Muslim furor in the Middle East and other parts of the world touched off by the appearance of cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad has led to diplomatic rows, embassy burnings and violent protests. It now begs serious thought about how the media should exercise the rights to freedom of the press and expression, important principles in democratic society.

The 12 cartoons first appeared in the Sept. 30, 2005, issue of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, a conservative Danish newspaper with a circulation of 150,000. When they first appeared, the cartoons drew little attention. Death threats, however, in mid-October against two of the artists who drew the cartoons led to public anti-Muslim discourse in Denmark. This in turn caused Muslim protests in the country and diplomatic protests from Islamic states. Then, on Jan. 10, the printing of a selection of the cartoons by a Norwegian Christian publication triggered further diplomatic protests and a boycott of Danish goods.

This month, newspapers in European countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic have printed the cartoons, again drawing furious reactions from Muslims. The newspapers have cited their rights to freedom of expression and the press in carrying the cartoons. Although some non-European media also printed the cartoons, most influential newspapers in the United States and Britain have refrained from doing so.

The Danish newspaper has said it regrets publishing the cartoons and would not have run them if it had been able to foresee the consequences. It has apologized for hurting Muslims’ feelings but not for publishing the cartoons in the first place.

Still, given the Islamic world’s long-held sentiments toward Europe with regard to historic events such as the Crusades and European colonial rule in the Middle East and North Africa, the Western world’s economic and political dominance in today’s world, and the way in which the cartoons depicted the prophet Muhammad, it should not have been that difficult to predict how Muslims would react when the images appeared in a European newspaper.

Only months earlier, a report (later retracted) in the May 9, 2005, edition of Newsweek that American service members mistreated the Quran at Guantanamo Bay naval base had sparked anger among Muslims worldwide.

One of the recent Danish cartoons depicted a bearded Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban, which could be interpreted as a suggestion that Islam encourages terrorism. It is a well-known fact that a wide body of Islamic tradition prohibits the rendering of images of God, the prophet Muhammad and other religious figures, regardless of whether they are satirical in nature. Therefore, it should have been easy to predict that many Muslims would view an image linking Muhammad with terrorism as blasphemous and an insult to the Islamic faith and community.

It appears that ignorance of Islam played a part in the Danish newspaper’s decision to print the cartoons. Editors of that newspaper and others might have thought that since images of religious figures are generally accepted in the Christian or post-Christian secular world, Muslims would or should accept such images, too. If so, they lacked a sense of what mutual understanding between different cultures is all about.

The cartoons themselves do not have much news value. After all, they are nothing but caricatures of the founder of Islam, and in bad taste at that. It is clear that such images have hurt the feelings of people for whom the Islamic faith is life itself. It would not be far-fetched to see in the drawing of the cartoons and the decisions to print them what Edward Said once called “Orientalism” — the tendency to view the Orient, Arabs, Islam, etc. as backward, inferior, passive and alien.

Freedom of expression does not mean printing or broadcasting any image for its own sake without limits. When it comes to exposing truth that must be shared with the public for its benefit, full play should be given to the exercise of these rights. Such investigations by the media may offend some people, but this cannot be helped in some cases. The publication of the cartoons in question does not qualify as a valid exercise of these rights.

The very character of the printed cartoons prevented a meaningful debate over how the media should handle news coverage of Islam. And the commotion it has caused may have made life harder for Muslims trying to adjust themselves to the civil values of European society. Some Islamic state governments also have exploited the furor to their own political advantage.

The lesson for the media is simple but important: The right to freedom of expression carries responsibility, and editors must search their souls for a hidden bias or ideology when reporting things related to a different culture.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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