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U.S.: Muhammad Cartoon Controversy Having Little Impact In U.S.

  • Andrew Tully --> Protestors in Karachi burned the flags of Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland during a rally today (epa) For the past week, Muslims across the world have held protests -- some of them violent and deadly – against the decision by Danish and other European newspapers to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Islam forbids any depiction of its prophet, and protesters say the publication of the cartoons is an insult to their religion and culture. However, as of 7 February, only one major U.S. newspaper -- the "Philadelphia Inquirer" – has followed the European lead and re-published the cartoons, in solidarity with the principle of a free press, The demonstration that followed publication was fairly minor. America's reaction to the controversy couldn't be more different than Europe's.

WASHINGTON, 7 February 206 (RFE/RL) -- Demonstrations by angry Muslims show no sign of abating. From Beirut to Damascus, Kabul to Tehran, European flags have been burned, embassies have been surrounded, and goods have been boycotted.

Nothing of the kind, however, has happened in the United States, home to an estimated 7 million Muslims.

The "Philadelphia Inquirer" published one of the 12 Muhammad cartoons on 3 February, explaining that it wanted its readers to be better informed about the controversy. A mild and brief demonstration by about 20 people urging religious tolerance followed.

The cartoons were first printed last September in the Danish daily newspaper “Jyllands-Posten.” When the controversy eventually erupted, in late January, several other European newspapers rushed to reprint them, saying they wanted to show solidarity with the Danish paper and to assert their right to freedom of expression.

Press Freedom, Press Responsibility

Many Muslim leaders outside the United States have tried to calm the protesters' anger by calling for tolerance of the European free press. In America, the reaction has been much the same.

Esam Omeish is the director of the Muslim American Society. He told reporters in Washington this week that Muslims should not call for censorship of any sort. At the same time, he said the U.S. press should continue to show restraint by not printing the drawings.

'Here are these riots going on, this must be pretty offensive. What was it that led to these riots? There's no real way to judge this without looking at the cartoons yourself, and deciding for yourself."

"We vehemently stand by the freedom of the press and the freedom of opinion, however we say that with this freedom, there is responsibility in which there must be respect for other religions and the rights of others, and that we are all part of one society,” Omeish said. “We want what's good for the whole society and we do not want to disrespect the rights of one another."

The executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, however, believes it is wrong to print caricatures of holy figures, regardless of what religions they represent.

"Defamation, whether it's in the Jewish community, whether it's in the Christian community, is defamation, any publication of any images like this is inflammatory," Mahdi Bray said yesterday in Washington. "So it doesn't matter who does it. It's wrong."

Self-Censorship Carries Risks

There are problems with such calls for self-censorship, according to Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington. He told RFE/RL that Americans view freedom of the press as absolute.

An exception was codified in a landmark 1919 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court -- the nation's highest tribunal. The court said speech should not be protected if it creates a danger to society, and cited as an example someone "shouting fire in a crowded theater," when there is no fire.

Publishing the "Muhammad cartoons" doesn't endanger society, says Feldstein. He points out that the authors of the U.S. Constitution believed all points of view, whether respectful or offensive, should compete openly so that the public can decide where the truth lies.

Given that Americans are supposed to encourage an open marketplace of ideas and opinions, Feldstein says he is uncomfortable with the fact that only one U.S. newspaper has published the cartoons. He wonders if the rest have been dissuaded by "political correctness.”

"In the past, often there was a great insensitivity to the rights of minorities, and in an attempt to correct that, sometimes the pendulum has swung too far the other way with such an all-inclusive approach that sometimes truth or harsh realities are lost in the process,” he said. “And in this case, I think, some harsh realities are lost."

Feldstein had to conduct an exhaustive search of the Internet to see the cartoons for himself. He says no one should have to work so hard to find such information.

"I think a lot of readers have the same question that I did: 'Here are these riots going on, this must be pretty offensive. What was it that led to these riots?' In a way, there's no real way to judge this without looking at the cartoons yourself, and deciding for yourself.”

