Don't Kill "The Cartoonist": Stand Up to Intimidation

Posted: May 11, 2008 12:01 AM
Don't Kill "The Cartoonist": Stand Up to Intimidation

Months after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran 12 mostly unflattering cartoons that depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad on Sept. 30, 2005, mobs torched Danish embassies in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and riots in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria led to the deaths of more than 100 people. Most American papers, including The Chronicle, ran stories about the controversy, but chose not to reprint the cartoons. Then-Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal wrote, "We always weigh the value of the journalistic impact against the impact that publication might have as far as insulting or hurting certain groups. In this case, we described the cartoons and felt that was sufficient."

It was a controversy so complicated that it gave many opinion-makers -- including me -- pause.

On the one hand, any newspaper person will defend and must defend the right to run a cartoon that offends people. The day we fail to run opinion lest we offend anyone, we should pack it up.

On the other hand, newspapers regularly exercise self-censorship. If I were an opinion page editor, I would not run a cartoon that gratuitously insults members of any religion. When you offend people's sensibilities -- and I seem to do so every week -- at least you should do so to make a larger point. The Danish cartoons seemed the journalistic equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull.

And bad manners, really. I've seen too many pundits express snide and ignorant opinions about devout Christians, who believe they are the one group whom the media can freely and unfairly stereotype.

With that attitude, I agreed to meet with Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who ran the cartoons, after he spoke at Stanford University last week.

I emerged from that meeting righteous in the belief that we in the media ought to be a little less concerned with Rose's manners and far more concerned about those who seek to intimidate and silence those who express opinions they don't like.

This February, Danish authorities arrested three men for plotting to behead cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew a cartoon depicting Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban. In solidarity, two years after the 2006 riots, 17 Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoon.

Rose noted that the plot to kill the cartoonist proved the cartoonist's point: "They are basically saying, 'If you say we are violent, we are going to kill you.'"

The violent murder in 2004 of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker critical of Islam, by a radical Muslim sent a chill across Europe. In Denmark, a children's writer of a book on Muhammad was turned down by three illustrators, a fourth would take the job only anonymously. A Danish comedian told the Jyllands-Posten that he would urinate on the Bible, but dared not do likewise on the Quran.

Rose was bothered at what he believed was European self-censorship fueled by fear and political correctness. After working as a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union, he had developed a strong distaste for any law that mirrors Soviet laws that criminalized dissent.

In response, Rose contacted members of the Danish cartoonists union to "draw Muhammad as they see him" to counter "a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end."

Now people look at the Danish cartoons and blithely pronounce that Jyllands-Posten should have known that violence would follow.

In fact, while the paper ran the cartoons in September 2005, violence did not erupt until 2006, after two imams toured the Middle East and disseminated not only the original cartoons, but also three more offensive images, including a photo from a French pig-squealing contest. Blame the men who set out to stoke Islamic outrage for igniting the flames that followed and the violence that claimed so many innocent lives.

As for European critics who say he is Islamophobic, Rose responded that some Europeans believe "you shouldn't offend Muslims because they are so weak, they are so immature, they are such a different kind of minority, that if you treat them like everybody else, they will go wild."

To Rose, who has been highly critical of the "victim-ology" practiced by radical imams living in Europe, the belief that criticizing Muhammad is incendiary is Islamophobic.

Rose warned against newspapers giving into intimidation by loudmouths who want to quash dissenting opinions.

"If you give into intimidation, you will not get less intimidation, you will get more intimidation."