Discourse continues: free speech vs. religious sensitivity

by Amy Kingsley

Three local newspaper professionals, an imam and a political cartoonist gathered before about 100 spectators to discuss the fallout from the publication of incendiary depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Rhinoceros Times.

People of all political and religious stripes packed a Central Library meeting room on March 7 to listen and discuss the images that had appeared almost three weeks earlier. Library directors opened the forum by thanking the audience and participants and setting a few ground rules outlining the structure of the night’s presentation.

Cartoonist Karen Favreau spoke first, articulating the delicate balance illustrators face when using stock images to evoke recognition in readers. It is a challenge to convey a developed idea in a single frame without, on occasion, resorting to stereotypes, she said.

‘“Cartoonists work in shorthand,’” she said. ‘“Because brevity is the soul of wit.’”

Even progressive political cartoonists, like Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) who fought for racial equality, frequently resorted to negative racial stereotypes, she said and showed slides of examples.

After Favreau’s presentation, Imam Yaser Ahmed of the Islamic Center of Greensboro delivered a speech describing the importance of the Prophet Muhammad to the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Muslims. Ahmed followed each utterance of the prophet’s name with the words, ‘“Peace and the blessings of Allah be upon you.’” Several Muslims in the audience quietly spoke the traditional incantation alongside the religious leader.

‘“To understand the position of the Prophet Muhammad to his followers, you must understand that the people love him more than their fathers, their mothers, their children and even themselves,’” Ahmed said.

He condemned violence perpetrated in response to the cartoon, but also said the media too often focus on negative actions by Muslims. In addition, when Muslims commit crimes it is often linked to their religion, which is not the case with Christians, he said.

Moderator Elizabeth Conrad then passed the discussion to the three media representatives: Allen Johnson, editorial page editor of the News & Record, Afrique Kilimanjaro, editor of the Carolina Peacemaker and William Hammer, publisher of the Rhinoceros Times.

Johnson opened the discussion with an explanation of his choice not to run the cartoons, which he attributed to religious sensitivity and respect for community standards. It was not an unusual decision, he said.

‘“I’m an editor, and an editor’s job is to edit,’” he said. ‘“I choose not to publish cartoons every day.’”

Kilimanjaro followed with a similar explanation of respect for community standards that guides her decisions regarding all images in her paper. Hate speech, derogatory comments and overly sexual material are among the things she censors from publication.

‘“I describe myself as a Thursday morning quarterback,’” she said. ‘“Our paper comes out on Wednesday and I’m always wondering ‘Did I do this right, did I do that right?””

Hammer immediately took an adversarial stance against the editors’ respect for community values.

‘“I do not see the role of a newspaper as primarily not to offend,’” Hammer said. ‘“I see it as primarily to inform.’”

The cartoons were an essential part of a major news story, Hammer said, which justified his paper’s decision to print them. He attributed the decision to not print the images to herd mentality among local papers.

‘“If the New York Times had run them, every paper in the country would have run them.’”

Hammer also said that no religion should be immune from criticism and that Muslims should condemn terrorist acts committed in the name of Allah before criticizing a cartoon. His speech drew immediate ire from both Johnson and Ahmed.

‘“I do not appreciate him telling me what went on with my editorial decisions,’” Johnson said. ‘“He could do good journalism and call me up and quote me.’”

Ahmed disputed the percentages Hammer used to bolster his position that Islam is being hijacked by terrorists. Hammer said that although Muslims accounted for 19 percent of the world’s population, adherents of the religion claim responsibility for 59 percent of terrorist acts.

‘“Whatever bad is being done by a Muslim is connected to his religion,’” he said. ‘“Anything bad done by someone else is not connected to his religion.’”

Despite the disagreements, the conversation between Greensboro natives Johnson, Hammer and Kilimanjaro remained relatively friendly. In addition to discussing the cartoon, the panel spoke about racial stereotypes and Greensboro’s burgeoning diversity.

The audience appeared to be split between support and condemnation of the Rhinoceros Times.

‘“It’s always a good exercise when we can all sit down and talk about an idea even if we passionately disagree,’” Johnson said. ‘“Maybe this conversation was nudged along by these cartoons, but I think it’s really a credit to this community.’”

Director Sandy Neerman said the library would sponsor continuing discussion groups for interested citizens. Ahmed announced an open house ‘— where members of the local Muslim community will deliver presentations about the Prophet Muhammad and their faith ‘— at the Islamic Center of Greensboro scheduled for March 18.

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