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U.S. Condemns Violent Response to Cartoons

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Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Philip Kennicott was online Friday, Feb. 10, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad , the ensuing outbreak of protests in parts of the Muslim world and U.S. reaction to the violence.

Read Kennicott's article: Clash Over Cartoons Is a Caricature Of Civilization , ( Post, Feb. 4, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Philip Kennicott: Good morning, welcome, and thanks for coming here today. When I wrote my piece last week I was hoping that this issue would have fizzled by now, but clearly it hasn't. Send on your questions, comments, and observations...

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Wheaton, Md.: Why is the media pretending these protests are caused by outrage? Anyone can see these "protests" are carefully staged by the governments, as are all protests in the Islamic world.

Philip Kennicott: I suspect there's a mix of motivations going on. There is genuine outrage, and, as we've reported (from Afghanistan and elsewhere) there's also manipulation and political opportunism.

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Arlington, Va.: Submitting this a little early. I read and really enjoyed your article, but here are my thoughts. As a Muslim-American, I don't think there's a clash of civilizations. I mean look at all the Muslims living in the U.S. Sure many are not totally assimilated, but they don't feel like second class citizens or generally unhappy living here. Many of the most violent protests are taking places in parts of the Muslim world where people have less freedom. I mean in Syria you can't hold a protest, and Egypt look at the recent elections, yet these governments are encouraging these protests over the cartoons. My guess is yes, people are angry, but at the heart of it they're not as angry per se about the cartoons. This is built up anger they've had their situation in life, and their governments are encouraging because hey, let them get it out of their system so they won't come after us.

Philip Kennicott: I think we should add all of this to the mix, I just mentioned. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Actually, the most interesting thing I've learned from the recent comics fray, is how absurdly quickly, all members of an ethnic/cultural community, can be tarred with the same feather. When a controversial political topic or issue comes up within the construct of U.S. politics, I go to both the far left, and the far right, in order to absorb the disparity of perspectives and opinions. Often enough, the extremism of -both- sides is disturbing to me.

And granted, in a situation like this, where embassies are being attacked and burned, where people are fighting and dying, what value, in the media, wasting its time on quotes from the reasonable middle ground, who might regret, the blasphemy of comics about the leaders of Islam, and yet not be moved, to march in the streets, or draw the blood of strangers, while bloodily heroically, the extremists fight, grenades and agit-prop bullets and bombs, against each other?

I've run the camera, often enough on the action, to be leery of the restraint claimed, at least implicitly, by the media. From what I've seen, they chase the conflicts, like vultures, circle in on the blood, and then when finally appear, the killings, the deaths, however one might interpret, the tone of their calls, to me, there has always been a tone of exultance, of celebration...

So granted, there is no newsworthiness in tolerance, in forbearance, in indulgent coevality. And furthermore acknowledged, to the news critters, that without your fervent frothing quests for newsiness, most best involving blood and schlagobers (whipped cream - it's a John Irving reference...), you'd be living within the parameters of unacceptable austerity, enduring the slings of your less- principled compatriots, as they reaped the unprincipled rewards, of your sterile pcness...

Question being, how idiotically willing are we, to interpret the blood-crazy rantings of a few, as representative of the whole?

Philip Kennicott: One of the saddest things I noticed during this whole argument is how satisfying it is, for some people, to simply write off the values, and humanity of others. Lumping people together is easy. I agree that some of the media, especially that which is built on visuals and enacted live on the air, is drawn to the most extreme expressions. But of course the media isn't monolithic either, and one of the best things that can come out of this is good solid reporting about how it happened, and why. And that's beginning to appear.

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Chantilly, Va.: I don't understand why some actions are acceptable and some not. Apparently if you're a Muslim it's acceptable to: strap explosives to yourself and blow up Muslim kids (notice it's not the much-hated Israelis who are doing this), come from a different country and plant bombs beside roads and not be called invaders, destroy the property of people who have nothing to do with what made you mad, insist that other people live under your religious law even if they don't accept your religion or live in your country. Would some Muslim please explain these things to me as well as why you demand respect but don't give it to others?

Philip Kennicott: I post this because I don't think it's really a genuine question. If you caricature people in the very questions you ask, it's very difficult for them to give an answer that will advance any kind of understanding.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you see a bit of paternalism in The Post's decision not to run the cartoons? Do they not trust their readers? I've seen Hiatt's arguments and don't agree with them.

Personally, I think you should run the cartoons as well as photographs of wounded and dying soldiers - they're the real cost of a war.

Philip Kennicott: I think the Post has remained consistent to its values throughout this. I asked Len Downie, our executive editor, about why we haven't run them. He sent me this message:

"It would violate our standards for taste to publish them. We keep many things out of the paper on those grounds, including gratuitous nudity, violence, obscenity and racial, ethnic and religious slurs."

