many in the West, the dramatic response to publication of the cartoons — protest rallies, death threats, economic boycotts, the severing of diplomatic relations — seems a staggering overreaction. Distance from Western media centers adds a degree of perspective. “I don’t think I would have understood why people were so angry about this if I hadn’t been here to talk with them myself,” said one European-based British reporter.
Western reporting of the Middle East took a bashing throughout the al-Jazeera conference. And the cartoon controversy drove home the difference in approaches that define Western and Arab journalism today.
“When I insult your religion or your feelings it is crossing the limits of freedom of expression,” Salama Ahmed Salama, Egypt’s most respected columnist, told me over breakfast one morning. “For many Europeans, such things are not so important, but here religion is a daily food and we cannot just accept this.
Not all Arab journalists condemned their European counterparts. Al-Shihan, a Jordanian gossip tabloid, published the offending cartoons. “Muslims of the world, be reasonable,” pleaded editor-in-chief Jihad Momani. The parent company quickly pulled the issue and sacked the editor.
“Freedom of expression is only half of the truth,” Rashid Khashana, Tunis correspondent for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, told me. “The second part is that we must respect things sacred for Christians, Muslims and Jews.
If people in the West are having a hard time understanding why Muslims are so angry, the public — and journalists — in this part of the world see yet another example of Western double-standards.
Europe has laws against anti-Semitism and a writer who denied the existence of the Holocaust was recently put on trial, yet newspapers claim free speech is at stake in the cartoon controversy.
“What is allowed for Jews is not allowed for Muslims,” Muhammed Al Musfir, the former chief editor of Qatar’s al Rayah newspaper told the al-Jazeera conference, referring to Western media “anger” over Hamas’ election triumph in Palestine and media “celebration” of earlier Likud victories. “It’s a double-standard,” said another reporter in the audience, referring to the cartoons. “If this is freedom of expression, why can’t the same standard be applied to the Holocaust?”
Many Arab journalists I spoke to have little doubt that extremist Muslim forces are exploiting the cartoon controversy for their own ends at a time when Islamist parties are flexing their muscles after election victories in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. That’s what makes what one called the “stupidity” of those papers that republished the cartoons so chilling. Western reporters are already fair game for the most extreme elements, as the kidnapping of reporter Jill Carroll in Iraq demonstrates. The cartoon controversy could make things even worse.
“If Muslims had executed Salman Rushdie, others would not dare insult Islam,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah told a rally in Beirut, referring to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against the British writer for his novel Satanic Verses. Even the Chechen rebel leader responsible for the massacre of children at Beslan has weighed in, calling for a meeting of mujahideen to “study the measures that must be taken.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders have warned that by publishing the cartoons, the Western media is playing into the hands of the extremists, “providing further excuses to the forces of radicalism and terrorism.” Unlike many people on the street here, most Arab journalists recognize that the Western media as a whole should not be condemned for the decision by a few newspapers to run the offensive cartoons. But they, too, fear everyone will pay. As al-Ahram’s Salama told me, “We have a saying in Arabic. Children make it and grownups fall in it.”
Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo. His new book, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas, is being published this month.