Monday, February 13, 2006

With great freedom (of the press) come great responsilibity (to be honest)

The ongoing controversy and violence resulting from the last fall publication of political cartoons in a Danish newspaper that portrayed the Muslim prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban at first caught my interest as a free-speech guy. But as I've read more about it, I have for the first time in my life felt a background sense of fear about the future. With so much in common as people--genetically, sociologiaclly, behaviorally--why are individuals and cultures so antagonistic?

Though I have excerpted and paraphrased lots of other writers/thinkers musings and arguments in this blog when it comes to politics, I have never simply cut and pasted someone else's great work. Until now.

Here's a New York Times Op-Ed, a Los Angeles Times article in which the paper interviews an editorial cartoonist living in the United States who is Muslim and a Los Angeles Times media commentary regarding the international furor about the publication of political cartoons that depict the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his or as his turban, among other blasphemous images.

First the New York Times. This is written by Emran Qureshi is a fellow at the Labor and Work Life Program at Harvard Law School.

All italics are mine and color

February 12, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

The Islam the Riots Drowned Out

Cambridge, Mass.

IN a world of wrenching change, the Danish cartoon affair has widened a growing fissure between Islam and the West. The controversy comes at a time when many in the Islamic world view the war on terrorism as a war on Islam. They draw on memories of colonization and of the Crusades, when Western invaders ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad as an imposter.

Sadly, the recent polarization obscures a rich humanistic tradition within Islam — one in which cosmopolitanism, pluralism and a spirit of open-minded inquiry once constituted a dominant ethos.

European Muslims for the most part have protested the Danish cartoons but kept their protests peaceful. That is good. Stigmatized European Muslims are often the targets of right-wing attacks and feel increasingly beleaguered. But the lesson many have learned from this affair has not been the utility of freedom of speech so much as that their continued presence is an affront to European identity.

Within the Muslim world, the cartoon imbroglio has given ammunition to the two entrenched forces for censorship — namely, authoritarian regimes and their Islamic fundamentalist opposition. Both would prefer to silence their critics. By evincing outrage over the Danish cartoons, authoritarian regimes seek to divert attention from their own manifold failures and to bolster their religious credentials against the Islamists who seek to unseat them.

Ironies abound. Saudi Arabia leads the protests, yet is systematically destroying its Islamic heritage. The Wahhabis who dominate Saudi Arabia do not believe in honoring Islam's holy men and women or the Prophet Muhammad (they've proscribed the celebration of his birthday). Driven by sectarian zeal, the Saudi authorities have razed and dug up virtually every site in Mecca and Medina linked to Muhammad, members of his family and his companions.

But these acts of disrespect and desecration have failed to arouse any protest from those who now take to the streets to condemn the Danish cartoons.

Elsewhere, Sunni Muslim fundamentalist leaders express anger over the Danish cartoons, but no comparable indignation over suicide bombers who attacked Shiite Muslim mosques during Ramadan in Iraq. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have been used by fundamentalists to attack Christians and Hindus.

All this is a far cry from the Islamic humanism of Ibn al-Arabi, the Andalusian philosopher and mystic, or of Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet.

Muslim societies have paid a dear price for the militants in their midst. Many of the best and brightest within the Muslim world have had to flee to the West to avoid being silenced or killed. Fazlur Rahman, a brilliant and deeply religious Pakistani scholar of Islam, had to flee his native land for the University of Chicago. Similarly, the Islamic studies scholar Nasr Abu Zayd fled Egyptian Islamists for the Netherlands. Naguib Mahfouz, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was stabbed in the neck in Cairo and barely survived; the Egyptian writer Faraj Foda was not so lucky.

In some Western Muslim quarters, the proposed solution is more censorship — that these cartoons and similar expressions should be banned as hate speech. By that logic, shouldn't Salafist diatribes against Shiites also be banned? Shouldn't the writings of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi and his Jamaat-e-Islami, which were instrumental in persecuting the Ahmadis, a Muslim minority in Pakistan, be banned as well? Maududi's religious writings, best sellers among Muslims in the West, are suffused with an intolerant and anti-Western hue.

