Widespread Outrage Over Cartoons
Thursday, February 16, 2006; 12:00 PM
Washington Post staff writer Anthony Shadid , who is based in Beirut, was online Thursday, Feb. 16, at noon ET to discuss the fallout over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as continuing outrage has soured diplomatic relations and violent protests have lead to deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Read more: Anatomy of the Cartoon Protest Movement , ( Post, Feb. 16, 2006 )
The transcript follows.
Anthony Shadid: Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to join you all today from Beirut. I see there are a lot of questions already so I'll go ahead and get started.
Williamsburg, Va.: Are the protests of these cartoons based more on the mere fact that they depict the Prophet, or because they indicate that he is a violent terrorist?
Anthony Shadid: I think it's both. But if we take a step back, it's really a broader issue. What we've seen the past weeks, I think, is the elaboration of an accumulation of resentments and grievances, the cartoons being the latest and, in some ways, the most tangible.
Los Angeles, Calif.: The magnitude of the cartoon protests is not surprising given the incredible cultural disconnect between Muslim nations and the West. It seems like the only ones surprised by this reaction are the European newspapers that took a "militant" stand for secularism and free speech by printing the cartoons. But images of widespread rioting and protests in Muslim countries reinforce the cartoon-stereotype of rigid, fanatical Muslims. Does lack of surprise over the violent reactions mean that we have insight into the Muslim perspective or does it mean that we believe the cartoons?
Anthony Shadid: I think it's an interesting point. I was interviewing a cleric in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, and I asked him that question. Basically, does the violent response, in some instances, reinforce stereotypes that many in the region think the cartoons represent? He agreed. And, to his credit, he was one of the clerics, with a bullhorn, trying to restrain protesters during the rampage in Beirut. There has certainly been a backlash to the violent aspects of the response, from Ayatollah Fadlallah in Lebanon, to Sistani in Iraq, to Sunni leaders elsewhere. I guess I'd add that there has been a sense of empowerment as well -- that the Muslim community is having its voice heard, in part through a successful boycott of Danish products. A mixed bag, I guess.
Aarhus, Denmark: At first I was opposed to Jyllands-Posten printing the cartoons. But now I feel it was necessary. The fanaticism and intolerance of a few have been exposed. We have seen our flags been burned; many Danes have received death threats. We are deeply offended, but I am proud to say that none of the 200.000 Muslims in Denmark have anything to fear. Not even the extremists. I am sorry that Muslims have been offended, but I and our Prime Minister cannot apology for something a single newspaper has done.
Anthony Shadid: As a journalist, I feel conflicted about the decision. As someone living in the region, I understand somewhat the depth of the response. We are talking about a divide here, and there is a certainty on each side that often drowns out voices that might be contrarian.
Montreal, Canada: Your timeline of the cartoon crisis has a gaping hole: why didn't you mention that al-Farj (also spelled al-Farg) a 100,000 copies weekly newspaper in Cairo also published the Danish cartoons on October 17 during the Ramadan?
Nobody reacted to this publication. But last week, as if on cue, Egyptians suddenly exploded in anger with the rest of the Muslim world.
Anthony Shadid: I tell you -- with the word limit we had on the story, we left out a lot. I'm sorry about that. You're right about the Egyptian newspaper. But the lead of the story noted that they were published in October in Indonesia, as well. I thought we addressed that point right at the top of the piece.
Washington, D.C.: Having lived in the Middle East for five years, I can't help but shake my head at the fact that these people are so easily being manipulated by their governments. I totally understand them being offended by the cartoons- goodness knows there are many times I've been offended by something mocking Christianity- but shouldn't they be demonstrating against their governments not doing enough to give them jobs, security, etc.?
And can you please shed some light as to why Muslims think that non-Muslims should be expected to adhere to Muslim rules?
Anthony Shadid: My sense, this isn't solely a case of manipulation. I suspect there was some of that going on. But was Syria responsible for what happened in Beirut? Its sympathizers may have had a hand, but there was plenty of anger already there to let things get out of hand. Like I said in an earlier question, we're talking about accumulated grievances here, many of which date back to Sept. 11. I'm not sanctioning them, I'm just pointing out they exist. Often those grievances are stated in existential terms, that the war on terror is, in fact, a war on Islam. I suspect most Americans would disagree, but that perspective is out there.
