Politics & Policies: Cartoon clash

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

DOHA, Qatar, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The philosophical, cultural and ethical schisms dividing the Western and Muslim medias are a microcosm of the societies they represent -- fractured and thinking along unparalleled lines. More often than not they end up talking across each other rather than engaging in dialogue with one another.

Two separate events; an international media conference in Qatar, and Muslim street protests over the publication of a newspaper cartoon in Denmark, reinforce the argument that the divide is not about to get any narrower anytime soon. As the outcome of a three-day symposium in Doha, organized by the Arabic satellite television network al-Jazeera, demonstrated, the east-west schism will only grow in the years to come.


Journalists and media experts convened in Doha, the capital of the tiny oil and natural gas-rich State of Qatar, for a forum titled "Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility." Taahir Hoorzouk, the network's media relation's coordinator explained with a tint of pride that the conference had brought together more than 200 journalists and media experts from five continents.


But if the participants were together, it was only in a physical sense. Western panelists remained, for the most part, poles apart from their Muslim colleagues when the topics of semantics arose. There were, for example, irreconcilable differences over the use of words to describe what most Western journalist called "terrorists." Muslim and Arab participants preferred the label "militants," "freedom fighters," or a most commonly used term in the Arab media to describe a suicide bomber, "martyr."

Despite their diverging opinions the Doha panelists remained civil. The same, however, could hardly be said of the angry crowds of Muslim demonstrators who took to the streets of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, protesting a Danish newspaper cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad in an irreverent manner.

As protestors set fire to the Danish embassy in Damascus, opinions on the matter differed in the capitals of Europe, as they did in the Doha conference room. For the Americans and the Europeans, the uproar over the Danish cartoon concerns one of the most fundamental and basic right of mankind and is one of the central points of the European Union charter and the United States Constitution -- that of free speech.

Muslims angered by the cartoon have asked the Danish government -- who does not control what the Danish press prints, no more than the U.S. government controls what goes into the pages of the New York Time -- to punish the newspaper. In other words to impose censorship. Democracies come with advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is a free press able to publish anything it wants. Part of the title of al-Jazeera's forum was aptly called "Defining Responsibility." That is a reminder that in a free society it is the duty of the press to regulate itself, and not the job of the government. However, that responsibility should be taken seriously and not used to offend any group or religion.


One of the disadvantages in a democracy is the same as one of its advantage: a free press can publish anything it wants.

The editor of France Soir saw it fit to reprint the offending cartoon, causing a second wave of protest by France's large Muslim community and the publisher firing the editor. That should not be counted as vindication for the Muslim world. Instead it should be perceived as a loss of freedom of speech. If editors can be sanctioned for printing material that is offensive to Muslims today, what will be the likely response the next time an Arab publication prints something offensive to the West? Where does it stop?

To be clear, this is not in support of printing offensive material, rather to stress the need for each media to show greater responsibility.

"You cannot have a free media and expect to control it," said Riz Khan, one of al-Jazeera's new stars who comes to the Arabic channel from CNN.

Seen as insulting and denigrating the cartoon angered Muslim communities across the world, prompting street protests. In the Palestinian Authority, armed men stormed the offices of the European Union -- ironically, one of the main providers of financial aid to the PA. About $3 billion so far.


In other parts of the Muslim world Danish flags were burned or used as doormats outside grocery stores, while Danish Foods were by and large boycotted.

At a time when many in the West argue that Islam is a "violent religion" Muslim leaders should have called for a more appropriate -- and peaceful -- response. Instead, the violent reaction from Gaza to Damascus is only going to strengthen Islamophobes and raise the level of Islamophobia.


(Comments may be sent to [email protected])

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