Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Thoughts on Mohammed cartoons

By Richard Tenorio

Several weeks have passed since the media began chronicling the increasing Muslim rage over 12 cartoons depicting Mohammed, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. It is therefore time to examine the reaction by the American media.
The response of American newspapers shows that the violent threats made in Europe and Asia have had a ripple effect across the Atlantic. The general reason why editors have shirked from printing the cartoons is because of a fear of reprisals, whether at home or abroad.
What the cartoon controversy has reminded the globe is that journalists and editors can face the same problems as the people whose lives they chronicle. Despite the best efforts of the Fourth Estate to remain outside the story, the decisions they make can sometimes become part of the story – or, in this case, the cartoon.
It does not matter that the most prominent newspapers in the United States, such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, refuse to print the cartoons. What matters is that it was a Western publication that ran them in the first place. This action symbolized the most potent trait of Western culture: its ability to trespass. Whether disproving the Ptolemaic conception of the earth, experimenting with stem-cell research, or having Jesus Christ and Satan duke it out in a cartoon Christmastime clash, Western culture has always harbored individuals willing to defy cultural norms.
The Muslim world, meanwhile, has been characterized by the umma, the community. Dissent is discouraged, and the lopsided election returns racked up by Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak attest to the prominence of one-party rule. The government assumes a major role in daily life because it appropriates so many functions: not only temporal ruler, but also spiritual one. Even journalism has been placed under the governmental mantle: most newspapers in Muslim countries are state-owned, which makes the complaint of Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan more understandable: “There should be a limit to press freedom,” he said.
Now that one of its brethren has prompted a cultural controversy, the Western media is trying to return to its former position. The self-censorship of the cartoons is exposing many organizations as acting hypocritically. The same publications that decided not to print images of the Mohammed cartoons exercised no similar restraint in running photos of Chris Ofili’s sacrilegious artwork, of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” signs, or of neo-Nazi rallies. They know that controversial subject matter attracts readers, and they must have seen the articles attesting to the sales climb for those newspapers brave enough to reprint the cartoons. The threat to their security must have been very great indeed for American newspapers, with their declining circulations, to eschew 12 controversial images.
The Western news media wants it to be January 2006 again, before the February furor. It is admirable that media bosses are so concerned for their workers’ safety. At the same time, it’s sad to see that intimidation tactics have silenced the mouths of the American media, with an effectiveness that John Ashcroft or George W. Bush would have envied.


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