Violence Spreads Over Cartoon Controversy

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff
Die Zeit Washington Bureau Chief
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; 11:00 AM

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Washington bureau chief of the German newsweekly Die Zeit, which published the cartoons, was online Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 11 a.m. EST to discuss the controversy over the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that have led to violent protests against Denmark and other European nations in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

Read Kleine Brockhoff's Op-Ed: Tolerance Toward Intolerance , ( Post, Feb. 7, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Arlington, Va.: Sir, I think Western civilization owes you and your colleagues a debt of gratitude for keeping this controversy alive and in the open, instead of shuffled into dark corners where weak-willed politicians and media moguls would prefer it.

I'd like to know your thoughts on today's Post editorial which says in part, "The cartoons, whose vulgarity and offensiveness are beyond question, were published as a calculated insult last September...."

Do you think a responsible person can call these cartoons unquestionably vulgar and offensive? Do you have any reason to doubt Jyllands-Posten's claims that they originally published these cartoons last fall to prove that there was no climate of fear in the Danish press?

I'm embarrassed that The Post considers publishing the Muhammad cartoons "gratuitous offense." I understand they have many correspondents overseas whose lives would be in danger, as well as access issues to important middle eastern leaders to worry about. Do you think it would make more sense if they would give these legitimate issues as their rationale?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: I agree that the cartoons are provocative. They surely offend. They are - in my judgment - not even good cartoons. Only one of them is even funny. I would not have printed them initially had I been a editor of the Danish paper (instead of a German correspondent in Washington). But, obviously, I disagree with today's editorial in The Washington Post. The Post claims today that there is no threat to free speech in Europe. Well, consider the murder of Theo van Gogh for his harsh criticism of radical Islam. Consider that the Dutch-Ethiopian continues van Gogh's work with an undisclosed team and lives under police protection. Consider that Germany's premier late-night comedian just announced to to make fun of anything Islam any more. Consider, that the Danish cartoonists live in hiding Salman Rushdie-style now. Tell me again: no threat to free speech? The claim that papers in Europe, including my own, printed the cartoons out of anti-immigrant sentiment is not backed by fact. The newsprint of our paper and most mainstream papers show a different perspective on the question of immigration.


Chicago, Ill.: This is a case illustrating how European sensibilities are not as evolved as Europeans would like to believe. If you treat people with disrespect, you should expect a reaction.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: With all due respect: I think it is the other way around. While I agree that America which is founded on immigration and the respect for difference is doing better than we are in Europe's formerly homogenous societies I must say that the immigrant do come to our countries because of the tolerance, not because of the intolerance. Europe has come a long way. Jewish population in Germany (oaf all places) has recently quadrupled. Why: because of tolerance. It is radical Islam (not the majority of moderate Muslims in our countries) that is challenging this tolerance and freedom with death threats.


Washington, D.C.: I heard today that an Iranian news paper will hold a contest for cartoons depicting the Holocaust. Will your paper be publishing those cartoons as well?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Interesting thought. I will pass that on.


Ohio: The size and scope of the violent reaction to what are, in effect, satirical commentary on the cultural aspects of Islam seem to point toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. By reacting in the blanket anti-west violent manner they have, the rioters have, in fact, proven the satirist/cartoonists right, have they not? Does not the push to enforce Islamic cultural standards on European nations (by telling them what they can and cannot publish based on Islamic sentiments) in effect prove what President Bush has said -- that Islamic extremist "hate us for our freedoms"?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Well, I think the picture is mixed. The Muslim immigrants in Europe come because of our freedoms (since we don't have an American economic dream to offer at the moment). Some extremists among them, like the imam in Copenhagen, travel all the way to the Middle East to create outrage there. This controversy is a dream for the extremists.


Charleston, S.C.: Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff,

Thanks for taking my question. I read your op-ed piece and agreed wholeheartedly with your statements. On a broader perspective, the interesting aspect of this phenomenon is that the Muslim community seems to be equally angry with the entire western world not just the specific newspapers and individuals that printed the cartoons. They seem to be equating governments with the publications. What do you think we can learn about the cultural differences and challenges facing all of us that are starting to become more coherent. The fact of the matter is that we are truly facing a cultural struggle between the west and the Arab/Muslim world. We understand the benefits of freedom of expression and many in the Muslim community do not. Your thoughts?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Tough question. I think we are in a two-way struggle. On the on hand our freedoms for our citizens are non-negotiable. It is precisely those freedoms that protect the Muslim immigrants in our countries. We protect them by using them. On the other hand we must reach out and demonstrate that these freedoms are there to use for everybody who plays by the rules - including Muslims. And that includes respect for their traditions in our societies. This inclusiveness is the real attraction of the west. Interestingly, the Muslim community in Germany seems to see the cartoon war as a defining moment. They do not go along with the Middle Eastern incitement, but with the principles of liberalism. Very important moment in Germany. and hopeful.


