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Asian media take a moderate stance on Prophet cartoons

From Pakistan to Australia, most newspapers condemn the cartoons and the violence

By Ananth Krishnan
AsiaMedia Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, regarded by many as an advocate of moderate Islam, described the publication of the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad as the latest sign of a deepening gulf between the West and Islam.

"The demonization of Islam and the vilification of Muslims, there is no denying, is widespread within mainstream Western society," he said in a news conference. "The West should treat Islam the way it wants Islam to treat the West and vice-versa. They should accept one another as equals." He however also warned that Muslims should also refrain from "sweeping denunciation of Christians, Jews and the West."

His sentiment has been echoed by much of Asia's English-language print media, which perceive the cartoon controversy as the newest cultural confrontation between the Western world and Islam.

Asian newspapers have been largely unified in their strong condemnations of European newspapers' decisions to publish the controversial cartoons that initially appeared in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten.

At the same time, most Asian newspapers have been equally intolerant of the violent protests that erupted in the aftermath of the publication of the cartoons, condemning these acts as an overreaction to a provocation that should have been regarded as an insignificant insult.

In the Pakistani press, universal condemnation of the cartoons has been accompanied by a reproachful attitude to the violent protests that have been witnessed in Pakistan and across the Middle East.

"We get worked up over trivia, while pushing the real problems facing us under the carpet," writes Irfan Husain in his Feb. 11 column in Karachi-based Dawn. "Firstly, most people forget that the stricture against depicting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in an illustration applies only to Muslims. Secondly, the offending (and offensive) cartoons first appeared in September without provoking a reaction except for some mild protests."

Husain is still reproachful of the decision of European newspapers to run the cartoon -- a sentiment echoed by most media in Pakistan. "There is a narrow line between provocation and insult," says Husain. "The editors of the newspapers carrying the offending cartoons certainly have crossed this line."

The initial response to the publication of cartoons in Pakistan -- both within the media and in the social sphere -- was mild and measured.  As protests turned violent in the Middle East on Feb. 4 -- Danish and Norwegian embassies were torched in Syria -- all protests in Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the controversy remained peaceful.

According to Aamer Ahmad Khan, the BBC's Karachi correspondent, the rather restrained initial reaction can be explained by Pakistan's stringent blasphemy laws which prevent any open discussion of such religious questions.

Khan writes in a Feb. 7 article, "Indeed, there have been blasphemy cases instituted against teachers for trying to explain to their students that the Prophet's parents could not have been Muslims for the simple reason that they died before the advent of Islam."

The first violent protests in Pakistan occurred on Feb. 13, when students in Peshawar clashed with police and attacked public property and Western holdings.

The media in Bangladesh -- which witnessed one of the strongest official responses to the controversy -- were also critical of the violent protests that were witnessed across the Muslim World.

Tarek Fatah in The Daily Star invoked the name of Prophet Muhammad in a plea for peaceful protests. "During his lifetime, Prophet Mohammed endured insults and ridicule on a daily basis," writes Fatah. "At no stage during this ordeal did the Prophet lose his temper or react to these provocations. Tradition has it that he would, instead, offer a prayer of forgiveness to those who showed contempt for him."

Indian newspapers joined their South Asian counterparts in their harsh condemnations of the publication of the cartoons as irresponsible journalism. "At a time when Muslims across the world feel deeply offended by prejudiced stereotypes of Islam post-9/11, the cartoons have not just been insensitive, they have been downright provocative," says a Feb. 9 editorial in The Hindu.

Media outlets in Southeast Asia were just as unrelenting in their criticism of Western media. An editorial in the Singapore-based Straits Times Feb. 9 accused the western media of having a "cavalier attitude" toward Islam, while an editorial in the Jakarta Post the day before described publishing the cartoons as an attack on Islamic civil liberties.

While most newspapers took a middle-ground in their criticisms of Western media and the ensuing violent protests, some journalists completely defended the publication of cartoons in the name of freedom of expression and were unequivocal in their censuring of the Muslim world's reactions.

The South China Morning Post was slightly harsher than most other Asian papers in its criticism of the violent reactions to the cartoons. "At a time when Middle East tensions, the 'war against terror' and Muslim outrage are placing unprecedented stresses on multiculturalism around the world, we must be prepared to defend it against the possibility of violent acts by fanatics bent on undermining it to further their own motives," warns a Feb. 12 editorial.

The editorial urges Muslims across the world to follow the example of Hong Kong's Muslim community in expressing their outrage peacefully: "Local Muslims have been no less offended by the cartoons than their brothers and sisters around the globe...The Hong Kong protests are also unlikely to see a repeat of the ugly scenes in London last week when militant Muslim protesters marched carrying highly inflammatory placards wishing violence against the west -- another tribute to our city's tolerance."

In a Feb. 12 column in the Melbourne-based Age, Terry Lane argues that "Freedom of speech is an absolute, stopping short only of incitement to commit violence." Lane praises the cartoons for their humor and satire, and believes that criticizing the cartoons is itself intolerant. "The satire is effective. Which, of course, is why they have caused such a fuss. These cartoons express graphically what many people feel but are afraid to say."

Newspapers in New Zealand also defended European media, and as a mark of solidarity three newspapers -- the Dominion Post, the Press and the Nelson Mail -- published the controversial cartoons, leading to protests in the streets of Auckland.

The overwhelming response of Asia's media has been one of traversing the middle-ground between freedom of expression and violent protests, reflecting an optimism that a quick solution to the escalating controversy might yet be reached.

"The editor of the newspaper and the government of Denmark have apologized," writes Irfan Husain in his Dawn column. "Why not accept these expressions of regret and move on? What is to be gained by the continuing violence and hysteria?"