Sensitivity Training or Self-Censorship? Journalism Dean Publishes “Islam for Journalists” To Teach Reporters How Not To “Inflame” Muslims

Islam for Journalistspintakl 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 “wield[]their 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. 413hBzCMe0L._SL500_AA240_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?

44 thoughts on “Sensitivity Training or Self-Censorship? Journalism Dean Publishes “Islam for Journalists” To Teach Reporters How Not To “Inflame” Muslims

  1. “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.”

    Exactly right.

    Yet another example of Western thought attempting to drag the anchor of dangerous ancient nonsense into the next century.

  2. A) why does anyone care where you reblogged this?

    This could be a real gray area. Many in the West are unnecessarily demeaning and insulting to any non-Western religion, particularly Islam (I am sure they will appear down thread in a moment spitting venom & bile) and a little sensitivity would go a long way, particularly in the media. But the fear is there that this could be more than that, that Islam and Muslims are given a a pass on legitimate criticism. Mistakes will be made in both directions and as with all things vigilance is required. A little cool, common sense would not hurt either.

  3. What next, psychiatrists having to be careful not to incite their mentally impaired patients by not calling them nut-jobs and wackos?


    When we become socially lazy people we do not want to learn how to do things correctly in a given context.

    So, we complain about having to know how to be civilly correct, politically correct, ethically correct, legally correct, and other forms of common decency.

    Why should anything else be expected of the nation voted to be the world’s most intensely warmongering society?

    What? we have to be decent while we spy on, overthrow, kill, maim, and destroy people in other nations?

  4. I agree with Prof. Turley. While there is a need to understand our audience and write in a way that will not inflame them and thereby shut down avenues of communication, there also exists the problem of creating a chilling effect on free speech if we just avoid that which is disagreeable.

  5. That’s the spirit! All dem wackies need to be attacked by blood-sucking monkeys! They better wake up and start listening to the talk show of the week!

  6. For someone who holds a doctorate in Islamic studies it appears he knows little about the “rules” regarding depictions of Muhammed. The “prophet” was depicted in art for a millenia and a half until the advent of the new, radical strains of Islam, Wahhabism and Salafism at the end of the 19th century.
    This is simply a fiction to use as another excuse for violence and intimidation.

  7. Imagine Obama, when introduced to the Pope, saying “hey whattup shit for brains?”

    Those who confuse freedom of speech in a legal context to decency in protocol are comparing apples to oranges.

  8. Dredd – I can actually image Obama doing just that. He is always the ‘smartest man in the room’ don’t you know.
    The British courts bowed to this kind of pressure for a long time, but are now going back to a more even handed stance, were everyone is treated the same.

  9. This is a simple “might makes right” apologist mentality.
    Much like the Stockholm syndrome, when someone has deadly power over you, you sometimes try to rehabilitate the unacceptable.
    So it is with the omnipresent threat of deadly violence when free minded writers, philosophers and artists write, think and draw just what comes natural.
    But some will look at the danger, and conflate the accommodating that reaction with reasonable decorum.
    It is that kind of thinking that will give the extremists what they want, and encourage them to demand even more.

  10. PC journalism. Does anyone care about insensitivity to fat people? Of course not, they’re not a protected class in the PC textbook.

  11. Has anyone commenting actually read Islam for Journalists? You can download it for free. I downloaded it, and while I admit that I have not read the entire thing yet, I have not read anything that instructed journalists to tiptoe around the sensibilities of extremists. The guide is merely an attempt to educate journalists, and anyone else who is interested, on a religion most know nothing about.

    Journalists have a long history of making ignorant statements about communities they know nothing about, including times when religion has nothing to do with it. What is wrong with helping them become familiar with a religion that they report on regularly so they are not continually sticking their feet in their mouths?

    Does anyone remember the reporting on the Quecreek mine rescue about twelve years ago? I remember watching a cable reporter (I don’t remember which cable channel) make a comment to the effect that the miners would probably be very uncomfortable being examined by doctors after the rescue because they were not used to doctors. This reporter just assumed that miners where ignorant rednecks that didn’t believe in doctors. He was “corrected” by members of the miners’ community, but he could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment by not making idiotic assumptions.

    Maybe we need to stop piling on before we know the facts.

    Jonathan, have you read the guide? If so, what parts do you object to?

  12. As far as spitting venom, all religions are insane, and all deserve mockery and merciless criticism: *just like every idea and ideology,* my own included.

    The religious instead whine and cry and scream victim, and can only be satisfied if those they subjectively deem blasphemous are censored or destroyed.

    No one has the right not to be offended, and presently Islam is the leading perpetuator of religious violence; hence the spotlight.

    Anyone who claims to know the mind of a sky-monster in order to wield power in this life is not to be trusted and certainly shouldn’t be protected from due criticism, in any form.

    I defend the right of all people to believe in any absurd myth they want: so long as they defend my right to call it absurd.

  13. Paul Schulte

    Dredd – I can actually image Obama doing just that. He is always the ‘smartest man in the room’ don’t you know.
    The British courts bowed to this kind of pressure for a long time, but are now going back to a more even handed stance, were everyone is treated the same.

  14. Frankly: “…and a little sensitivity would go a long way, particularly in the media.”

    Truth has no sensitivities. It is what it is. It takes no notice of whose toes it treads upon. It is absolute. The purpose of journalism is to reveal that truth. One of the biggest problems we have today journalisticaly, is shoddy journalism which is, in part, due is the PC brigade. If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck and calling it a horse doesn’t make it one. If the Muslims don’t like the way they are treated journalisticaly, then perhaps they should stop giving the journalists so much fodder for the gristmill.

