Muslims protest Philadelphia newspaper’s publishing of cartoon

Monday, February 13, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — Protesters with signs that read “Irresponsible Journalism” gathered outside the offices of The Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 11 to condemn the newspaper's decision to reprint a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad that has angered Muslims worldwide.

Many of the 200 protesters acknowledged that the paper had the right to publish the image but said it still mocked their religion.

“It was done knowing that it was against the wishes of the Muslim people,” said 50-year-old Mahmood Siddique. “It was done in bad taste in the name of freedom of speech.”

Meanwhile, The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly newspaper, printed the cartoons last week. At the University of North Carolina, the Muslim Students Association on Feb. 10 asked the campus' student newspaper to apologize for publishing an original cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Inquirer Editor Amanda Bennett showed up at the demonstration, which she described as “peaceful and respectful.” She walked through the crowd and introduced herself, thanking protesters for coming and in some cases defending the paper's decision.

A week earlier, the paper had published the drawing of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban — one of about a dozen images originally published in Denmark that sparked violent demonstrations throughout Muslim countries.

Many Muslims believe any depiction of Muhammad is sacrilegious, much less a derisive one.

As of last week, The Inquirer was one of only a few U.S. media outlets to have shown any of the cartoons. (Editor & Publisher reported last week that the Austin American-Statesman was the first major newspaper in America to publish one of the controversial images.) The Inquirer's editors, along with the image, ran an explanation of its reason for publishing it and a story about the international controversy.

Bennett and Managing Editor Anne Gordon released a statement in response to protests last week, saying that “this was a moment for newspaper journalists to do what they are uniquely qualified to do in this country — to lay out all sides of the issue for a well-informed public to debate and discuss.”

Bennett said on Feb. 11 that editors had met with a Muslim group that included members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Philadelphia. The Inquirer also planned to print opinion pieces from the Muslim community, she said.

Lilly Dzemaili, 53, said the paper's efforts to meet with members of the Muslim community were a step toward making amends.

“Talking with each other — (that's) always good,” she said.

In Seattle, the editor of the alternative weekly The Stranger says the goal of publishing the controversial cartoons in his newspaper is to let readers make up their own minds about the drawings.

“One man's blasphemy doesn't override other people's free-speech rights, their freedom to publish, freedom of thought,” said The Stranger's editor, Dan Savage, who also writes the blunt, spicy and nationally syndicated advice column “Savage Love.”

The decision frustrates some local Muslims, who consider the cartoons hurtful and offensive. Many U.S. publications have opted not to print the cartoons for that reason, after hearing of the violence overseas.

The Seattle Times, which reported Feb. 10 on the alternative newspaper's decision, has not published the cartoons but provides a link to a reproduction of the Jyllands-Posten page on its Web site. A similar approach is being used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Jamal Rahman, a Muslim and minister with Interfaith Community Church in Ballard, said The Stranger's decision to republish them is an “unnecessary provocation.”

“I'm appalled by the cartoons,” said Jawad Khaki, a Seattle-area software company executive. “Not just as a Muslim but as a human being because I normally wouldn't do something to offend a large portion of the population in any way.”

But many local Muslims also are horrified by the violent clashes overseas.

“If it's the image of Islam they're trying to protect, they're doing exactly the opposite,” said real-estate agent Jeff Siddiqui.

The Stranger published four cartoons in the Feb. 9 issue with an article by Bruce Bawer, author of While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within and Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.

“No Molotov cocktails but the calls have been interesting,” the newspaper's receptionist, Mike Nipper, said on Feb. 10.

“The article we're running is about how stupid it is to throw violent temper tantrums against freedom of speech,” said Josh Feit, Stranger news editor. “We thought it would've been stupid for us to do an article condemning those temper tantrums and not run the pictures themselves.”

Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, N.C., the Muslim Students Association at the University of North Carolina has asked the campus' student newspaper to apologize for publishing on Feb. 9 an original cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

“The intention of bigotry was clear,” the association wrote in a letter to The Daily Tar Heel. “One must question the DTH's ethics in advancing a widely protested issue to cause a riot of their own. The MSA not only found this cartoon derogatory but is also shocked at the editor's allowance of its publication — one that incites hate in the current political and social context.”

The cartoon published in The Daily Tar Heel was drawn by a cartoonist at the paper, Philip McFee. It shows Muhammad appearing to decry both Denmark's role in the controversy and the violence that has erupted since.

Daily Tar Heel Editor Ryan Tuck said the newspaper wanted to challenge fellow students to think about the issue. He says that although he has apologized personally to individuals who told him the cartoon offended them, the newspaper will not apologize.

“The point of any cartoon in any newspaper is to challenge belief systems,” Tuck said. “We knew it would offend, but that doesn't make it the explicit goal of the cartoon.”

The Daily Tar Heel has a long history of journalistic independence, but university officials would hope that it would use restraint around a topic such as this one, which is hurtful and offensive to members of the campus community, said Margaret Jablonski, vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Many of our national media outlets chose not to publish the original pictures or cartoons and we believe our student paper should have used the same editorial judgment,” Jablonski said.

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