By Jason Menard
In this culturally diverse world where oceans can be spanned with just the click of a mouse, what obligation do we have to ensuring cultural sensitivity – and where is the line between commentary and cruelty drawn?
This is a question that has arisen again with the publication of editorial cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten. The cartoons, which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse, have drawn the ire of Muslims around the world and has led to violent demonstrations.
Let’s move beyond the paradox that is Muslims reacting with violence to a cartoon that was designed to depict them as a violent people. Let’s look at the issue of responsibility. Islamic law forbids any depiction of the prophet Muhammad in order to prevent idolatry. But should we expect a newspaper in a non-Muslim country to adhere to the beliefs and tenets of another religion?
The answer is yes – and no.
Obviously Jyllands Posten has to consider the fact that some of its readership will be Muslim and should treat them with the same respect that they would any other religion. To imply that all adherents to a religion are violent is stereotyping at its worst – and certainly wouldn’t be accepted if the image was of an avaricious person of Jewish decent. Given that, we can question the sensitivity, but not the motivation of the paper.
In their attempt to make a commentary about a certain sub-section of a religious group that bastardizes the teaching of the Quran, they unfairly painted all Muslims with the same broad brushstrokes. However, their depiction still falls into the realm of commentary.
It is when other right-wing papers decide to reprint the cartoons as a show of solidarity to freedom of the press that the line is crossed into cruelty. It is one thing to publish something that offends a segment of your readership without knowing – it is something different entirely when you do so knowing that a segment of the population has already expressed their displeasure. It is especially heinous when you choose to publish them for no other reason than to incite anger. The publication of these editorial cartoons in these papers was done only to support the rights of free speech – not to further any sort of coverage in their own publication.
And there is the greatest transgression. Yes, free speech is paramount, but that right to free speech carries with it an even greater responsibility to use it wisely. In this case, one could say it wasn’t done.
The decisions on what to publish and when is not always easy, and I can draw upon personal experience to relate to this issue. Many moons ago, when I was editor-in-chief of a daily student publication, I was faced with a similar response to a decision I made. And while I stand behind the principles of my decision today, I see that my zealousness for protection of freedom of speech was not tempered by my understanding of human nature – and the need to do right by the people I was mandated to serve.
At the time, we were blessed to have a talented daily cartoonist, who created a strip called Horowitz. In one panel, he created the image of the Christian god, watching Highway to Heaven, and on the phone with Allah. To paraphrase the text, the Christian god said, “Hey Allah, it’s God. Have you started your world yet? No, me neither.” And the caption read something like “despite what’s believed, God in fact slacked off for six days and crammed on the seventh.”
The initial publication of this cartoon drew mild controversy, of which I was aware when I chose to publish it again during my tenure at the helm of the paper. And that’s when all hell broke loose. Despite doing everything I could my year to be inclusionary to all groups, I was branded as anti-Arab through this one action.
My decision was prompted by two things: one, I thought the comic was damn funny. And, two: I wanted to assert the rights of the press over the tenets of a religious belief. While I still believe I was morally in the right to do so, looking back on it I can see how I neglected the needs of a significant sub-section of my readership.
The fact is that the paper I worked with had an obligation to represent all groups on campus, no matter what their race, religion, or creed. But, by the same token, I was not beholden to them to define my editorial stance by their beliefs.
It is unfair for any one religious group, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or other, to expect a secular publication to obey the laws of its faith. Newspapers are secular in nature and must remain so to maintain their objectivity and credibility. That being said, while they must push the envelope and challenge their readership, they must understand the sensitivity of certain issues.
Certain religious groups forbid the spelling of the word god in print. Others demand the absence of all imagery because of the worship of falls idols. The fact of the matter is that the media must remain outside these rules – they are not above of below, but the media is separate and must remain so.
But in our increasingly diverse world, we must strive to be more respectful and more sensitive of other people’s beliefs. That doesn’t mean we must kowtow to their religious tenets, but we should make more of an effort to understand. And, on the other side, religious groups must realize that their laws do not necessarily apply to everyone on the planet, nor should they expect everyone to abide by their rules.
It’s a matter of respect – and both sides must respect the other if we’re to move forward as a global community. If we wish to continue to enjoy freedom of the press and freedom of religion, we must ensure that we use those freedoms wisely.
2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved