The 'Muhammad Cartoon': Has NPR Been Intimidated?

Listener Steven Keller asks:

Will you post the [Muhammad] cartoon on your Web site?

Another listener, Alan Wieland says:

...I've seen reports about these cartoons all over our media but no cartoons. I'd like to see the cartoons and form my own opinion. Any country with a free press must publish them even if many powerful officials are fundamentalists.

And still another listener, Doran Borans, says that:

I was very disappointed today when [All Things Considered] chose to frame the issue of the "offensive" cartoons as only taking place in Europe and Asia? Why point overseas for controversy when it is present right here in the U.S.? It definitely left the impression that the issue isn't domestic, when clearly it is.

Mr. Keller and the others are referring to a recent cartoon (actually a series of cartoons) published by a conservative Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten. These cartoons are considered by many in the Muslim world to be deeply offensive. They have further inflamed tensions between the Muslim world and the West. One cartoon in particular has caused the most outrage: It shows a man, presumed to be the Prophet Muhammad, in whose turban sits a bomb with a lighted fuse.

Many Muslims have denounced the cartoon as insulting and blasphemous. Muslim clerics have demanded an apology. A boycott of Danish goods is underway and there have been riots and demonstrations from Morocco to Indonesia.

The European media — with their tradition of tough satire and free speech — have responded by reprinting the cartoon. The re-publication has further angered many Muslims.

Some Western governments have defended the cartoon as part of the tradition of free speech, while deploring what appears to be an unnecessary journalistic provocation. The State Department in particular has spoken out against the re-publication of the cartoon as "unhelpful" and "unnecessarily controversial."

So far, most media in the United States (including NPR) have declined to reprint the cartoon or to place it on their Web sites. Among major news outlets, only the Philadephia Inquirer has, so far, published the cartoons.

These differing concepts of free speech tend to confirm Samuel Huntington's prediction in his 1993 work, The Clash of Civilizations, that "…the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic…the dominating source of conflict will be cultural…"

How Should NPR Respond?

The cartoon has generated a lot of discussion in editorial meetings, around water coolers as well as on the air. But the question remains as to whether NPR should show its listeners the cartoon by posting it directly on the NPR Web site.

Would putting a link on the NPR Web site to the cartoon serve free speech by showing listeners the offending image, or would it simply exacerbate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims? Would seeing the drawings help or hinder NPR's journalism and reputation? And if NPR chooses not to show it, has NPR been intimidated by threats of violence and succumbed to political correctness?

Free Speech or Respect

Neal Jackson is NPR's vice president for legal affairs and general counsel. He thinks that although there are important free speech considerations here, the issue is one that should be decided by the best instincts of NPR's journalists:

The First Amendment allows insulting speech, even insulting to some people's religious values. The right of media outlets to publish things that some people will find insulting is essential in a democratic society. It is a decision for journalists to make, however, not governments (or private governments in the form of violent mobs in the streets).

Of course, in making their decision to publish, journalists must balance considerations of taste with telling a story that people should know about. And, if a listener, viewer or reader doesn't like the decision, they can raise hell with the outlet or stop patronizing it. Under the law of our nation, however, it is a matter between the media outlet and the individual citizen.

Bill Marimow is the acting vice president of NPR News. He has agonized over this decision because of the implications. In the end, NPR decided not to post a link to the cartoon on the NPR Web site:

As you know, Jeff, my thinking about this issue has changed throughout the day — as I've read more about the subject and discussed it with our colleagues. So, the bottom line for me is that the cartoon is so highly offensive to millions of Muslims that it's preferable to describe it in words rather than posting it on the Web. In this case, I believe that our audience can, through our reports — on radio and the Web — get a very detailed sense of what's depicted in the cartoon. By not posting it on the Web, we demonstrate a respect for deeply held religious beliefs.

In the end, NPR did not post the cartoon, although it is readily available around the Internet. Many listeners wrote to say that they were disappointed with that decision.

But can these two values — respect for free speech and respect for personal beliefs — be reconciled?

European vs. American Relations with Islam

Part of the context of this struggle over the limits of free speech has been demographic: Europeans find themselves suddenly discovering a large Muslim segment within their once homogenous populations. The reaction of the European media may be seen as part of that difficult question of integration, immigration and cultural identity.

In the United States, the war in Iraq has already exacerbated tensions between Americans and the Muslim world. Posting a cartoon might be seen as throwing more kerosene on a fire that is already out of control.

It is also important to remember that Islam has a prohibition against any representation of Muhammad or Allah. There are no human images to be seen in a mosque. Any artistic rendering of the prophet is considered to be blasphemous and especially hurtful in the context of something as secular as a political cartoon.

It is understood in the West that political cartooning is not blasphemy, although some cartoons can be offensive. A political cartoon skewers deeply held ideas in a satirical way. When it works, it can be devastating. When it doesn't work, it's just poor taste. But being crude or vulgar is a long way from blasphemy. The cultural divide over this cartoon illustrates how differently the West and Islam tolerate uncomfortable ideas.

Can Journalism Help?

Listeners who are strong First Amendment advocates say NPR's response is insufficient. Many have written asking that NPR join with other American media and stand up to extremism and intimidation. But NPR also has, in my opinion, an obligation not to exacerbate the tensions that already inflame relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Would posting the cartoon help or hinder the goals of free speech and a free press in the Muslim world?

To put in another way — would NPR post racist or anti-Semitic cartoons on its Web site in the name of free speech? Or do the values of public radio demand another, more measured response?

NPR may have a special role in this: In radio, the shock of the visual can be avoided by clearly describing why the cartoon is considered offensive. This does not compound the offense by re-publishing it. There is a value in euphemism, even though the temptation to poke radicals in the eye is strong.

NPR resisted that temptation, much to the dismay of some listeners who want NPR to use the cartoon as a weapon against radical Islam. In reporting this story, NPR has been clear, but not provocative. It's been a tough call all around, but I think that NPR did the right thing.

And there is a lot more to report on this story.

There are many embattled journalists and intellectuals in the Muslim world, especially in Turkey and Egypt, who advocate for a secular society and a free press, but within a Muslim context. Ibn Warraq is one such writer and thinker worth interviewing on NPR. Being interviewed on NPR would be an effective way to legitimate their ideas.

Publishing a cartoon may or may not have helped the cause of free speech in the Muslim world. In my opinion, it is more effective if NPR tells the stories of those few courageous journalists and writers in that region, and the risks they must endure daily to secure the free press we too often take for granted.

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