He added, “And by not publishing these cartoons, I think, in a way the American media has done a disservice because it doesn't allow the reader to form that judgment for themselves."

The Cartoon Controversy

Islamabad residents protesting against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on February 15 (epa)

An Unfolding Conflict

19 February 2006: A full-page apology by "Jyllands-Posten," dated 5 February, appears in papers in Saudi Arabia. Churches in Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan are attacked, as too is the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.

18 February: Forty-five die in Nigeria as churches, hotels, and shops are torched in a predominantly Muslim northern state. Roberto Calderoli resigns from the Italian cabinet after being blamed for riots in Libya that ended with the destruction of the Italian Embassy and the loss of 10 lives. The Libyan interior minister and local police chiefs are sacked for using disproportionate force to quell the riots.

17 February: Ten Libyan protestors are killed during a demonstration that culminates with the burning of the Italian Embassy in Tripoli. Protestors link the demonstrations to the decision of an Italian minister to wear T-shirts showing the cartoons.

16 February: The Russian media watchdog pledges to take a tough line against any organization accused of "insulting religious feelings."

15 February: The Danish government says the Iraqi government wants Danish troops to remain. A far-right Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, says he plans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with some of the "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons. In Pakistan, three more protestors are killed, one in Lahore and two in Peshawar, as tens of thousands demonstrate.

14 February: Pakistani police shoot dead two protesters in Lahore. In Iran, crowds attack the British and German embassies. Political leaders in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah call for Danish troops to leave the country. In Israel, a cartoonist launches a competition for the best anti-Semitic cartoons by Jews themselves. In Europe, the Portugese president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, promises support for Denmark and the democratic system in a dispute that reminds him of his country's dictatorial past.

13 February: A leading Iranian newspaper, "Hamshahri," invites cartoons about the Holocaust in a competition aimed at testing the limits of free speech in the West.

12 February: Intelligence reports suggest Danes in Indonesia are under threat. Denmark urges its nationals to leave the country. It had previously made similar appeals to Danes in many Muslim countries.

10 February: Thousands of Malayans protest, as Western and Muslim political, cultural, and religious leaders gather to discuss differences between the Western and Muslim worlds.

9 February: The Swedish government forces offline a website that asked readers to submit their own cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

8 February: Security forces open fire on protestors in the Afghan city of Qalat, killing four, on a day of angry and sometimes violent scenes around the world. Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of inciting violence.

7 February: Iran's largest newspaper invites cartoons of the Holocaust, saying it wants to test the limits of Western freedom of expression.

6 February: Widespread unrest over the cartoons reported in Afghanistan. One person was reported killed and four wounded in Laghman Province.

6 February: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expresses "distress" over the publication of the cartoons, but condemns the violent reactions in the Muslim world.

5 February: The Danish Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, is torched.

4 February: Mobs burn the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chilean embassies in Syria. Protests in Denmark turn violent.

1 February: Papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain run reprints of the cartoons in a show of solidarity.

30 January: The EU says it will take World Trade Organization (WTO) action if the boycott persists. Several Islamic groups, including Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, call for a worldwide boycott of Danish products. Masked gunmen in storm EU office in Gaza. The Danish paper apologizes.

29 January: "Jyllands-Posten" prints a statement in Arabic saying the drawings were published in line with freedom of expression and not a campaign against Islam. Palestinians burn Danish flags and Libya announces it will close its embassy in Denmark.

28 January: The Danish company Arla places advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers to try to stop boycott of its products.

27 January: Thousands denounce the cartoons during Friday prayers in Iraq.

26 January: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador to Denmark and initiates a boycott of Danish goods.

10 January 2006: The cartoons are reprinted by the Norwegian newspaper "Magazinet."

14 November: Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan-based group, protests in Islamabad.

20 October: Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries complain to Danish Prime Minister. "Jyllands-Posten" reports that illustrators have received death threats.

30 September 2005: The Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" publishes 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Calming The Storm

Former Jailed Iranian Cartoonist Discusses Muhammad Caricatures

Western, Eastern Media View Cartoon Crisis As Test Of Values