None of the Manila broadsheets have reprinted the 12 cartoons that first appeared in a Danish right- wing newspaper last September 12, 2005, although some of our Muslim-hating editors may have been tempted to do so. Despite their many admitted failings, in this sense they may be more responsible than their European counterparts have been.

While the original publication incensed Muslims, the reprinting of those cartoons in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands provoked the firestorm of protests now raging all over the world. The protests–complete with the burning of the Danish and other flags in some cases–have occurred not only in predominantly Muslim countries like Indonesia, but also in countries with Muslim minorities like the Philippines.

“Provoked” is the exact word to describe what the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and its counterparts in the European countries mentioned did.

The so-called “cultural editor” of Jyllands Posten, Flemming Rose, justified the publication of the cartoons by claiming that the cartoonist-authors were reluctant (“afraid” is the more precise term) to illustrate a biography of Muhammad meant for children. Many journalists including the cartoonists concerned, Rose said, have been censoring themselves out of fear of retaliation from Muslims. He was thus defending free expression in their behalf–although one wonders what kind of journalists are these who can’t fend for themselves and who need a champion to defend their rights.

But Rose and his newspaper must have known that Muslims regard any depiction of Muhammad as a sacrilege to begin with. What’s worse is that the cartoons imply that Islam is not only an inherently violent religion but also an absurd, laughable one whose followers must be retards or idiots.

How else interpret the cartoon depicting Muhammad with a dynamite stick protruding from his turban? And that one showing him standing at the gates of paradise telling suicide bombers they can’t get in because “we have run out of virgins”?

These cartoons no more enlighten than those Nazi-era cartoons depicting Jews as hook-nosed, international conspirators– as “Christ killers” who have no place in Christian Europe. They are cartoons of hate, bigotry and intolerance.

When pressed, Rose implied the same thing about Muslims the Nazis used to say about Jews: that they have no place in European society unless they surrender their beliefs and deny their identities. He claimed that the controversy for which he’s responsible is “about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society—how much an immigrant has to give up and much does the receiving culture have to compromise.”

But the questions, the actions of Rose suggest, are merely rhetorical. How compatible is Islam with “a modern secular society” like Denmark’s? Not very. How much does Denmark have to compromise? Not much, or not at all. How much does an immigrant have to give up to be part of this “modern society”? Everything including his or her identity, heritage and religious beliefs.

Obviously, the biography of Muhammad, given the cartoons that were supposed to go into it, would orient—the less polite term is “brain-wash”– children on the same themes. The modern, secular society is apparently a society intolerant of creeds other than Christianity, rather than one in which all faiths are encouraged to co-exist.

But free expression and press freedom have been invoked by Rose, Jyllands Posten, and the other European newspapers that reprinted the cartoons. Press freedom and free expression are crucial to journalism. Basic to both freedoms is government non-interference and press autonomy, which accurately describes the situation in Western Europe.

The Muslim demands for an apology are thus more properly addressed to the newspapers concerned rather than their governments. They should be anchored, not on the puerile argument that “press freedom has its limits,” but on the fact that the exercise of press freedom demands corresponding responsibilities, which according to journalism ethics includes accuracy, fairness and humaneness, as well as a sense of whether one’s exercise of it redounds to the benefit of society or to its detriment.

As to what benefits society, there is more or less consensus among reasonable individuals and groups that peace is preferable to war and violence, understanding and compassion to hate and indifference, and unity to divisiveness and conflict.

The cartoons involved have been divisive, and have in fact brought mutual Muslim-Christian distrust, suspicion and hatred to near-unprecedented levels worldwide. Their impact on Danish society cannot as yet be predicted. What is certain is that they have driven a huge wedge of antipathy between Christians and Muslims in a world already aflame with conflict, misunderstanding among cultures, divisiveness, violence and war.

The Danish newspapers have a National Code of Conduct, adopted by the Danish Parliament in 1992 with the concurrence of the Danish union of journalists. It is a deficient code. The closest it comes to being relevant to the present issue is in Number Three of its Section B (“Conduct Contrary to Good Press Practice”) which declares that “Collection and reproduction of pictorial material shall be made in a considerate and tactful way.” The cartoons involved are neither considerate nor tactful– and that’s putting it mildly.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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