Middle East studies in the News
Cartoons and Cowardice [incl. Jytte Klausen]
Just as Closer and Chi hit the newsstands with their photographs of the topless duchess, another French publication, Charlie Hebdo, decided to publish crude cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
A similar series of cartoons published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 led to widespread and often violent demonstrations in the Muslim world. Any depiction of Islam's prophet is considered blasphemy by many Muslims. But the magazine's director, Stephane Charbonnier, said Charlie Hebdo was using freedom of expression to "comment on the news in a satirical way."
Charbonnier said the project was a response to the furor generated by "Innocence of Muslims," the film made by Nakoula Bassely Nakoula. It was after a clip of the film -- which was posted under his pseudonym, "Sam Bacile," on YouTube -- appeared on Egyptian television that the latest protests started.
"It happens that the news this week is Mohammed and this lousy film, so we are drawing cartoons about this subject," Charbonnier told CNN affiliate BFM-TV.
In another interview Charbonnier made a more serious point about why Charlie published the cartoons in the face of intense opposition.
"It shows the climate -- everyone is driven by fear, and that is exactly what this small handful of extremists, who do not represent anyone, want -- to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave." he told Reuters.
Charbonnier might have pointed to the decision three years ago by Yale University Press to publish a book by Jytte Klausen called "The Cartoons That Shocked The World" -- without publishing the cartoons. Its director, John Donatich, acknowledged then, "The overwhelming judgment of the experts....was that there existed an appreciable chance of violence occurring if either the cartoons or other depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were printed."
The decision was widely criticized. Cary Nelson, then-president of the American Association of University Professors, called the YUP "fundamentally cowardly." And in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one reader wrote: "If editors in revolutionary times had the kind of convictions exhibited by those of the Yale University Press, they would have gutted the Federalist Papers to keep from offending the British overlords of the day."
Many newspapers and other media organizations -- CNN among them -- also chose not to publish the cartoons. A New York Times editorial in 2006 said that was a "reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe."
So should freedom of expression (or freedom to be satirical) be subject to self-restraint when it might otherwise be misinterpreted and in the process put lives at risk? The immediate consequence of the cartoons' publication included further protests and the brief closure of French embassies in some 20 countries. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault defended Charlie Hebdo's right to publish but added, "There is also a question of responsibility."
Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that his fellow Muslims need to exercise restraint in the face of provocation. "The millions of protesters last year in Arab capitals that chanted 'hurriyah, karamah, adala ijtima'iyya' or 'freedom, dignity and social justice' cannot allow for the emotions of bigots to derail their revolution," he wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com.
"Freedom is not only about majority rule, but ensuring that women, religious minorities and intellectual dissenters are able to flourish without fear," he added.
It's a similar argument to that made by Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which first published the Prophet cartoons back in 2005. In a free society, Rose wrote, "Everybody must be willing to put up with sarcasm, mockery, and ridicule."
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