By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
Last week the publication I work for, the German newsweekly Die Zeit, printed one of the controversial caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. It was the right thing to do.
When the cartoons were first published in Denmark in September, nobody in Germany took notice. Had our publication been offered the drawings at that point, in all likelihood we would have declined to print them. At least one of them seems to equate Islam with radical Islamism. That is exactly the direction nobody wants the debate about fundamentalism to take -- even though the very nature of a political cartoon is overstatement. We would not have printed the caricature out of a sense of moderation and respect for the Muslim minority in our country. News people make judgments about taste all the time. We do not show sexually explicit pictures or body parts after a terrorist attack. We try to keep racism and anti-Semitism out of the paper. Freedom of the press comes with a responsibility.
But the criteria change when material that is seen as offensive becomes newsworthy. That's why we saw bodies falling out of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. That's why we saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib. On such issues we print what we usually wouldn't. The very nature of the discourse is to find parameters of what is culturally acceptable. How many times have we seen Janet Jackson's breast in the course of a discussion of the limits of family entertainment? How many times have we printed material that Jews might consider offensive in an attempt to define the extent of anti-Semitism? It seems odd that most U.S. papers patronize their readers by withholding cartoons that the whole world talks about. To publish does not mean to endorse. Context matters.
It's worth remembering that the controversy started out as a well-meaning attempt to write a children's book about the life of the prophet Muhammad. The book was designed to promote religious tolerance. But the author encountered the consequences of religious hatred when he looked for an illustrator. He could not find one. Denmark's artists seemed to fear for their lives. In turning down the job they mentioned the fate of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist for harshly criticizing fundamentalism.
When this episode percolated to the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the paper's cultural editor commissioned the caricatures. He wanted to see whether cartoonists would self-censor their work for fear of violence from Muslim radicals. Still, the European media ignored this story in a small Scandinavian country. It took months, a boycott of Danish products in the Arab world and the intervention of such champions of religious freedom as the governments of Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Libya (all of which withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen) for some European papers to reconsider their stance on the cartoons. By last week it was not an obscure topic anymore but front-page news. And it wasn't about religious sensibilities as much as about free speech. That's when the cartoons started to show up in papers all over Europe.
Much of the U.S. reporting about the fracas made it appear as if Europeans just don't get it -- again. They struggle with immigration. They struggle with religion. They struggle with respect for minorities. And in the end they find their cities burning, as evidenced in Paris. Bill Clinton even detected an "anti-Islamic prejudice" and equated it with a previous "anti-Semitic prejudice."
The former president has turned the argument upside down. In this jihad over humor, tolerance is disdained by people who demand it of others. The authoritarian governments that claim to speak on behalf of Europe's supposedly oppressed Muslim minorities practice systematic repression against their own religious minorities. They have radicalized what was at first a difficult question. Now they are asking not for respect but for submission. They want non-Muslims in Europe to live by Muslim rules. Does Bill Clinton want to counsel tolerance toward intolerance?
On Friday the State Department found it appropriate to intervene. It blasted the publication of the cartoons as unacceptable incitement to religious hatred. It is a peculiar moment when the government of the United States, which likes to see itself as the home of free speech, suggests to European journalists what not to print.
The writer is Washington bureau chief of the German newsweekly Die Zeit.