The ‘cartoon’ controversy – time for reflection

8 February 2006 – A Muslim Action Committee (MAC), formed in response to the Muhammad ‘cartoon’ controversy, has called a meeting in Birmingham today (Wed 8 Feb) to discuss creating a united front for British Muslims following the international uproar over repeated publication across Europe of depictions of the Prophet commissioned by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee has denounced both the “un-elected, trustees of the Mosques” for their lack of action, and the organisers of the Fri 3 Feb demonstration (“a racist, evil, fringe of thugs less representative than the British National Party”) for “hijacking legitimate Muslim anger.”

Muslims may be divided about how far ‘freedom of expression’ should be allowed to go – evidently some think that death threats, anti-Semitic propaganda and jokes about the Holocaust are acceptable – but the Birmingham gathering is expected to demand that Muslims should be covered by UK race relations laws in the same way as Sikhs and Jews.

The MAC is planning a national demonstration in London on Sat 18 Feb, and convenor Shaikh Faiz Siddiqi wants meetings with editors and media regulators to improve coverage of Islamic affairs.

“We are likely to ask the media to refrain from all depictions of the Prophet,” he says. “We are not saying they must abide by the rules of Islam but by the rules of common civility, and avoid deliberate acts of provocation that cause insult to millions of Muslims.”

The apparent confrontation between freedom of expression and Muslim orthodoxy takes place under inauspicious circumstances. People have been killed on anti-cartoon demonstrations in Islamic countries. A special police unit is investigating complaints about the blood-curdling placards carried by last week’s London demonstrators. The ‘radical Islamic cleric’ Abu-Hamza, who owes his notoriety in large part to the British media, is starting a 7-year sentence for incitement to murder.

Meanwhile British National Party leader Nick Griffin, acquitted on race hate charges after telling the court “Islam and our democracy are totally incompatible”, is free to organise a campaign to make local elections in May a ‘referendum’ against Muslims. At the General Election the neo-nazi party thanked sections of the mainstream press for promoting its agenda. Small wonder if British Muslims consider double standards are at work.

Speaking long before the current controversy broke, Danish media analyst and anti-racist campaigner Bashy Quraishy said “The media don’t just communicate a reality; they participate in the conceptualization and creation of that reality. Therefore, they have an enormous responsibility for the consequences.”

Much of the current crisis revolves around perceptions rather than realities. How many people know the full story behind the current furore?

Quraishy, a Humanist, rightly insists that context and motive are crucial. He claims that anti-immigrant feeling and Islamophobia in Denmark has been fuelled by the editorial stance of Jyllands-Posten which once refused to publish cartoons of Jesus Christ on the grounds that they might “cause an uproar” among Christian readers.

He says the newspaper rejected cautionary advice from an eminent religious scholar at Syd Dansk University, Odense, and went ahead with publication of the Muhammad pictures. However Quraishy maintains the situation could have been defused almost at once had the editor responded swiftly to peaceful protests, and had the Danish Prime Minister acceded to requests for a meeting with ambassadors from 11 Islamic countries last October.

Almost by definition newspaper cartoons are likely to offend someone, and of course editors have the right to publish what they see fit. But they must also take responsibility for their editorial decisions. Where genuine offence is caused they have the option of apologising or opening the letters column to critics. In this case, where neither the Danish Press Council nor the courts offered an obvious alternative remedy, that would have demonstrated real commitment to freedom of expression.

A similar situation exists in the UK. Newspaper editors loathe admitting to errors, and consider it cowardice to cave in to critics. Yet one of the weaknesses of the Press Complaints Commission is that it offers little remedy to social groups who feel they have been unfairly maligned.

Many British Muslims believe that the media here also display Islamophobia, just as other minority groups (notably Gypsies, Travellers, asylum-seekers and refugees) claim that much media coverage of their communities exacerbates public hostility and generates fear. Yet when complaints are made, ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘public interest’ defences are often wheeled out to deflect criticism and justify pernicious headlines and sensational stories that may not stand up to scrutiny but certainly sell papers.

So it is hardly surprising if Muslims are sceptical of getting a fair hearing from the British media. They should not have to wait as long as Catholics and Jews, who  had to put up with vilification and exclusion for many generations before finally being accepted as part of the mainstream.

Faced with a new crisis of credibility the media has some hard thinking to do. It could start by eschewing the use of racist stereotyping and inflammatory headlines.

Most important of all, as we have urged before, it must act quickly to bring greater diversity into its newsrooms. There are plenty of ready recruits. Many members of the Exiled Journalists’ Network are Muslims from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who could add a depth of knowledge that is singularly lacking from local and national newsrooms.

And the airwaves and newspaper columns should remain open to the broad range of opinions within Islam that have been allowed to surface at last in the media over the last week. After all, the media don’t expect one denomination to speak for the whole of Christendom.

That will be the best way to keep the public informed, to quell misconceptions about Islam being a home only for fundamentalists and fanatics, and to counter claims that Muslims are being gagged or simply want to gag the media.

It was a Danish author, Hans Scherfig, who once said: “Finding freedom of expression in the capitalistic press is like looking for true love in a brothel.” Now is the time for the UK media to prove him wrong.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 119)

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