  15. The more any social group attempts to regulate the actions of the general population the more we need to be able to speak openly and critically of that social group.

    Years ago I say some of the depictions that cause so much trouble. The one I remember clearly was much like a political cartoon. To me it seemed to have a clear message, critical, but worthy of serious consideration.

    Sure, it is possible to insult an individual or a group on the basis of bigotry or stereotypical thinking along.

    But much of what inflames Muslim populations if far from that.

    We need to work to convince Muslim groups of two points: that physical violence is usually an inappropriate response what ever the provocation might be, and criticism is necessary for any group that attempts to enforce social standards.

    Those who counsel sensitivity miss those two very important points.

  16. I do not think that we in the “west” should be worrying about what the extremists are demanding – if I were in a group of Muslims and made a statement that was unacceptable to them, hopefully they would tell me that they did not like what I said, but not attack me – that is what we call civilized discussion – if people in the Muslim faith cannot accept this civilized discussion then they should not be in our society – they should move to a society that thinks only their way – in the west we have hundreds of different beliefs and ways of thinking, many of which we may not agree with or like personally, but in a free democracy, if you want to belong to that, you do not have any more right to have YOUR ideas better protected than anyone else’s.
    I hate a lot of things that are said and done in the US, but I would not kill anyone or scream that they don’t have the RIGHT to say them ( well maybe yell at the tv ) – I would argue and try to convince them that their ideas are wrong and could be improved ( to mine of course- (:>) !).
    On the other hand I would not try to deliberately hurt anyone’s feelings by saying something I KNEW to be upsetting to their faith.
    This is called ‘civilization’ folks – we should NOT give it up on any level – sorry Muslims, get your facts straight if you want to live in a western democracy.
    I see these demands for special treatment as just a first step to making all non-Muslims toe their line, in incremental steps towards the final resolution that the Taliban display – a total commitment to Islam, or be punished in one way or another.
    Actually this Mohammed person was a man – that should tell you what real history says about this person, without anything else having to be said.
    I presume you will not kill my post because you are now PC and don’t want to ‘offend’ anyone ?

  17. Interesting how comments about President Obama always seem to make their way into items that don’t deal directly with him, as Paul Schulte and the eponymous “anonymously yours” managed to do here.
    I realize the company is Hispanic, but there is a “Jesus and Mohammed Tree Service” in my town. I always mean to take a picture of one of their trucks, but I never have my camera at the right time. As far as I know, no one has thrown stones at their trucks nor the occupants within. Then again, I know of no terrorist cell in my town. Of course, I haven’t heard anyone blame the business on Obama either, but we’re pretty liberal.

  18. Very well put, Professor Turley!

    We can certainly educate ourselves on how to follow local laws when visiting other nations, but we should not erode the bedrock of protected free speech to accommodate Islamist extremists. There are people who moved here to escape that kind of totalitarianism, and yet here we are incorporating it ourselves. Too often we give special concessions to Islam that we do not afford to any other faith, merely because it is culturally required in all Muslim nations to become violent when offended. I cannot think of a single Muslim nation in which religious offense does not lead to violence.

    We clearly, and rightly, condemn the Catholic Church for its entrenched coverup of pedophiles. It is not anti-Catholic to remark that they need to clean up their act. In the same vein, it is not anti-Islamic to observe that they, too, have issues they should address. And yet most journalists trip over themselves to avoid criticizing Muslims who commit violence in the name of their religion. This brings to mind the latest scandal in which critics have tried to block the movie Honor Diaries.

    Journalists in the US should feel free to engage in free speech, no matter the topic. If violence breaks out here, it should be firmly quashed. If it breaks out abroad, the responsibility is on the perpetrators, not on what angered them. It’s like a wife beater claiming the defense, “She made me mad, so I beat her! It’s her fault for angering me!”

  19. Frankly – I encourage you to GOOGLE Christians, Catholics, and Jews. You will find that we are not preferentially insensitive to non-Western religions. Christianity and Judaism take plenty of pot shots. (Do you recall the art exhibit with a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine?) And, technically, the birthplace of the 3 major faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the Middle East, not the West.

  20. Veronica – any criticism of Islam or the prophet . . . at all . . . is viewed as blasphemy in Islamic nations. So when someone criticizes the treatment of women and girl children under Shar’ia law, for example, passions are enflamed and it becomes very difficult to have a global discussion.

    There has been a rise of cases in Egypt where Muslims bring false charges against Christians, claiming that they insulted the Prophet. The statement alone is enough to get a victim incarcerated. It has become quite popular for Muslims to employ against Christian neighbors they dislike. There was a recent scandal where the victim was a girl with Down’s syndrome.

  21. While I believe all religion to be based on dogma, I hate to offend dogs when using that phrase. Dogpoop is better. But if I offend any religious person who believes in some faith based religion then they can be content that I will not be attending heaven with them when I die and they die. Of all the religious groups the Muslims are the most violent and goof ball. A journalist is smart to learn about any topic that he discusses or reports on It does not make sense for a New York Times reporter to show up at the Church to see the flock on a Saturday. They meet to be fleeced on Sunday. I don’t know when the Muslims meet but they pray and bow twice a day. The best phrase I would tell a journalist is: You cant cure an idgit. That is a swamp east Missoura phrase.

  22. “In response to Frazier Glenn Miller’s arrest in the murder of 3 people at Jewish targets the other day, Peter Bergen reminds that white supremacist terrorists have been more dangerous in recent years than Islamic terrorists.” – Emptywheel

    There are some here who could write that book for “white supremacists” (a.k.a. supremeexceptionalists).

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