Buffalo, N.Y.: How much of the anger was really about the cartoons and how much was it just a dislike of the West? I saw quite a few American flags burning even though the cartoons had nothing to do with America.
Anthony Shadid: There's no question that grievances were conflated, interconnected and so on. I think we saw that especially in Afghanistan. In some ways, that's what worries me. I've always been struck, in the Arab world at least, by the ability of people to distinguish American policy, for instance, from, say, Americans, or European policy from individual citizens. I fear that's becoming less the case these days.
Sterling, Va.: Why is most of the news media willing to publish old photos of Abu Ghraib but are unwilling to publish the "cartoons of blasphemy"?
Anthony Shadid: This is an interesting point -- the most graphic Abu Ghraib images were, in fact, not published. I'm not sure what that says, but I think editors (I'm not one, so I won't speak too much for them) make decisions several times a day on language, taste and so on. There's no firm rule on what gets in a paper and doesn't. I think the Post's decision on the cartoons probably fits within that notion of what is appropriate.
Ocala, Fla.: If these groups are so angry at the West, why do they keep moving into Western countries? It seems like they should fix their own countries first.
Anthony Shadid: I notice a real danger in American discourse (and in the discourse here, as well) to make sweeping generalizations. Who are "these groups" you're talking about? Which countries do you mean? I don't think all Americans would want to be associated with every U.S. policy. I don't think all Muslims would want to be grouped with those who burned the embassies in Damascus. We fall into that problem in journalism, as well. "Muslim opinion," "the Muslim world," and so on. I don't always see a way around it, but usually, I don't think it helps us understand the real issues at stake.
Alexandria, Va.: Isn't what is different about the cartoon protests that we think the cause of the protests is not appropriate? But the reality is that they are protesting against us on a regular basis. It's not the protests that are different this time, its that the purported reason for them is different, and this is what we notice. When they protest a book being abused, we think it odd, but since we don't want to abuse books, we don't notice as much.
Anthony Shadid: I don't know about that. The depth of the reaction is far greater this time around. I think it touched a nerve. I think it reflects, as I've said a couple times, accumulated grievances and resentments. I think a lot of people here see it as a little over the top -- maybe not even the cartoons, but the decision to publish them over and over.
Philadelphia, Pa.: It seems a sham that European newspapers and governments evoke "freedom of expression" to avoid criticizing the publication of tasteless cartoons. It reminds me of high school students distributing a "spoof" newspaper that makes offensive comments about fellow students. In both cases, "freedom of expression" should not prevent criticism of the materials as offensive and inappropriate.
Additionally, it appears that in many post-Enlightenment European societies minorities gain full admission only if they accept assimilation and secularization. That is in contrast to the United States, where religiosity and religious diversity has been accepted, more or less. That attitude arguably can be traced to George Washington, whose letters to diverse religious institutions are proudly displayed by those institutions to this day.
What developments do you expect in Europe in regard to tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities?
Anthony Shadid: I can't really answer to the last two paragraphs, but as to the first, I'd point you to the discussion in today's story with the German and Italian editors. I thought it was fascinating, the way they elaborated their positions and the point they were trying to get across. I thought both were pretty nuanced and reflective.
Springfield, Va.: In today's report you called this "a rare moment of empowerment among Muslims who have felt besieged." I don't know anyone living in the west who views the violent protests, boycotts, and publishing of anti-Holocaust cartoons as a step forward for Muslims. Please expand on how you see the various actions and reactions empowering Muslims.
Anthony Shadid: This is an interesting question, and it was a point that struck me in writing the story. I don't think Muslims would measure their empowerment vis a vis Western attitudes. And I'm not sure that empowerment, in itself, is, as you put it, a step forward. My point was this: There is a widespread sense among many in the Arab and Muslim world that they've been on the receiving end since Sept. 11. Their voices are not always heard. They're overwhelmed by what they see as double standards. Here was an instance when they communicated their outrage, sometimes in peaceful ways. Perhaps more tellingly, and specifically in Saudi Arabia, they carried out a boycott that was, from their view, successful. The doctor we mention in the story would see this as the success of a grass-roots campaign, and I think in one reading, that in itself is empowerment.