That seems right to me. It's not paternalism, but the basic values of the institution. And one of those rules that, while it's not always possible to live by it 100 percent, if you constantly aim for it, you're better off.

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Arlington, Va.: More of a comment: This is the most attention that cartoons have received, probably ever - it would be interesting to see The Post get the opinions of Dr. John Lent, a noted scholar on international cartoons at Temple University. He publishes the International Journal of Comic Art twice a year.

Philip Kennicott: For the benefit of my colleagues, I'll post this...

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Washington, D.C.: Philip: Thanks for doing this. First, your article on February 4 was insightful and thoughtful--one of the best I've seen to date--and it should have been on the editorial page, not in the Style section.

Today, Charles Krauthammer said in effect that U.S. newspapers should publish the cartoons to demonstrate their commitment to free speech and willingness to brave Muslim threats. I have a different view, which is that if U.S. newspapers originally (and correctly) decided not to print the cartoons because they were offensive, then they shouldn't print them now just to show they are strong in the face of threats. The greater strength is sticking to principle and not being provoked by what amounts to a dare by a schoolyard bully.

I'd like to know your thoughts on this obviously difficult situation.

Philip Kennicott: I think you're right on most of this. I initially thought we should have run one of the cartoons. In retrospect, I'm glad we didn't. Much of the debate in the blogosphere isn't really about Islam or cartoons at all. It's a game, an attempt to compel newspapers to dance to a different tune. "You must publish these cartoons if you believe in free speech..." Well, no. We use free speech, we enact it everyday and for 35 cents our readers get the benefits. Jumping into this fray wouldn't have advanced the basic mission of the Post at all, which is to get people news of the world quickly, accurately and objectively. Looking back over the last week, I think the Post did exactly the right thing.

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Annandale, Va.: I just want to share the following, from John Stuart Mills, which is again very timely: But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Philip Kennicott: Thanks for that. Is it from "On Liberty"? I don't have my copy handy right now...

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Did The Post print the cartoon? What was the reasoning of The Post in doing what they did? I know the Philadelphia Inquirer did, which I believe is their right, and that offended Muslins protested at the Inquirer, which is their right. Shouldn't the message be that in our open society we are allowed to have open expression, and what that expression offends someone, they have a right to make their points as to why it is offensive, or from there we can better decide what is correct and incorrect to state in what settings in the future?

Philip Kennicott: See the above posts, for more. No, we haven't run it, and I quoted our executive editor as to why not. I'd add this: newspapers aren't the best place to tests the limits of the principle of free speech. Their mission is news and information and yes broad public debate. But by the nature of their audience, and mission, they won't be the public space in which limits are most often tested.

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Arlington, Va.: Although I agree Chantilly did not word the question in the best way, I would like to rephrase if I may - what are Muslim religious leaders saying about the reaction to the cartoons? Do they point out the fact that while it is considered blasphemous to depict the prophet Muhammad it is also wrong to kill? Especially when the violent protests have killed people who have had nothing to do with the publication of the cartoons?

Philip Kennicott: I've read several stories in the Post recently in which Muslim leaders say essentially all the things so many people want them to say. If memory serves, one from Lebanon, and another from Afghanistan. One of the uglier dynamics about modern debate via the Internet and television is that everyone is always demanding that the other side say such and such. And often, they are saying exactly those things... but no one listens because they've already decided what the other man thinks.

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Washington, D.C.: It is insulting to moderate Muslims that Western public discourse on this situation chooses to ignore the specific offense that is the illustration picturing the prophet with a bomb on his head, which unequivocally says that "Muslims are terrorists". Will Christians be outraged if Jesus were cartooned molesting a child? I hope so -because that would be equally outrageous. Muslims around the globe, condemn the violence and hateful rhetoric emanating from hot spots in ME like Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in the rest of the world protested via peaceful protest, petitioning government, and economic boycotts - Rights as fundamental to democracy as the freedom of speech. Let us not forget that some Christian Americans were boycotting stores that did not mention Christmas in their season's greetings only a few weeks ago. Why the hypocrisy (granted it's on both sides - but let's address the west here)? and Why is the Danish government not be at least partially blamed for declining to resolve this issue months ago by shunning Islamic leaders and Muslim diplomats? Thank you.

Philip Kennicott: Hypocrisy is a word I've seen a lot today. There's plenty to go around, and the basic thought behind my piece last week is that we can do very little about other people's hypocrisy. We can, however, have a direct effect on our own. The last point you raise, that the Danish government is partially to blame for not resolving this, makes me a little uncomfortable. I think it better for governments to always keep their hands off the free press.

