A double standard at the BBC and NYT?

ruscha double standard2Andrew Sullivan has been unrelenting in his criticism of The New York Times for calling the Muhammad cartoons “callous and feeble cartoons, cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper exploiting the general Muslim prohibition on images of the Prophet Muhammad to score cheap points about freedom of expression.”

Sullivan slams NYT editors for being cowards on this issue and calls them out for publishing images of the Virgin Mary constructed out of dung — but not the Danish cartoons.

An underlying theme in this issue — as pointed out by National Public Radio’s Bob Garfield — is the great lengths that Western European media have been sympathetic and accommodating to Muslims around the world and how they’ve basically lost patience with Islam for reacting this way.

Exactly how accommodating has the press been in Europe?

Sullivan points to a letter (via Andrew Stuttaford at National Review‘s The Corner) in the Times from Will Wyatt, former BBC chief executive, who addresses the inconsistency between the BBC’s history of Islam and Christianity. Here’s what Wyatt had to say:

Sir, I applaud the BBC’s news treatment of the Danish cartoons (report, Feb 4). On its website, however, the cultural cringe is evident and double standards obtain. In its history of Islam we read: “One night in 610 he (Muhammad) was meditating in a cave on the mountain when he was visited by the angel Jibreel who ordered him to “recite” … words which he came to understand were the words of God.” This is written as fact, no “it is said” or “Muhammad reported”. Whenever Muhammad’s name is mentioned the BBC adds “Peace be upon him”, as if the corporation itself were Muslim.

How different, and how much more accurate, when we turn to Christianity. Here, Jesus’ birth “is believed by Christians to be the fulfilment of prophesies in the Jewish Old Testament”; Jesus “claimed that he spoke with the authority of God”; accounts of his resurrection appearances were “put about by his believers”.

Go judge for yourself. Here is a link to the BBC’s history of Muhammad and here is a link to the BBC’s history of Christianity. Since when does a secular news organization follow the name of Muhammad with (peace be upon him), or even worse, the acronym (pbuh).

I’ve been wondering why fewer American publications have chosen to publish the cartoons, if simply for their news value. Offending someone certainly has not held them back from publishing gruesome and offensive photos in the past (think Sept. 11 photos or the aforementioned pieces of “art”). I chose not to publish the cartoons on my own blog for reasons of fear (sad, I know), and it’s comforting for me to know that I was not the only one who held back for such reasons. Here’s what The Phoenix had to say:

There are three reasons not to publish the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed with his turban styled as a bomb and the other images that have sparked violent protests and deaths throughout Europe, the Middle East, West Asia, and Indonesia:

1) Out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year publishing history.

Compare that explanation with what NPR’s Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin had to say (hint: “balance considerations of taste”). Are American media organizations running scared?

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  • Daniel

    While I appreciate Andrew’s point, there is a significant difference between cartoons on an editorial page that included a written editorial criticizing Islam and a picture of Serrano’s work accompaying a story about art (and, truthfully, the uproar created by a museum showing the art). While they both may be offensive, they were originally printed for very different purposes and those purposes should color how others treat the offensive art.

  • Daniel

    It also seems to me the difference is also in how we treat an oppressed minority group as opposed to how we treat the powerful, majority. The BBC and NYT are solicitious to Muslims because, well, they are an oppressed minority group in the U.S. and the U.K. On the other hand, Christians have significant power, influence, and the ability to oppress in both the U.S. and the U.K, thus maybe it isn’t necessary to be quite so solicitious.

  • http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net Kendall Harmon

    I am surprised that you are turning to Andrew Sullivan who not for the first time is paddling up the wrong stream.

    He writes (http://time.blogs.com/daily_dish/2006/02/two_myths.html):

    “It is a myth that Islam has not allowed depictions of the Prophet….

    So, in refusing to publish the cartoons at issue, the American media are simply following the line not of Islam but of radical Islamists, who engineered this outbreak of violence in the first place.”

    Now this kind of overstatement and misstatement is becoming all too common with Andrew. First, no one I know is saying the sentence he begins with. What they are saying is that Islamic Authorities view the drawing of images of Mohammad now to be forbidden.

