In cartoon debate, a chance to educate
The Inquirer ran it. Muslims aired their objections. Along the way, the foundation of a bridge was set.
By Amanda Bennett
Editor of The Inquirer
In the late afternoon of Friday, Feb. 3, managing editor Anne Gordon came into my office with a recommendation.
After a lively discussion at the afternoon news meeting - the daily gathering of 25 or so top Inquirer editors who decide the content of the next day's paper - she was proposing that we run the controversial cartoon that was inflaming the Muslim world.
I wasn't surprised. Our internal debate had been raging for days, as protests against the Danish newspaper that ran the image of Muhammad grew more and more violent around the world.
In the meantime, we had sent Andy Maykuth, one of our most experienced foreign reporters, to report about the cultural, political and theological issues at play. What was the history of the controversy? Were images of Muhammad really prohibited? What were the political forces behind the protests? Andy spent days interviewing art historians, experts on journalistic ethics, and Islamic theologians.
That night in my office, Anne and Carl Lavin, deputy managing editor for news, slowly and carefully reviewed the debate. They noted that the overwhelming majority of editors at the news meeting favored running the cartoon. They showed me the image again. We prepared an editor's note to accompany it.
After they left, Bob Rose, our business editor, came in to represent the dissenting view. Wouldn't a description suffice? Why offend religious sensibilities? Didn't running this cartoon show that journalists just didn't get religion?
It was late by the time I had heard everyone's views. I called Joe Natoli, our publisher, to tell him where we were heading. After listening, he agreed that it was the right choice. Then I sent everyone away so I could sit in my office alone.
The more I thought, the more certain I became. In 30 years as a journalist, I have come to believe strongly that it is better to make information available than to suppress it. Withholding information for fear of the wrath of one group nearly always means denying another group access to knowledge it needs.
What's more, The Inquirer has a long tradition of pressing forward with powerful reporting despite vigorous objections. Some in the Jewish community have for years protested our Middle East reporting, calling it anti-Semitic. Our front-page images of the charred contractors' bodies hanging from the bridge in Fallujah drew charges that we were anti-American, anti-Arab, or simply inhumanly insensitive. When we aggressively covered the Catholic sexual-abuse scandal, including full pages of photos of accused priests, readers phoned, wrote and e-mailed, charging us with anti-Catholic bias. Our coverage of corruption in city government brought African American leaders to our office concerned about anti-black bias. In each case, I saw firsthand the greater good that had resulted.
But still I hesitated. I was afraid. The violence erupting around the world was truly shocking. What would happen here? Fear wasn't a good reason to pull back. I went home and went to bed. The cartoon ran the next morning.
Couldn't we have - as many people have since suggested - simply described the cartoon and let it go at that? Well, put it this way: Would the words "a naked young girl burning with napalm" have made us understand the horrors of the Vietnam War as completely as Nick Ut's iconic photo? How about the words "charred American bodies, hanging from a bridge"? Would the words "nude Iraqis stacked in a pyramid" or "set upon by a dog" or "led about on a leash" have told the true story of Abu Ghraib?
We believed context and intent mattered. We were running the image to give meaning to the news story and not as an editorial cartoon. We weren't acting in solidarity with European papers. Nor were we making an abstract stand for "freedom of the press." Our intent was to educate, not to lampoon or triumph.
But weren't we misunderstanding Islam? Isn't any depiction of Muhammad strictly forbidden? Our research told us no. Islamic theologians told us that while modern-day Muslims strongly object to images of the prophet, the Koran contains no such prohibitions.
Images of Muhammad - both ancient and modern, artistic and satiric - are nearly everywhere. There is a marble frieze of Muhammad, along with other lawgivers, in the U.S. Supreme Court building. A 2001 episode of South Park featuring Muhammad - as well as Jesus, Krishna, Buddha and other religious figures - as superheroes is easily downloadable online. A 2002 drawing by newspaper cartoonist Doug Marlette - featuring a man wearing an Arab headcloth and driving a bomb truck under the heading "What would Mohammed drive?" was, as recently as yesterday, prominently displayed on the cartoonist's Web site. Arab groups have protested these images, but without violence.
We were shocked, as the days went on, to realize that, of American media, we were nearly alone. Only two or three other papers had made the same choice.
When the Muslim protesters showed up in front of our building the following Monday, I met them on the sidewalk. They told me of their hurt and anger at the depiction of the prophet, their alienation, their sense that they, and their religion, were misunderstood.
A larger gathering a few days later was noisier yet just as respectful. Women pushing baby carriages joined men with bullhorns in the bitter cold. People set up tables to hand out literature. I came away with pamphlets on Islam and a copy of the Koran, which I began to read.
Carl Lavin, Joe Natoli, and I spent an hour and a half circulating in the crowd. Most protesters had the same message: They hated the use of the prophet's image, but this was not Europe. They would use the tools of peace and persuasion that their religion afforded them.
This is a time for building bridges, I told them.
Over the last month, e-mails, letters and phone calls have poured in. They have been overwhelmingly positive. My personal e-mails alone ran six to one in favor of our decision. Yes, most who identified themselves as Muslim condemned it. Yet even among this group, many took a mild and thoughtful tone. Like this one: "In my eyes there is no 'clash of civilizations.' Rather, we are all brothers and sisters living together - each with a wealth of knowledge and experience to learn from. The Muslim community and the media have been provided a rare opportunity which is not to be missed to educate the masses and readers to the majority of Muslim popular opinion."
Last Friday, Joe Natoli and I met with a group of Muslim leaders. They were led by Imam Asim Abdur-Rashid, president of the Majlis Ash Shura of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley; it included Umar Abdur Rahman of the Islamic Circle of North America; Adeeba Al-Zaman and Iftekhar Hussain of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Adil Woods of the United Muslim Movement; and Mohamed Habib, Alawy Mohamed, Essom Latif, Soukrey Kourshied, and Jihad Kanawaty, all local business owners, many of them doing business with us.
Joe opened the meeting. He told the group that our intent was to help our readers understand a complex issue, not to mock anyone's religious sensibilities. Our visitors told us how offended they were at the representation of the prophet, and how many in their religion resented any representation of any prophet, including Jesus. They wanted us to know just how profound the relationship is between Muslims and Muhammad. "A Muslim loves Muhammad more than his mother," several of them said, to murmurs of "peace be upon him." We promised that our coverage of their community would become fuller and more informed as a result of this meeting.
I promised them I would write what I have been saying repeatedly since the day the cartoon appeared: Neither I nor anyone at The Inquirer meant any disrespect to their prophet.
Joe and I asked that all concerned use this moment the way others in the past have used it: To make connections and to learn. Invite us to your mosques. Invite us to your homes. Invite our reporters to get to know your imams, your business people, your scholars. We will write about, not just protests and killings and fear, but your lives, your schools, your children, your neighborhoods, your religion. They agreed. We will follow through.
We are in the business of information, insight, building bridges. And for all my hesitations, this group of Muslim leaders showed me that bridges can be built.
"We are Muslims," one whispered as the meeting broke up. "And we are also Americans. We cherish that."