Laurel, Md.: Your country bans certain political symbols because of their association to your unsavory past.

If some ideas are just too dangerous to express in a country as advanced and free as yours, isn't their expression in less advanced countries even more so?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Thanks for the question. You expose a weakness of my argument. I speak out for free speech coming from a country that has legal limitations of free speech. You can't print and sell Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in Germany without breaking the law. Ironically, you would have to print it in Denmark (!) or the US. You mention the reason for this: history.

In the end, I would rather argue to abolish limitations on free speech and to trust democratic societies to sort out hate speech rather than counsel more countries to follow the German example.


Copenhagen, Denmark: I personally am against the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten. I believe it was wrong to publish them. The problem with the cartoons is not the image dog the prophet Muhammad (you can even buy images of the prophet in the streets of Teheran), but the problem is, that they make Muslims look like people that make violence, burn down buildings and set fire to flags. So I do understand why many Muslims are feeling sad about the cartoons. What I don't understand is, why the Muslim world respond to that by doing exactly what the cartoons are about, namely setting fire to our flag, burning down our embassy and make violent demonstrations. Are the protesters in fact not just telling the world, that the people that draw the cartoons where right?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: I hope people in the Middle East will understand that irony - once they see the cartoon that is being withheld from them.


Dakar, Senegal: I understand the meaning of free speech and truly appreciate the apologies after the publication. However, there still seems to be the issues surrounding whose freedom of speech we are discussing.

If someone gets on a plane and mentions hijack they could be arrested on a number of charges. the Muslim cleric in Britain was just sentenced to 7 years for inciting to commit murder.

There is also the old analogy about shouting fire in a crowded cinema. I think what the newspaper has just done is shout fire and they should be held responsible for the chaos and the cleanup.

Do we expect charges to be filed against the newspaper and the editor of the newspaper??

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: What charges? For exercising free speech? They apologized for offending people. What more can they do? That's all they should do. While I would not have printed the images I think it is the demonstrators who are overreacting. And: it is absolutely unacceptable that editors at a Danish paper need police protection now as you can read in this morning's Washington Post.


London: I have been appalled at the gross insensitivity of our own press here in England, but that has now been eclipsed by this cartoon incident. I am particularly incensed that you are hiding behind the freedom of the press to justify this slur.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: I am not trying to defend the initial publication. I believe it was wrong. I do defend the re-publication so people can see what the whole world talks about. This is a meta-debate about the limits of illustrating and/or mocking radical Islam in the west now. I'm saddened to learn that most or nearly all English papers are not part of that discussion by withholding the cartoons from their readers.


Washington, D.C.: An Iranian newspaper is planning to publish cartoons questioning the Holocaust in response. Would Die Zeit republish them, since they would become part of this "newsworthy" story?

Your weekly would not have been seen less committed to freedom of speech, had it chosen not to publish the cartoons. Where you think the line is, between freedom to publish and irresponsibility? Or there should be no line?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Sure, there is a line between freedom of speech and irresponsibility. Here is what we have done to be responsible:

- did not print the cartoons for months because we thought they were not newsworthy at the time and offensive to Muslims

- only print one when it became newsworthy and a global debate

- Did not go on the front page, but page 5

- On page 5 it was not they main picture, but a small one.

- chose one of the less offensive images.

All of this in order to document, not to incite.

If the Iranian images become newsworthy in the same way, I would counsel my colleagues at home to do it in the same way (if they would like to hear my opinion)


Ottawa, Canada: How is it possible for European Muslims not to understand the difference between what a newspaper prints and government policy? Doesn't this point to a lack of effort on the part of European countries to integrate their Muslim populations into their societies?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: The protests against the cartoons mostly originate in the Middle East. And they were organized by Danish Muslims on trips to the Middle East. Some of the Danish Muslims that organized the outrage appear to have been Islamic radicals. So: this is not about integration, but about fanaticism. Interestingly, the Muslim organizations in Germany take a very moderate position. they seem to have understood that extremists have taken over the issue.