    Which Islamic authorities? Professor Yasir Suleiman of Edinburgh University, and Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Professor of Islamic Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies to name just two:


    So does this mean that “the American media are simply following the line not of Islam but of radical Islamists.” No.

    It is not cowardice it is consideration and even love. The Vatican sees this–alas, Mr. Sullivan does not. None of this means that either (a) militant Islam isn’t a huge problem, because it is, and that (b) the violent reactions to the cartoons are to be condemned absolutely.

    Whatever happened to living into the Indian saying in order to understand a man you need to walk in his moccasins? Where is the reasonable desire to try to understand Islam for the inside?

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Instead of bellyaching about how Moslems are acting in a virtually lunatic manner to defend their faith–Christians should wonder why they have done so little to defend their Faith from the depridations of powerful BIg Mainstream Media? Sometimes I think we Catholics have been brainwashed to believe it is somehow unAmerican to push back against those who publicly–and even gleefully–trash our Faith. Every Christian, Catholic or otherwise, has the right to take whatever non-violent action he wants against media outlets that repeatedly give evidence of bigotry::refuse to buy or use it, contact advertisers you will no longer patronize, refuse to advertise in such outlets, socially shun and ostracize employees and exceutives of such media outlets as bigoted, unsavory characters, etc.
    “Freedom of the Press” is solely to keep government interference out of the press. It is not intended to be a foil to protect anyone from the social and economic consequences of what they say or print.

  • http://www.anglobaptist.org Tripp

    The SBC boycotted Disney. That was no small thing. And, of course, they were seen as fanatical. Not that this should keep a religious body from doing just what the SBC did, but it seems to make very little difference in America.

    Religious voices speak again and again in this country. Deacon, your own Catholic Church spoke out against the war in Iraq. So did my denomination, the ABC-USA. We will always speak out. It may not make a difference in the immediate sense, however, and that is what is most apalling and interesting about this issue of cartoons.

    The response against it was huge and multi-national. It was hardly polite. Everyone has taken notice. I am not advocating violence in any way, but what if Catholics and members of the ABC were to simply walk away from their military service en masse? What if we all wrote in someone we admired or saw as a worthy candidate in the next presidential election? I know that these options are in one way or another open to use already. But it is harder to act on these as a community.

    We speculate for hours as to why, but it does not change the reality. Islam is comparatively monolithic. Christianity may be hopelessly splintered. But that is another post.

  • mjbubba

    Well, how can we know if Islam is monolithic or not? The recent statement from the gathering in Jordan acknowledged seven recognized schools of Sunni Islam (they reject Shia). The thing is, that the Wahabis and other jihadis have pretty well silenced everyone else (the other Islamic voices have even more reason to be afraid than western journalists). This is how the “Islamic” position regarding such matters as images quickly becomes a problem. Does the majority of Islamic schools of thought agree that the cartoon provocation should be met with violence? How would we know?
    Our friends at GetReligion have been asking our journalists to give us a reasonable accounting for the differences within Islam, but to very little avail.

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

    If I had the skill to draw an editorial cartoon, although some I see are not drawn all that well, then I would draw Mohammed, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and other venerated religious leaders kneeling before Jesus Christ; and they would say in unison, “You are Lord.”

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  • Herb

    Hey folks, check out this link, which, if accurate, shows that extremist Muslims themselves are part of the origin of all this trouble.

  • Aamir Ali

    Sullivan’s article in Time magazine attacks Muslims as a whole, as if everyone is guilty of burning down the Danish embassy in Beirut. The Western media after creating a huge mess has now seized upon a few violent people in Beirut and Damascus and is trying to attack all Muslims again. I wish the credibility of the Western press in relation to Islam would go to zero. That will certainly bring a lot of peace to this world.

  • Tom Breen

    I don’t think American media organizations are running scared. Our paper published the cartoon, and there was more dissent from the largely atheist news staff than from the largely Muslim press room workers. The question isn’t one of fear, it’s one of news value; how much news value is there in publishing one of the cartoons? There aren’t riots in the streets here; Danish citizens aren’t living in fear in the U.S. What’s the domestic news angle?

    The Danish newspaper that published the cartoons (the same newspaper, incidentally, that refused to publish what it deemed offensive cartoons of Jesus three years ago) went looking for a fight, and it got one. The purpose of inviting artists to draw Mohammed was explicitly to offend Muslims living in Denmark. Why should US media outlets become dupes of this newspaper’s agenda?