Gothenburg, Sweden: How widespread is the anger caused by the cartoons? How does the "man on the street" in the Arab world feel about this? Is the anger and protest and so on mostly fueled by fanatics or is it more widespread?
Anthony Shadid: I have to say I think it's more widespread. The woman I ended the story with, I thought, was an interesting perspective. The issue itself was peripheral to her, but that didn't mean it didn't resonate at some level. There's no question it's what people are talking about and watching on television.
Knoxville, Tenn.: I am a Pakistani immigrant. Though I felt insulted by the cartoons I was very disappointed at the recent violent riots in Pakistan. Why are Muslims today so emotional and lacking in smart thinking? A peaceful protest would have worked far far better.
Anthony Shadid: I've heard that point quite a bit. The cleric in Tripoli I met made the same argument: a protest should have shown "strength with wisdom."
Seattle, Wash.: Arab newspapers print anti-Semitic cartoons of Jews every day. How come these same Muslims who are so upset about the Danish cartoon think these cartoons of Jews eating babies is OK?
Anthony Shadid: That was the point the Italian editor tried to make in today's story.
San Diego, Calif.: Could you comment on The Post's decision not to publish these cartoons? In the interest of full disclosure, I believe the cartoons ARE the story and that not republishing abandons journalistic integrity. You cannot publish dozens of pictures of the riots caused by the cartoons without publishing the cartoons themselves. I'm very concerned that these cartoons have not been widely republished in the U.S. out of fear of retribution.
Anthony Shadid: This is a question that is coming up a lot in this forum. (I'm sorry, I'm not able to get to everyone's.) Like I said, I'm not an editor, but my understanding of the decision is that it seems to fit within the same thinking on publishing photos of dead soldiers, of the most graphic Abu Ghraib shots and so on. I don't think it's fear of retribution. I think it's a certain community standard that the Post feels obligated to uphold.
Cambridge, Mass.: Mr. Shadid:
With reference to freedom of the press and respect for religion aside, do you believe the current escalating tension and wanton violence will precipitate widespread conflicts as backlashes against Muslims (inevitably) begin to materialize, leading to a kind of "clash of civilization"? Thanks.
Anthony Shadid: I'm going to speak as someone who lives in the Middle East. I don't have a good feeling about the state of affairs today. It's a gut reaction, but sentiments in this region (and let's face it, the tenor of discourse in the West, too) have changed dramatically in the 10 years or so that I've been a reporter in the Middle East. What does that mean? I don't know. But in a lot of ways, I find it sad.
Fredericksburg, Va.: In 1989 artist Andrew Serrano produced the art piece "Piss Christ" a crucifix in a jar of urine. Many were offended, many were disgusted. but no one rioted, no one burned down building and no one was killed. In fact the work was subsidized by the Federal government through an arts grant. This controversy isn't about a cartoon, this is about a group of religious zealots imposing their beliefs through violence. If it wasn't the cartoon it would be something else.
Anthony Shadid: This is a question that's best answered by someone a lot smarter than me. But I think there's a danger in viewing this as a simple issue of religious representation. We're talking about different world views -- the relationship between religion and society/life, the taboos that come with representing figures in Christianity and Islam, the disempowerment felt by so many in the region, differing shades of the very notion of identity ... the list could go on and on. My point is this: There's a context here that's sometimes lost, and I think that context is crucial in understanding the depth of the debate as well as the reaction.
Nichols Hills, Okla.: How strong is the belief in the Middle East that Western governments control the Western press, and therefore the Western governments are accountable for the cartoons? And if it is a strong belief, is that due to their only experiences being state controlled media? or otherwise?
