I was in Qatar as the recent controversy over the reprinting of Danish cartoons parodying the Prohphet Mohammed erupted. Talking with some of the editors and correspondents at the conference and around the Al-Jazeera newsroom, I quickly got the sense that this was an issue where Muslims and non-Muslims are going to have a very hard time seeing eye to eye. Back in the states, checking both newspapers and blogs, it’s more than apparent that this is the case. Newspapers are running story after story about violence in the streets of Middle Eastern capitals against Scandinavian targets. And searching for “danish cartoon” on Technorati reveals a wealth of hatred and ignorance from Western bloggers that’s extremely disappointing… though not as disappointing as the fact that peaceful boycotts and protests in the Middle East are now being overshadowed by senseless violence.
One of Al-Jazeera’s editors asked me my opinion about decisions by French and German papers to run the cartoons that have caused so much offense. I argued that, while I thought it was a serious error for the Danish paper to have run the cartoons in the first place, once the row had begun, not publishing the cartoons was worse that publishing them. In teaching the first amendment in a US law school, we always use the formulation, “The response to bad speech is more speech.” Hiding hate speech fetishises it, while showing it in all its ugliness while critiquing it is generally a better response. The editor predicted – correctly, as it turns out – that publishing these cartoons would be more analagous to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. It would provoke a sharp and violent counterreaction from people more offended by the portrayal of the Prophet than supportive of arguments about parody and religious freedom.
My friend Mohammed – one of the authors of Don’t Bomb Us, a group blog published by a small team of Al-Jazeera staffers – and I had a long talk about the cartoons and reactions from the Middle East and from Europe as we leafed through recent newspapers from around the Gulf. A devout Muslim who just returned from Hajj, Mohammed pointed out that the cartoon is offensive on two levels – any portrayal of the Prophet is offensive to devout Muslims. But the cartoon that’s sparked so much outrage – which portrays the Prophet wearing a turban made from a lit bomb – implies that Islam is inherently and neccesarily a violent faith, a damaging – though unfortunately pervasive – misrepresentation of the faith. At the same time, as a media professional who watched his native South Africa be transformed by a press increasingly critical of Apartheid, he’s very open to arguments by Europeans that the right to criticize anything in the press, including religion, is sacrosanct.
What’s most disturbing – and frankly, fascinating – to me has been the role of the media in this situation. The cartoons in question are months old, and were published in a paper that literally no one in the Middle East reads or has access to. It’s only because the cartoons have been amplified by papers throughout the world that we’re now seeing violent protest. I asked the editor I was speaking to whether he was worried that his network has helping blow a story about an ill-advised cartoon well out of proportion by featuring it so heavily – he looked at me and said, “You can’t possibly bury this story.” I think that’s true, but it’s an astounding example of collective action at work – if everyone had decided the story merited burying, it would have been buried. Once a few papers and networks decide it’s a key story, it gets amplified and starts to have effects outside the media, in the real world where buildings burn and people get hurt. Those burning embassies become stories in their own right and there’s no way to put the cat back in the bag.
Flying home Friday, I got an email from Mohammed pointing me to a blog post he’d found heartening. I wasn’t surprised to see that it came from my friend Ahmad Humeid, a brilliant Jordanian designer and entrepreneur. Drawing on his schoolboy experiences of Islamic scholarship, he offers some thoughts on how the Prophet might have reacted to the cartoon, suggesting that he would have found a way to offer forgiveness and understanding to those who had wronged him. He ends with five constructive suggestions for ways Danes might build bridges with Muslims and help reduce the tension around the issue.
I’m not surprised that (most of the) bloggers I read in the Middle East are looking for solutions, not screaming in anger. Many people blogging the Middle East are explicitly trying to build bridges with the rest of the world and increase understanding around cultural, religious and language gaps – this situation is one to be overcome for these bridge bloggers. Neha Viswanathan offers a set of reactions on Global Voices from South Asia – Haitham Sabbah, our Middle East editor, is soliciting suggestions on what would bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion from his readers. Let’s hope the sanity of the bloggers can help – even a little bit – to counteract the tendency by commercial media to amplify conflict in situations like this.
Haitham’s put up a very useful post, translating some reactions from the Arabic-language blogosphere. I’m really looking forward to a future Global Voices where we’re able to do lots more of this type of translation – it’s tremendously helpful to see what people are saying, in their own words, around the world.