US press coverage of the “cartoon controversy” has followed a predictable course. It has been event-driven and, for the most part, devoid of context and understanding of its principal subject matter. The motivations and sensitivities of both European and Muslim actors in this unfolding drama have been given only scant, if any, attention.
Initially, news accounts of Arab reaction to the Danish cartoons were relegated to back-page reportage. Only after protests turned violent did the story warrant front-page treatment, accompanied by dramatic photos of angry demonstrators and burning embassies. More recently, major papers and wire services have attempted backgrounders on the crisis, still limiting themselves to a mere reconstruction of the chronology of events. Finally, after the Administration addressed the matter, news coverage followed its lead, pointing an accusing finger at the “usual suspects,” now seen as instigators of the entire ruckus.
Much the same could be seen in opinion pieces written on the controversy. Without reference to context, or any understanding of deeper realities at work in this confrontation, editorial writers and commentators have played out two divergent but equally shallow themes. The best of these commentaries cast the problem as simply a clash between adherence to the absolute principle of “freedom of the press” and the insult that these noxious cartoons represented to pious Muslims. The worst saw only the violence and deemed it evidence of the violence inherent in Islam and its message.
Missing in all of this has been an effort to understand the deeper forces of history and the fears and insecurities, both bad and good, at work in this story.
Ignored, for example, is the fact that the entire controversy began as a deliberate provocation directed, not at the Muslim world, in general, but at Europe’s Muslims in particular. The offending Danish newspaper has a long history of anti-immigrant advocacy. In soliciting and publishing the cartoons, the Jyllands-Posten sought both to “stick their finger in the eye” of Muslims, and in doing so make them understand that, in effect, “you are our subjects and you will bend to our cultural values; we will not accommodate ourselves to yours.”
In this regard, Jyllands-Posten represents a strain of European thought shared by some of the continent’s liberal elites and nativist rabble. Unable to resolve the issue of national integration and incorporate new immigrants into their body politic and national self-identity, these Europeans have recoiled in fear and insecurity in the face of the growing numbers and restiveness of their “guests'” (some of whom are former colonial subjects).
The cartoons were meant to “teach a lesson,” and arrogantly assert authority. Not quite the same as “freedom of the press.”
To declare, as some have, that such freedom is absolute is, of course, nonsense since every culture, by definition, has its taboos. The measure of a civilization is not the freedom it provides to defile taboos, but how respectful and sensitive it is to the taboos of diverse cultures, especially those within its midst.
In the US, for example, we correctly have learned to shun and even prohibit most racist and anti-Semitic displays. In some Western countries Holocaust deniers and/or promoters of hate can be prosecuted. A long and troubled history with bigotry has brought us to this point.
Now, if this deeper understanding of the West’s role in this controversy was absent from the US media discussion, so too was any effort to comprehend the reason why Muslims have been insulted in the first place and the deeper reasons why, among some, the insult came to manifest itself in direct action and, later, in rage.
Ignorance about Islam is at the root of much of the coverage of this story. It would have been important, for example, to note that Muslims were not only insulted by the crude and hostile intent of the cartoons. The fact of the portrayal itself was an issue, as well. The iconoclastic essence of Islam is not understood. Add to that the hostile content, and the insult is compounded.
In a CNN debate I had with conservative “intellectual” William Bennett, he called the violent depiction of Muhammad evidenced in the cartoons, “a peek into the soul of that faith.” Ignorance, combined with bigotry is always a lethal brew.
Given the depth of feelings roused by the cartoons and the fact that they were intended as a provocation, the reaction should have been understandable. What was ignored in most press coverage was the degree to which the response was widespread, spontaneous and largely took the form of non-violent direct action. The boycott of Danish and later Norwegian goods was a peaceful act of empowerment that worked.
To be sure, the accumulated grievances and humiliation felt by many Arabs and Muslims were ultimately exploited by some parties with agendas of their own, but that only occurred later in the evolving story and did not describe the broader sentiment at work among most Muslims.
The tragedy, of course, is that the acts of violence have now been exploited in the West by the very same hostile elements that published or supported the cartoons in the first place. They now self-righteously project the evil deeds of a few Muslims as evidence of the violent nature of the entire faith.
If any lesson should have been learned from this sordid affair, it is the depth of the growing gap between East and West and the dangers inherent in failing to take steps to correct this situation. Press coverage, at least, in the US, didn’t help create understanding. If anything, it mirrored the gap and served in the end to fuel more misunderstanding.