Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Faculty panel tackles Danish cartoon controversy

As a journalism professor and staunch defender of freedom of speech, Jack Lule believes that newspaper editors in Demark certainly had the right to print cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have touched off riots in the Muslim world.

But he still thinks the editors shouldn’t have done it.

That’s because Lule maintains that freedom of speech is only one of what he calls “the two bedrocks of journalism.” The second bedrock principle, he said during a forum in Maginnes Hall Tuesday afternoon, is “the media’s responsibility to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

From that vantage point, Lule said, the editors of the Danish paper “were wrong to print the cartoons because only 2 percent of Denmark’s population are Muslims and there are others ways to take on the issue of self-censorship without offending a group of people so much in the minority in Denmark.”

Lule was one of three members of the Lehigh faculty who discussed the recent furor over the Danish cartoons at the forum, entitled “When Religion, Politics and Freedom of Speech Collide.” Joining Lule in examining the original decision to publish the cartoons and the protests, some deadly, that have ensued were Henri Barkey, professor of international relations, and Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies.

The role of “entrepreneurs”

Each made opening remarks examining the controversy from the perspective of their areas of expertise, with Lule examining the First Amendment issues involved, Barkey commenting on the political implications, and Steffen looking at the religious aspects. Then, the three faculty members took questions from the largely student audience.

The 12 cartoons, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on Sept. 30, and then published elsewhere in Europe early this month, have touched a raw nerve, in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Aggravating the affront was one cartoon of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.

“That cartoon was clearly offensive,” Steffen told the gathering. “Plus, it fed into preconceived and incorrect stereotypes on both sides. It fed into the Islam-phobes who associate the Islam faith with terrorism. And it fed into the other side’s fears that everyone in the West believes that Muslims can’t be trusted since 9/11.”

While the initial publishing of the cartoons resulted in few protests in Denmark, the subsequent publishing of them has created a firestorm. On Feb. 4, hundreds of Syrian demonstrators stormed the Danish Embassy in Damascus and set fire to the building. While protests have been tapering off in many Muslim nations, they have been escalating in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Libya. At least 28 people died last weekend during rioting over the cartoons and a planned constitutional amendment in two Muslim states in northern Nigeria, according to Reuters. Eleven people also recently died in rioting at the Italian consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

In this past Sunday’s Washington Post, Flemming Rose, the editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper, wrote an op-ed explaining why he commissioned and ran the cartoons in the first place. In the editorial, Rose said the cartoons were in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.

Last September, a Danish children’s writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in Rose’s book was a form of self-censorship. Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London subway bombings.

“I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously—and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter,” Rose wrote.

Barkey, during the roundtable discussion, said: “It’s probably true that the editor of the Danish newspaper had no idea the firestorm that publishing the cartoons would cause.”

But according to Barkey, what the editor of the Danish paper failed to realize was how the cartoon depicting the turban-shaped bomb—which Rose interpreted to mean that individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet—could also be interpreted differently by different people or how its intent could be distorted or hijacked by opportunists, or what Barkey called “entrepreneurs,” in the Middle East.

“In Pakistan, for instance, it can be argued that the opposition of the current regime has used the cartoons to try and weaken (Pakistan) President Pervez Musharraf’s relationship with the United States,” Barkey said. “It is easy for these opportunists to say that the cartoons are painting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist or that they’re painting all Muslims as terrorists.

“In addition to the deadly protests that this has spawned, this episode might hurt the Turkish attempt to eventually enter the European Union.”

"Learn about other religions"

During the question-and-answer session, one student asked what could be done right now by the people in the room to prevent such violence in the future.

Steffen quickly responded: “Do more of what you’re doing today. Learn about other religions, because more compassion and understanding will develop once you better understand what other faiths are all about. Religion is one of the world’s most powerful forces. Learn if a particular religion is life-affirming and provides value or is it destructive.

“Religion can be the most destructive force in the world or it can provide beautiful, life-affirming things such as Ghandhi, the Taj Mahal, and Jesus. It’s up to you to go out and learn about different religions, starting today. Learning about different faiths will help break down stereotypes that only make matters worse.”

Afterward, Joseph D’Elia ’08, an accounting major, was glad that he had taken the time to attend the forum.

“Having this lecture which examined this huge international story from three completely schools of thought—from a religious point of view, a journalist’s point of view, and an international relations’ point of view—really gave me a lot to think about,” D’Elia said. “It was a really worthwhile experience.”

The event was sponsored by the Global Union along with the international relations, journalism and religion studies departments.

--Bill Doherty

Posted on Wednesday, February 22, 2006

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