No, the answer is not more censorship. But it would be nice if Western champions of freedom of speech didn't trivialize it by deriving pleasure from their ability to gratuitously offend Muslims. They view freedom of speech much as Islamic fundamentalists do — simply as the ability to offend — rather than as the cornerstone of a liberal democratic polity that uses such freedoms wisely and responsibly. Worse, these advocates insist on handing Muslim radicals a platform from which to pose as defenders of the faith against an alleged Western assault on Islam.

Today's Muslim leaders, for their part, seem unable to formulate an ethical response to the challenges of the modern world. Moreover, their actions lead to the stereotyping of Islam. What else is one to conclude from this episode?

The loudest and most murderous forces have chosen to forget the spirit of the Koran, which opens with an invocation of God's mercy and compassion and which repeatedly urges believers to practice patience and kindness. There is something very ugly about the power of the radicals, their recourse to violence, their anti-intellectualism and their ability to trample and blaspheme a more humanistic Islamic tradition.

It is right and proper for Muslims to be offended, to be hurt, to protest. But we should be wary of the authoritarian voices that claim to speak and act in the name of Islam. The answer is not more violence and censorship, but rather peace, mercy and compassion.

Emran Qureshi is a fellow at the Labor and Work Life Program at Harvard Law School.

February 9, 2006

Muslim Artist Draws Line on Cartoons;
Khali Bendib, an Arab American, says caricatures of the prophet Muhammad should not be protected speech.

Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer

As an Arab American Muslim editorial cartoonist, Khalil Bendib knows what it's like to be under attack. The Berkeley-based Bendib says he has received death threats over the past two decades for his provocative stands on Palestine, Israel, militarism and other hot-button issues.

But as violence mounts worldwide over Danish editorial cartoons that many Muslims believe defame the prophet Muhammad, the artist is taking a different view from some cartoonists when it comes to free speech. Just as yelling fire in a crowded theater should not be protected speech, he argued in an interview this week, neither should attacks on Islam's most revered prophet.

"The concept of freedom of expression in a democratic society must always be balanced by the no less important notion of social responsibility," said Bendib, 49, who has clients worldwide. "These crude caricatures are, in Muslim eyes only, the latest sign of the West's utter contempt for their dearest values and traditions."

He said Muslims may not have reacted so harshly had they not felt under siege by both homegrown Islamic extremists and what many view as Western occupiers of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Muslims are stuck between a rock and a hard place: foreigners invading their lands on the one hand and the homegrown menace of Islamic extremists on the other," said Bendib, a Paris native of Algerian descent. "It's a catastrophe."

But he condemned the violent backlash, as have most major U.S. Muslim groups, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles and the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

On Wednesday, President Bush called on Islamic nations to "stop the violence," as four more protesters in Afghanistan were killed by police during demonstrations over the cartoons. The cartoons have also set off a tense debate over freedom of expression that has divided even members of the Assn. of American Editorial Cartoonists.

Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News, defended her Danish colleagues and said no religious group should be allowed to place their sacred symbols off limits for public debate.

In her own work, she said, she has portrayed Jesus Christ with a smoking shotgun to criticize Christian murderers of abortion doctors, and a Star of David as a hoop through which politicians must leap to get elected -- and has been denounced for it.

"Change wouldn't happen if any group or all groups were above criticism," said Wilkinson, adding that she was disappointed that relatively few U.S. newspapers have published the cartoons.

Others, however, are more ambivalent. Nick Anderson, the cartoonist association's vice president who draws for the Louisville Courier-Journal, called the cartoons "needlessly inflammatory" and questioned the motives of the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in publishing them.

Noting news reports that the newspaper declined three years ago to publish cartoons satirizing Jesus Christ's resurrection as too provocative, Anderson said he wondered if Jyllands-Posten was simply trying to "stick a finger in the eyes of Muslims."