  • John Cox

    Apparently not everyone agrees with the authorities cited by Mr. Harmon on this matter, which is in fact not new, as evidenced by this 2003 column, by an Iranian Muslim who is (or was at the time of writing) a professor of anthropology at John Hopkins University. She was commenting on the controversy created earlier that year, three years ago, when “The Guardian” newspaper printed a story with a 19th century picture of…the Prophet Mohammed.

    If Muslims themselves are divided about just what can and can’t be depicted, in whose shoes are we being invited to walk?

    It may be that the Danish newspaper was being provocative. But it’s not clear to me that they were being religiously offensive in trying to make a serious political point. As Mollie’s post shows, it’s a point that the publishers of the Boston “Phoenix” seem to have understood with blessed clarity: terror and fear can and do win.

    As a result, Mr. Harmon seems to simply miss the actual point that Mr. Sullivan is making: “the American media are simply following the line…of radical Islamists, who engineered this outbreak of violence in the first place.”

    I deleted the phrase “not of Islam” in order to more clearly frame Mr. Sullivan’s contention. Which seems quite true.

    On other occasions, images of the Prophet have caused comment and objections, conversations, and sometimes apologies or retractions. But they took place in the context of what could be considered Western civil discourse, and civil Western discourse.

    The current violence bears no resemblance to some spontaneous, communal outrage of an aggrieved religious group, let alone an “oppressed minority.” On the contrary, the evidence suggests exactly what Mr. Sullivan asserts: the violence has been engineered by the radicals and abetted by Western media, as Mark Steyne has noted http://www.suntimes.com/output/steyn/cst-edt-steyn05.html: “Thus, NBC is celebrating Easter this year with a special edition of the gay sitcom “Will & Grace,” in which a Christian conservative cooking-show host, played by the popular singing slattern Britney Spears, offers seasonal recipes — “Cruci-fixin’s.” On the other hand, the same network, in its coverage of the global riots over the Danish cartoons, has declined to show any of the offending artwork out of “respect” for the Muslim faith.”

    Years ago (May 1970), in his “Playboy” interview, William F. Buckley Jr. was asked why, really, would it be wrong to make a Broadway musical about Auschwitch. Buckley’s reply was: “Because it hurts people’s feelings. And when their feelings are hurt, people withdraw from a sense of community.”

    That still seems to me like a good commentary on the current crisis. It ought to guide media members, from writers to news editors to publishers, as the cover religion. But it also ought to guide the rest of us, because Buckley’s point raises the issue on how Muslims, and how the various strands of Muslim piety and tradition, understand what “community” means in the West, and how or even whether they participate in that.

    This controversy is, in a sense, less a crisis for the West (though that’s coming soon) than it is for Islam, which will have come to terms with some of its inherent contradictions within the context of Western civilization.

    Or not.

    As Steyn wrote recently http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007760:

    “Since the president unveiled the so-called Bush Doctrine–the plan to promote liberty throughout the Arab world–innumerable “progressives” have routinely asserted that there’s no evidence Muslims want liberty and, indeed, that Islam is incompatible with democracy. If that’s true, it’s a problem not for the Middle East today but for Europe the day after tomorrow. According to a poll taken in 2004, over 60% of British Muslims want to live under Shariah–in the United Kingdom. If a population “at odds with the modern world” is the fastest-breeding group on the planet–if there are more Muslim nations, more fundamentalist Muslims within those nations, more and more Muslims within non-Muslim nations, and more and more Muslims represented in more and more transnational institutions–how safe a bet is the survival of the “modern world”?
    “Not good.”

    Just so.

  • http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net Kendall Harmon

    Response to mr. cox

    Mr. Cox has missed the point I was addressing entirely.

    The point is there is a substantial body of Moslem leadership which believes pictures are forbiden.

    Some of these Muslim authorities, such as Professor Yasir Suleiman of Edinburgh University, and Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Professor of Islamic Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, are NOT adherents of radical Islam. Professor Haleh Afshar of York University is another example. One could go and on.