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Olney, Md.: Mr Kennicott,

By who's interpretation of Muslim Law is depicting the Muslim Prophet illegal? The only consistency in the news the last few years is the inconsistency with which Islam is represented. It seems there are spokespeople everywhere to interpret and little consensus. Muslims are murdering Muslims at funerals in Iraq but these drawings are the outrage -GIVE ME A BREAK!

Philip Kennicott: I post this comment because there's one good point here: the understanding of Islam that comes filtered through the press is often confused and contradictory. Some of that is unavoidable. Religions are rarely entirely self consistent. There are fundamental splits Islam, as there are in Christianity, and differences of doctrine. The press could do a better job if it were, across the board, better educated about religion.

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Ottawa, Canada: I have a question that has bothered me since the beginning of the cartoon riots. Is it acceptable in the Muslim religion to kill someone who insults Islam? If it is, how can we ever deal with this in free and open societies?

Philip Kennicott: I feel perhaps I should just let Muslims answer this. But of course they've been answering it again and again. Of course killing violates the tenets and values of most Muslims. How many times do moderates have to repeat this to be heard? And why do extremists, who hold a different view, get heard so clearly?

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Arlington, Va.: You know, lately I've heard many comments like the one Chantilly made. Its kinda ridiculous if you think about it. I mean there are over a billion Muslims on this planet, 6 million in the U.S. If all Muslims really believed what you hypothesize would there be devastation and chaos worldwide? Is there violence in places, are there groups within Muslims that are violent, of course. But the Islamic world and culture is also very diverse and beautiful, but like Kennicott when you phrase your questions like that, you're setting yourself up to live in your own cocoon and never really having a dialogue or appreciating other cultures as well.

Philip Kennicott: posted for the benefit of discussion...

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Dunn Loring, Va.: How can readers of The Post make an informed decision about the cartoons if the paper refuses to print them? If the paper is so concerned about protecting its readers from potentially offensive material, why does it print cartoons ridiculing disabled soldiers or pictures of a crucifix in urine?

Philip Kennicott: A question that gets at the many difficult and often close calls when it comes to balancing news value and a policy of not deliberating offending people. First, the cartoon you mention is probably the Tom Toles cartoon, and it didn't ridicule disabled soldiers. It was lampooning the policy as articulated by our political leaders. The famous crucifix in urine has come up a lot lately. I don't know whether it appeared in the Post or not. The Serrano flap was well before my time. I think the wide availability of the cartoons on the Internet, and the careful descriptions of them in the Post, serves readers perfectly well. And what is the "informed decision" that readers need to make? Just curious.

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Anonymous: Why is it so taboo to say that we are different? We have a huge gulf on how we treat women, value freedom of religion, tolerate homosexuality, etc... These differences happen to clash. It isn't about caricatures of other people, it is about actual differences between people. We don't stone women who have been accused of adultery, they do. I am sure they are just as repulsed by how we handle adultery as a culture as we are by what they do to handle it. How do you propose we reconcile these differences?

Philip Kennicott: I don't think newspapers will reconcile the differences you mention. I do remember a very powerful story, written by a Post journalist from Afghanistan, about an honor killing there. I think it laid out the cultural territory very well. That's all we can do.

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University Park, Md.: I thought your piece was excellent. On the publish/not publish questions, it seems to me that editors get an easy pass because of the Internet. If there was no Internet, it would seem to me that they wouldn't be responsible to their readers by not publishing.

There also seems to be precedent. 30 years ago in D.C. hostages were taken and threatened with beheading basically because a biographical movie about the Prophet Muhammad had been released in New York. The movie was pulled and as far as I know never shown.

When all is said and done it seems that there is a fundamental incompatibility with the belief in the free flow of ideas and Orthodox Islam.

Philip Kennicott: The Internet complicates life, and simplifies it. Yes, it's easy for us to say, if you want the cartoons go find them on the net. At the same time, I wonder how big a role the net itself played in making this story as huge as it has become.

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Arlington, Va.: On the question: "Is it acceptable in the Muslim religion to kill someone who insults Islam?"

First thank you Philip for addressing it. Also, the Holy Quran specifically prohibits the taking of any life either one's own or someone lese's - in fact it equates one life taken to the killing of entire humanity.

As you say Philip, it is interesting how the hateful propaganda of Islamic radicals is so clearly heard by the West but the voices of millions of other Muslims are flatly ignored - I guess it has to do with a search for dark elements to reinforce one's stubborn prejudices and biases.

Philip Kennicott: I've got a lot of people asking the same questions: why does Islam allow this? Do Muslim leaders condemn it? So here, yet again, is another answer. Thanks for sending it.