Anderson said the association, which represents about 200 editorial cartoonists, unequivocally supports the right to publish the cartoons and condemns the violent backlash. But "there is just no consensus" on the wisdom of publishing them, he said.

In his own cartoon on the issue, Bendib portrayed what he views as a double standard practiced by Europeans who assert free speech in regard to anti-Islamic sentiments and restrict it in relation to anti-Semitism -- through laws, for instance, against Holocaust deniers.

Bendib "presents a perspective that I think is simply lacking in any meaningful way in the mainstream American media," said Nidal Ibrahim, publisher of Arab American Business Magazine in Huntington Beach. "He brings a cultural and nuanced understanding that goes a long way in helping Americans understand the Middle East."

Bendib said he views his journalistic mission as giving voice to the underdog -- not only Arabs and Muslims, but also minorities and the poor.

"Anytime there's an underdog group, I always somehow naturally identify with them," said Bendib, whose cartoons also take on Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden.

Bendib said his alternative viewpoints were in part shaped by his upbringing as the child of Algerian Muslims who suffered under French colonial rule. The young Bendib was born in Paris, spent his early years in Morocco and went to Algeria after it won independence in 1962.

Bendib said he drew his first political cartoon at age 3: a picture of an Algerian soldier saluting an Algerian flag. By age 13, he said, he had decided on his profession.

Bendib headed to the United States, the birthplace of the comic strip. He enrolled in a master's program on East Asian languages and culture at USC. As an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Trojan, he wasted little time in making waves. The editor once told him he was the "most hated man" on the largely conservative campus for his frequent skewering of then-President Reagan.

After he was hired by the San Bernardino Sun in 1987, Bendib said he began receiving his first death threats -- usually for cartoons expressing criticism of Israel over the Palestinian issue. Despite his opposition to the Persian Gulf War and national economic policies that he believed hurt the poor for the sake of the rich, Bendib said his editor stood by him even if he disagreed with his politics.

"They never really censored me," Bendib said, adding that the few times the editor rejected his cartoons it was because of questions of taste, not politics. But fear for his safety led him to blur his Arab American identity by using the pen name Ben Dib -- a decision that he said embarrasses him today.

In 1998, he left the Sun and moved from Diamond Bar to Berkeley. That city was a good place to be when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

"Instead of getting threats and hate, I was getting solidarity and calls of support from Christians and Jews," he said. "It was amazing."

Let's be honest about cartoons

Tim Rutten
Regarding Media

February 11, 2006

THE editor of the Los Angeles Times does not think you need to see any of the cartoons that have triggered deadly riots across the Muslim world.

Earlier this week, I proposed illustrating this column with examples of the caricatures first published last fall in a Danish newspaper. If readers are to form rational opinions about both the ferocity of Islamic reaction and the American news media's response to it, I thought, surely at least a glance at one or two of these mild cartoons is required. I suggested that the cartoons run inside the Calendar section with a notice in this space concerning their location. That way, those who wanted to see them could, while those who might be offended simply could avoid that page.

I fully expected the proposal to be rejected, and it was — quickly and in writing, though the note also expressed the hope that the column would be as forceful and candid as possible.

This paper has ample company. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today all have declined to run the cartoons because many Muslims find them offensive. The people who run Associated Press, NBC, CBS, CNN and National Public Radio's website agree. So far, the only U.S. news organizations to provide a look at what this homicidal fuss is about are the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman, the Fox cable network and ABC.

Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision "out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy."

There is something wonderfully clarifying about honesty.

Meanwhile, ironies that would be laughable were the situation not so dire have mounted by the day. For one thing, reporting in this paper, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal has made it clear that what's at work here is not the Muslim street's spontaneous revulsion against sacrilege but a calculated campaign of manipulation by European Islamists and self-interested Middle Eastern governments. If the images first published in Jyllands-Posten last September are so inherently offensive that they cannot be viewed in any context, why did Danish Muslims distribute them across an Islamic world that seldom looks at Copenhagen newspapers? As Bernard-Henri Levy wrote this week, we have here a case of "self-inflicted blasphemy."