Washington, D.C.: It is asking a lot to require that people who are on the receiving end of American and European collateral damage maintain a good sense of humor about their highest religious icons as well. I've seen the cartoons and they are gratuitous. Few newspapers hire political cartoonists to draw caricatures of minority or especially majority religious symbols. How, exactly, is it within the standards of a large circulation newspaper to publish cartoons of religious figures drawn by a political cartoonist?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: There is a difference between printing and reprinting. While I would not have done the first, I do support the second in the context of this debate. You're right: the cartoons are poor and offensive. It was bad judgment to print them. It became good judgment to reprint them in a responsible fashion as I have tried to explain in another answer.


San Diego, Calif.: Explain again why was it so wrong to publish the cartoons in the first place. No one thinks twice about creating anti-Christian art or publishing anti-Christian sentiments (and, no, I'm no fundamentalist Christian). Just today, The New York Times ran a photo of a piece of art in which the Virgin Mary has been created out of manure. Yet The Times won't publish the cartoons in question, even though they figure prominently in the article. Huh? Is the real issue, then, that people are afraid of affecting certain groups' sensibilities?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Yes, there is the problem of self censorship in the face of death threats in Europe. I wonder what would happen in this country if, say, a Hollywood film director had been murdered for his critique of radical Islam. So: I understand the motivation of the Danish editors not to bow to threats. But I think they went about it the wrong way. You defend freedoms by using them when you need to. Here they wanted to make a point. Needlessly offensive, I think. Journalism is not a happening. This was one.

In the second phase radicals took over the issue. Then, with protest, boycotts and governments also getting involved, it became newsworthy. That's the case for reprinting. What the American media seem to under-appreciate is that it is not about respect any more (we is all for it!), but about rejecting extremism that physically threatens authors and illustrators.


Washington, D.C.: The word "Muslim" is supposed to be capitalized, like "Christians" and "Jewish".

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Sorry. A non-native speaker at work in a hurry.


Washington, D.C.: Based on your previous comment, do you think that something good might come out of all this?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Well, the picture is mixed.

Four points:

- the debate is good because we debate our criteria of publication in the west. Seeking the balance between free speech and respect for minorities is a good thing

- at least in my country, Germany, the local Muslims seem to use the moment to embrace liberal democracy

- the west re-learns that it is the west. We share values and perspectives

- But in the Muslim world this is a disaster. Radicals are winning. They seem to succeed in their definition of what the west is. A field day for them


Bozeman, Mont.: Why is it acceptable for Arab/Muslim press to publish vicious and hateful cartoons about the Israelis and Americans and American soldiers and, yet, it is not acceptable for the non-Arab/Muslim press to publish rather mild cartoons of Muhammad? It doesn't make sense.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Sure, it makes sense. The Arab press is mostly state run. Our press is not.


Washington, D.C.: I saw the cartoons on the Inquirer's site and honestly I don't see what the big deal is. The only one that is funny is the one where he is in heaven telling the suicide bombers to stop because heaven ran out of virgins. The other cartoons either just aren't funny or it's just a drawing of Muhammad just standing there.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: That's one reason why we re-printed the funny one. At least one could laugh. Maybe.


Stockholm, Sweden: Bravo! Bravissimo!! In Saudi Arabia you are arrested for wearing even a small necklace with a cross. It is prohibited to build churches, bibles are confiscated at border crossings, etc. The same imams that call for respect for the prophet call Christians infidels and Jews sons of Satan. How can the U.S. defend this? I really do not understand it.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: The US doesn't defend this, luckily. The State Department has calibrated their rhetoric in recent days. It is well within the Western mainstream now. And frankly, we should not compare ourselves to Saudi Arabia. Precisely because we are tolerant, people immigrate from the Arab world.


Munich, Germany: The concept of free speech is definitely something worth fighting for, but what should a person or even a nation do when the fight for free speech ignites a cultural conflict that could engulf any attempt to promote world peace? The brutal world wars that have made Europe a secular haven have not yet touched the Islamic world. Are these cartoons perhaps a generation too early to expect a rational reaction from the Islamic world?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Good point. That is exactly why the whole debate is valuable. We in the media have to find out what the difference is between restraint out of cultural respect and self-censorship in face of threats by radicals.

_______________________ Thank you all for your thoughtful questions.


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