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Muslim Leaders: 1/Lebanon, 1/Afghanistan: So. A total of 2 voices? A veritable cacophony of disgust....

Philip Kennicott: How many do you need? Remember, we've only got so much space in any one news story.

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Washington, D.C.: I understand The Post's decision not to run the cartoons soon after their original release four months ago in Denmark. I also understand the decision not to run the cartoons on their own in the Opinion. However, now that the cartoons are making NEWS, and the mission of The Washington Post is to report news and information; then in order to report this news I would expect a printing of that which has caused such global discontent in order so that its faithful readers are given the opportunity to fully understand how this news was made.

Philip Kennicott: Obviously, the news value of the pictures has changed, as I discussed in my piece last week. But here's a dilemma for any newspaper trying to hold to a workable standard: Anyone can create offensive images; with enough attention they can get them "out there"; and then do we publish them? There's a kind of seepage effect which the paper needs to avoid as well.

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Arlington, Va.: In response to many of the comments you've received, I DON'T think "non-Muslims" are surprised that Muslims are offended by the cartoons. They are surprised by the violence. We are all free to protest - as one person noted that some Christians boycotted stores. But did anyone try to burn these stores or kill anyone over it? That is the difference; that is why it is getting so much attention.

Philip Kennicott: It's not that hard to put the various reactions in perspective. Violence, destruction, burning embassies, wrong. Boycotts? Probably misguided, but they're all the rage. Anger and offense taken? Understandable.

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An American Muslim: I think the big problem is people on both sides have already made up their minds and are exploiting opportunities as they arise. Also ignorance of each other and the unwillingness to learn about each other is also a problem that fuels this rage. For example, when you say honor killings as only a Muslim phenomenon is incorrect. In the Middle East and Africa, this is a cultural issue where Arab and African Muslims and Christians espouse to this barbaric ideal. The media as an institution that claims to research and report the truth should go the extra step on fact checking on both sides of the divide, because there are plenty of misconceptions to go around on both sides.

Philip Kennicott: Thanks. I meant only to call attention to a story from Afghanistan, not to characterize it as a story about Islam in general. The strength of that piece was how detailed it was about a particular culture, in a particular place. It was the opposite of generality, and we need more of that.

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Washington, D.C.: To answer a question you asked: People don't hear the Muslim moderates because we just don't hear any worth listening to. When President Bush speaks, people around the world know he speaks (sort of) for all Americans, and that he represents the country's official position. The same holds for Tony Blair or for the French Finance Minister or for a member of the Israeli Knesset or for any other government official you wish to name throughout the world. All of these people can be fairly judged as speaking for their fellow citizens to a certain extent, usually understandable within context. Not a single majority-Muslim country is run by anyone we consider to be within the remote sphere of "moderate". Nor do these leaders necessarily represent their citizens in the first place. Hence, the opinions of the moderates are never heard and a lot of us question whether they even exist. You can disagree with me, but I say that just speaking and hoping we listen isn't enough here. The moderates need to take stronger action if they wish to be heard.

Philip Kennicott: I think you might enjoy spending some time in Indonesia. I did.

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Arlington, Va.: "And what is the "informed decision" that readers need to make? Just curious." Speaking only for myself, I would like to make an informed decision on how provocative the cartoons really seem to be.

Philip Kennicott: But isn't that already clear? Muhammad with a bomb for a turban is pretty clear, and pretty provocative.

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We keep many things out of the paper....: Mr. Kennicott sir, you mention you keep things out of your paper, such as gratuitous nudity, out of standards. However, if a particular nude photo caused riots across the globe, wouldn't you feel compelled to show the photo causing the disturbance so as to gain a greater understanding? In the same vein, while we don't expect to read expletives in your paper every day, if you wrote a story on the Supreme Court's ruling on George Carlin's 7 dirty words case, wouldn't it make sense to print those words so we can understand better? To label the cartoons as gratuitous seems absurd given the level of violence that has ensued.

Thank you.

Philip Kennicott: I'd like to just post a few reader comments before leaving. Sorry I didn't have the time to answer them...

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Arlington, Va.: I have seen the cartoons and I am confused about The Post's decision not to publish them. They are all different and seem to run the gamut of being offensive, but some aren't really offensive at all, so why not publish those?

Philip Kennicott: Some are offensive only in that they represent the Prophet, which is itself considered offensive by most Muslims. I think we've done a pretty good job of describing the range of imagery among the twelve.

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Philip Kennicott: I'm sorry folks, but I have to go. There are a lot of questions left in the queue. Wish I could have gotten to all them. Thanks for your time and observations.

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