Then there's the question of why there was no reaction whatsoever when Al Fagr, one of Egypt's largest newspapers, published these cartoons on its front page Oct. 17 — that's right, four months ago — during Ramadan. Apparently its editor, Adel Hamouda, isn't as sensitive as his American colleagues.

Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper's art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili's notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren't as touchy as Muhammad's.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with —you guessed it — one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn't even blush.

If the Danish cartoons are, in fact, being withheld from most American newspaper readers and television viewers out of restraint born of a newfound respect for people's religious sensitivities, a great opportunity to prove the point is coming. A major American studio, Sony, shortly will release a film version of Dan Brown's bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code." It's fair to say that you'd have to go back to the halcyon days of the Nativist publishing operations in the 19th century to find a popular book quite as blatantly and vulgarly anti-Catholic as this one.

Its plot is a vicious little stew of bad history, fanciful theology and various slanders directed at the Vatican and Opus Dei, an organization to which thousands of Catholic people around the world belong. In this vile fantasy, the Catholic hierarchy is corrupt and manipulative and Opus Dei is a violent, murderous cult. The late Pope John Paul II is accused of subverting the canonization process by pushing sainthood for Josemaría Escrivá, Opus' founder, as a payoff for the organization's purported "rescue" of the Vatican bank. The plot's principal villain is a masochistic albino Opus Dei "monk" for whom murder is just one of many sadistic crimes. (It probably won't do any good to point out that, while it's unclear whether Opus Dei has any albino members, there definitely are no monks.)

Now many Catholics, this one included, regard Opus Dei as a creepy outfit with an unwholesome affinity for authoritarianism gleaned from its formative years in Franco's Spain. But neither it nor its members are corrupt or murderous. It is a moral — though thankfully not legal — libel to suggest otherwise. Further, it is deeply offensive to allege — even fictionally — that the Roman Catholic Church would tolerate Opus, or any organization, if it were any of those things.

So how will the American news media respond to the release of this film?

Certainly, there should be reviews since this is a news event, though it would be a surprise if any of them had something substantive to say about these issues. But what about publishing feature stories, interviews or photographs? Isn't that offensive, since they promote the film? More to the point, should newspapers and television networks refuse to accept advertising for this film since plainly that would be promoting hate speech? Will our editors and executives declare their revulsion at the very thought of profiting from bigotry?


It won't happen for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the ideas being expressed or anybody's sensitivities, religious or otherwise. It won't happen because Pope Benedict XVI isn't about to issue a fatwa against director Ron Howard or star Tom Hanks. It won't happen because Cardinal Roger M. Mahony isn't going to lead an angry mob to burn Sony Studios, and none of the priests of the archdiocese is going to climb into the pulpit Sunday and call for the producer's beheading.

On the other hand, perhaps the events of the last two weeks have shocked our editors and news executives into a communal change of heart when it comes to sensitivities of all religious believers.


That will happen when pigs soar through the skies on the wings of angels, when the lion reclines with the lamb on high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and no one bothers to beat the world's very last sword into a ploughshare because all the hungry have been fed.

Until that glorious day, those of us who inhabit this real world will continue to believe that the American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency.


Thanks to one of my students, who is Muslim, my fear has subsided.

Here's what she e-mailed to me regarding this ...

i think if the prophet were alive today, he would have laughed it off. there's this one story about the prophet, how every day he would walk out of his home into the street, and this one lady would dump her trash on his head.

now you can decide for yourself which is worse, dumping trash on someone's head, or drawing a cartoon.

anyways, the prophet never did anything to the woman, and forgave her for her ignorance every day.

one day, the prophet walks out of his home, and no one dumps trash on him. the prophet gets worried, and goes to the home of the woman, seeking her health. turns out, the woman was bedridden, too sick to get up, let alone dump garbage on the prophet's head. she was so touched by the prophet's sincereness and geniune worry for her that she learns the true meaning of islam and converts to islam. she passed away the next day.

that story is one of the first stories you learn about the prophet as a kid.
i think the rioters should be reminded of it.

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