Mohammed and the Media

They are hardly high art. Nor do they purport to reveal some profound truth.

The now-famously controversial cartoons of Mohammed are simply crudely drawn caricatures, some apparently designed to offend – which they obviously do superbly.

To their credit, no major Canadian paper has so-far chosen to jump on the gratuitous bandwagon of cultural insensitivity and reprint the drawings.

However, some media outlets worldwide seem not so principled. One reporter in the UK had this blunt assessment of how his paper determined what the public should see: "The ideal Daily Mail story leaves the reader hating someone or something".

By that cynical yardstick, the cartoons, and the violent reaction to them, make this story a winner. No matter where you side in this highly volatile debate, this story is bound to make you angry.

Which brings us to the highly questionable role of the media in this escalating crisis. Where is the actual “news” here? Is it news that Muslims find depiction of their Prophet highly offensive? That story is a bit stale, given that such portrayals have been verboten in Islam since the Koran was written about 1,400 years ago.

In the chorus of finger jabbing and indignation around the world, few seem to be aiming their vitriol in the appropriate direction. It was a small number of media outlets that started this “crisis” by publishing these inflammatory cartoons in the first place. Certain media in both the Western and Islamic world continue to stoke the flames by endlessly reprinting the cartoons, or reporting on the violent reaction to them.

It is analogous to locking two family members in a room and only allowing them to talk about what they hate about each other. It might make for great reality TV, but would hardly be responsible journalism.

Listening to the indignant rationales given by the publisher of the Calgary-based Western Standard, who this week chose to reprint the cartoons, only reinforced my strongly held belief that this non-debate is in many cases merely an opportunity for egotistical imbeciles to bump up the circulation on their very marginal publications.

The histrionics about free speech in this case are particularly grating given the additional danger it may put on Canadian troops, on an already dangerous mission in Afghanistan. To read an excellent post on this, please go to: http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_storring/20060214.html

It is also significant that the Danish newspaper that originally published the cartoons was apparently uninterested in dialogue, which might have helped to avoid this mess. After the offending cartoons were published, local Muslims in Copenhagen requested a meeting with editors of the offending Danish paper to express their concerns in person. They were ignored.

To make matter worse, papers throughout Europe also felt the need to grab a hockey stick and begin whacking the hornets’ nest, then expressed righteous indignation when the highly predicable came to pass.

The most frequent defence of this debacle is “freedom of the press”. Very few are seriously suggesting that the press should not have the freedom to print almost anything they want.

That said, it is ridiculous to suggest that the media does not make editorial choices based on good taste and respect every day.

Does the media broadcast video of Western hostages being decapitated? Why have we not seen footage of 9-11 victims falling from the doomed towers? The obvious difference in this case is that is another culture being offended, not our own.

It has also been suggested that this controversy is an important chance for dialogue. No doubt there is a need for greater understanding and respect between the diverse cultures of the world.

There is also no doubt that highly offensive cartoons about Christians and Jews appear regularly in the Middle East media. But this is not a credible rationale for publishing equally offensive material to Muslims.

You do not start a constructive discussion with a slap in the face. Not surprisingly, what we now have instead is a barroom brawl.

With no sense of irony, some are portraying these cartoons as a principled fight against intolerance, rather than a cause for it. If that is in fact the motive, we have chosen a poor route towards mutual understanding.

Those radical leaders in the Islamic world who subsist on intolerance are no doubt delighted that they have been given such a pregnant opportunity to show that Western countries are hostile and ignorant of their religion, and apparently wish to remain so.

From the comfortable vantage point of Canada, it is also easy to forget that many people live in societies where street protest and violence is one of few options available for expressing anger.

The path to tolerance is both slow and faint. The cultures of the world move toward mutual respect against our ancient instincts of tribalism and fear. We in Canada seem to have made better progress on this tenuous journey that any other country in the world.

If this mess illustrates anything, it shows how easy it is to lose our way.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.

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