Anthony Shadid: OK, I'd be a miserable Okie, if I didn't get to the questions from my hometown. I think that point is often made in the West -- that Arabs and Muslims don't understand the very notion of a free press. To be honest, I don't agree with it. I think people -- not all, but many -- do understand that the newspapers in Europe are not state-controlled. These requests for an apology were often stated in broader terms. I'm not agreeing with the requests, but I think often those making them do not think the governments themselves were responsible for publishing the cartoons.
Oklahoma City, Okla.: How do Muslims "in the Middle East street" perceive the more moderate U.S. Muslims who have not reacted violently to the cartoons? Are the moderate U.S. Muslims viewed just as bad as the U.S. infidels?
Anthony Shadid: And another from Oklahoma. There's definitely been a certain revulsion at the violence, particularly in Beirut. But I haven't really come across a moderate/extreme divide that's all that pronounced on the issue. And here's why -- again, it's not solely the cartoons. I think the most sophisticated will make that point that it's a representation that feeds into stereotypes and generalizations, made by those with the power to impose them. Does that make sense? It's similar to what the woman who concluded the story was saying: I'm being grouped with everyone else, depriving me of a middle ground, and in that case, I have no choice but to identify myself as such.
Austin, Tex.: I have a more general question. Who (if anybody) speaks for the US and Europe in the Arabic media?
Quality news shows in the US (the NewsHour, for instance) generally find some pretty eloquent spokesmen for different Arab/Muslim points of view.
Are there comparable figures on TV in the Arab/Muslim world explaining why some people in the West think that these cartoons should be published? Or even explaining facts, like for instance that the Pope can't stop publication of the cartoons?
Are there even many people with the Arabic-language skills to do so?
Anthony Shadid: You might be surprised by how many Western voices make it on Arabic television. I'm always struck that Jazeera and Arabiya will sometimes dedicate more air time to, say, a State Department briefing or a news conference than their Western counterparts might.
Richmond, Va.: Unfortunately I have to agree, like it or not, that the response to the cartoons brought out, for some at least, the very characteristics that the cartoons mocked. It would be like an Irishman beating someone up in a bar who said that Irishmen love to drink and fight.
Having said that, I'm glad that the response hasn't been worse, given the magnitude of the insult that many Muslims consider the cartoons to be. I'm glad to see that many Muslim leaders are calling for a more measured response.
I hope everybody learns something from this.
Anthony Shadid: It's a good point, and one that I've heard often. It will be interesting to see how we look back on this in five or 10 years. Was it symptomatic of a much greater problem, an aberration, or the start of a dialogue? I suspect it's the first, but we'll see.
New York, N.Y.: To what extent were Syrian officials involved in the embassy attacks there? You mentioned that intelligence agents were seen among the crowd, and this is a country where spontaneous demonstrations are quite rare, if they occur at all.
Anthony Shadid: This is a good question, and to be honest, I don't know the answer. My best guess, and again, it's a guess: Authorities didn't mind the protest, and they might not have minded it getting out of hand, but they probably didn't incite or plan the burning themselves.
Washington, D.C.: Mr Shadid:
What kind of apology for these cartoons do you think would make a difference? At this point there has been so much violence, I'm wondering if any apology would make any difference at all. (Whether anyone would be willing to make such an apology is an entirely separate issue.)
Thank you for taking our questions today.
Anthony Shadid: I'm probably wrong, but I suspect a lot of this would have been avoided had the meetings, apologies and petitions been received differently in the first place in Denmark. I'm not blaming the Danish authorities. I'm just saying that those events unleashed a far more aggressive campaign that brought the issue to the region, where, in a remarkably interconnected world, it took little time to ignite.
Madison, Wis.: Since the original cartoons were published last year, and there has been violence for the last few weeks, just how long do you expect these protests over the cartoons to last?
Anthony Shadid: I don't know. They're still going on, and I suspect they'll go on a little while longer. I think it depends on whether the cartoons are republished and what happens in the region.
Anthony Shadid: I think I'm going to have to wrap it up. I apologize. I got to less than half the questions, but I've never seen this much interest in an issue on Live Online. That says a lot about the subject itself, I guess. Hope to join you all again soon.
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