Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, has written a controversial guide for journalists on how to cover stories without insulting Muslims. “Islam for Journalists” is an effort to educate reporters on the sensitivities of Muslims to avoid triggering protests or violence. Pintak writes that “Across the Muslim world extremists are wielding their swords with grisly effect, but the pen . . . can be just as lethal.” That line captures the controversy because it seems to suggest that reporters are a cause of violence when they fail to adhere to the demand of religious values or orthodoxy in their publications.
Pintak explains the sensitivity of Muslims toward any references or images of Muhammad. He notes that such depictions are prohibited under Islam and that journalists can still do their jobs without tripping such wires. “Many Muslim journalists simply couldn’t understand why Western news organizations would republish the offensive images just because [of a legal right]. Journalism is not supposed to be a weapon [it is meant] to inform, not inflame.”
However, many journalists do not view publishing such images as wielding a “weapon” and do not understand why they should accommodate religious sensibilities as a condition for writing. After all, there are many religions but there are not publications one “Catholicism for Journalists” or “Buddhism for Journalists” advocating rules of avoidance. Indeed, other religions routinely complain of insulting images or language but do not “wieldtheir swords with grisly effect.” The concern is that such accommodation only reinforces the demands of radical Muslims and calls for a form of self-censorship from reporters.
Muhammad remains a historical figure with obvious contemporary importance to politics and society. Yet, the book warns against writings that might be viewed as imitating or insulting him because “although he is not divine, he is considered ‘the Perfect Man.” That is already well-understood by any who have seen the murders and riots unleashed by the publication of simple cartoons. The question is whether Pintak would have been better off using his considerable knowledge of this area to write “Journalism for Muslims” to give better understanding of the value of free speech and pluralism. Such a guide would explain why it is outrageous to arrest in Egypt satirist Bassem Youssef (sometimes been called Egypt’s Jon Stewart) for blasphemy because he makes fun of religion or the arrest of atheist bloggers in various countries for simply saying that they do not believe in God.
We have previously discussed the deepening rife between Islam and free speech in prosecutions for blasphemy and riots over publications. The problem is not solved by limiting free speech, even voluntarily. That represents a yielding to orthodoxy — a concession that would lead to similar demands from other religions. The result of such concessions was vividly shown by the controversy involving Yale University Press. In a disgraceful act of self-censorship, Yale University Press published Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World” (on the cartoons that led to riots and over 200 killed in protests worldwide). However, Yale removed the the 12 cartoons from the book so not to insult Muslims. Thus, you could read the book but not actually see the cartoons themselves. It was a decision by Yale University Press that is still discussed as anti-intellectual and cowardly in academic circles. It was the triumph of the extremists who murdered 200 people.
My concern about the “how to” guide is that it is part of a quiet move in the West to accommodate religious demands while publicly declaring fealty to free speech. For many years, I have been writing about the threat of an international blasphemy standard and the continuing rollback on free speech in the West. For recent columns, click here and here and here.
Much of this writing has focused on the effort of the Obama Administration to reach an accommodation with allies like Egypt to develop a standard for criminalizing anti-religious speech. We have been following the rise of anti-blasphemy laws around the world, including the increase in prosecutions in the West and the support of the Obama Administration for the prosecution of some anti-religious speech under the controversial Brandenburg standard.
I understand Pintak’s laudable purpose and I do not question his journalistic credentials which are considerable. He has long covered Islam and the Middle East. He holds a Ph.D., Islamic Studies from the University of Wales and is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He has spent decades covering the Muslim world and served as director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at The American University in Cairo. He was also the CBS News Middle East correspondent.
Moreover, there are often small accommodations that are made to religions in visiting sites or interviewing religious figures. I also think that it is useful for Pintak to educate journalists on the religion, though I expect many already know the basic tenets from prior stories and scandals. However, this guide seems to suggest greater accommodation in avoiding images or references deemed blasphemous by a religion. Cartoonists have a right to depict Mohammad as they routinely depict Jesus, Moses, and other figures. Muslims do not have read such material but they cannot seriously expect every to stop writing or depicting elements of their religion to protect their sensibilities. That shows not a lack of understanding by the cartoonists of religion but a continued lack of understanding of journalism (and free speech) by religious advocates in my view.
What do you think?