After weeks of protests worldwide sparked by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Cornell students and staff are struggling to understand the controversy’s implications for press freedoms, sensitivity to religious groups in the media and perceptions of Muslims in America and abroad.
The cartoons, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September, have offended Muslims with their critical depictions of the Prophet. Many European and some American newspapers have republished the cartoons, fueling protests – some peaceful, others violent – from Pakistan to Nigeria to New York City.
The violence has left at least 45 people dead in the past month, according to The New York Times.
“In the news, there has been a lot of coverage about all the violence in response to these cartoons, and it concerns me,” said Aneesa Mitchell ’06, president of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Organization (MECA). “I don’t think that’s the proper reaction according to the teachings we have from Muhammad. The violent reaction is not going to get the response that we want.”
The most controversial of the 12 cartoons depicts Muhammad’s turban as a bomb with a lit fuse.
Mitchell debated for a long time whether she wanted to look at the images.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else’s picture of the Prophet to be ingrained in my mind,” she said. “I was scared that whenever I thought of the Prophet, I would see those pictures. But in the end I wanted to be as educated as possible, so I looked.”
Now, she said, she can’t get that image of Muhammad with the bomb-turban out of her mind.
“[I felt] anger that cartoons could cause people to burn down embassies and actually kill,” said former Sun editor in chief Andy Guess ’05. “But at the same time you have to realize that this is violence from people who have an agenda. The majority of Muslims that are being angered by these cartoons are not resorting to violence, and we need to keep that in mind.”
Many students, like Cornell ACLU president Everett Yi ’08, have seen the cartoon controversy as a free-speech issue. Yi noted that the First amendment protects the right to speech that others may consider offensive or even blasphemous.
“Even though I think it is reprehensible to make fun of another person’s religion, they still have the right to express those views,” Yi said. “The best way to counter that offensive speech is to have more speech, to talk about it and to discuss it, instead of just silencing it.”
“The First amendment gives newspapers the right to choose what to publish, and I don’t think anybody believes the government could stop them from publishing [those cartoons],” added Prof. Jeremy Rabkin, government. “It’s an interesting and important choice for editors. They have freedom with responsibility, and this is on the responsibility side.”
Prof. David S. Powers, near eastern studies, explained that though the Qu’ran does not specifically forbid pictorial representations of Muhammad, there has been a strong cultural and religious tendency to avoid the representation of any human being, especially in public places.
“It’s not just that they represented Muhammad,” Powers said. “That’s important, but it’s the way they represented him. For Muslims, Muhammad is a special type of human being, and there’s a certain sacredness associated with him. No one should say anything derogatory about him, scorn him, humiliate him.”
Most American newspapers have refrained from printing the cartoons. Those that did include The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Sun and the Austin-American Statesman.
At The Daily Illini, an independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the editor in chief and opinion page editor were suspended from their positions for publishing the cartoons.
There has been speculation that some newspaper editors have refrained from printing the cartoons out of fear for their safety, Rabkin added.
“It’s dismaying if newspapers are frightened [to publish],” he said.
Some professors, however, placed the primary blame on the newspapers that first printed the cartoons.
“Part of what you have to think about as an editor, as a reporter, when something is of questionable taste, is whether it is important for the readers to actually see the image to understand the story,” said Prof. Mike Shapiro. “There’s a difference between what you have the right to print and what makes sense to print.”
Cornell’s Muslim community – made up of about 100 students in total, according to Mitchell – has been discussing the cartoons and working to create a dialogue about Islam and Muhammad to counteract negative perceptions. That dialogue will continue during this week’s Islamic Awareness Events.
Both Mitchell and Ahmad Maaty ’06, president of the Islamic Alliance for Justice, said they saw varied responses among fellow Muslims.
“I think the consensus was to educate and to try to counteract the negative images of our Prophet,” Mitchell said. “There has been talk about having protests, but again, we keep coming back to the same point. We want to make sure our response would abide by the teachings of our Prophet, and we’re just not sure if a protest would be the right way.”
Maaty saw widespread feelings of hurt and offense, particularly at the suggestion of a link between Muhammad and modern-day terrorism. Some felt there should be protests and boycotts, he said. Others felt the images, although disturbing, were protected under freedom of speech and should thus have been shrugged off.
“Were the papers wrong to publish the cartoons? That’s a pretty hard question,” Mitchell said. “Living in America, we respect the laws in place – the First amendment and freedom of speech. But at the same time I feel that with the freedom of speech there come specific obligations which I do not think were upheld and respected in publishing these caricatures.”
The growing presence of Muslim communities in the West seems to be changing the equation a bit, Powers said.
“I think that the newspaper used very poor judgment when it published the cartoon, considering tensions in Denmark and what’s going on in general in the Muslim world,” Powers said. “But, the Muslim community seems to be holding non-Muslims to the standards of Islam and Islamic law