    What percentage of Islam do these leaders represent? I do not know exactly, but I would surmise neither does Mr. Cox. But we do know that they represent the views of a significant number of Muslim leaders. They are NOT extremists by any reasonable definition.

    Says Mr. Sullivan: “the American media are simply following the line not of Islam but of radical Islamists.” No, sorry, this will not do. There are non radical Islamists who are arguing that these cartoons are offensive. To care about the offense they could cause would be in part out of concern for these people.

    The argument seems to go like this: reasonable Islamists argue that you can have pictures Of Mohommad and have example of appropriate satire.
    (the fact that these Islamists happen to agree with Mr. Sullivan is one ventures not a coincidence). Therefore–only unreasonable and radical Islamists think differently. we should not give into them as for example Mr. Sullivan argues the media in the West to a large extent is doing.

    The problem is it won’t work. Yes, to some extent, these are dueling authorities but they are authorities nontheless and they repesent a significant strand of Islamic thought.

    Mr. Sullivan’s argument doesn’t work.

    Mr. Cox’s response also does not work. It is not a refutation of my argument to say “If Muslims themselves are divided about just what can and can’t be depicted, in whose shoes are we being invited to walk?” In a religious community of this size and scope there will be viewpoints at variance with others, to be sure. But this is not met with a response by saying “muslims are divided” and that’s that. This is a significant body of thought.

    One last quote to make this clear:

    It is in the Hadith that pictures of living creatures are forbidden. The Arab word used for pictures is “surah”, which can be translated in several ways, from either a two dimensional drawing or painting to a three-dimensional figure or statue.

    Hadith -Bukhari 5:338 relates that Abu Talha, a companion of the Prophet, reported that Mohammed said: “Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture….”

    Imam Ibrahim Mogra, a leading Islamic scholar and chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s mosque and community affairs committee, said the teaching on this issue was strict and there were other verses in the Hadith that also supported the prohibition.

    Exceptions are made. For example, a blind man would be permitted a dog, as would a family living on a crime-ridden estate.

    He said the Danish paper was “ill advised” to publish the cartoon, and other papers were equally mistaken to follow suit.

    “To depict the Prophet is unacceptable. To depict him as a terrorist is even more painful. It is extremely sad that they have not yet realised this. They should have realised from the response to what the Danish paper did that this was not the right thing to do. I do not see how the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of expression gives people the licence to cause this kind of hurt to more than a billion people around the world.

    “Mohammed is a very, very special person. To us he is more than our parents are. We can imagine, if someone was to make a mockery of our parents in this manner, how hurt we would be. Imagine that hurt, multiplied a million times.”


    Notice please Mr. Cox that this is Imam Ibrahim Mogra, a leading Islamic scholar and chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s mosque and community affairs committee.

    Whose moccasins am I asking you to walk in? His and the hundreds of thousands of other Muslims who believe he speaks faithfully.

    Why is that too much to ask?

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  • David Fischler

    Father Kendall, I’ve mentioned this on your own site, but no one responded, and Herb (above) brings it up again. Three of the offending cartoons, including the one usually cited as the worst, were published in an Egyptian newspaper back in October, and there was no response whatsoever in the Arab world. The original publication of the cartoons in Denmark elicited some small response, but certainly nothing on the scale we’ve seen in the last week. If the issue really is the prohibition of images of Mohammad, why has it taken so long after their original publication, and so long after their first publication in a newspaper in a Muslim nation, for the “Muslim street” to erupt?

    I’m not saying there aren’t Muslims genuinely upset by the cartoons, but I think a very strong case can be made that popular sentiment is being manipulated by those who have a stake in stirring up hatred of the West. If so, I think that calls for a somewhat different response than would be the case if this were nothing but a case of insult to faith.

  • Spencer

    Kendall would like us to respect others. Point taken. From Paul’s writings in 1 Cor. which gives us the common phrase “When in Rome do as the Romans.” is certainly the attitude of respect we should have toward others. However, just how far is one to take this? Should we be so constrained by others beliefs to the point that making an editorial comment about them is off limits? Did Jesus do this? Of course not, he confronted the religious leaders of his day and ridiculed them even doing so in their own temple. Do you think the Pharisees and Sadducees were offended? Most certainly yes, so much so that they killed Him. Yet at the same time, Jesus never condoned violence. He told Peter to put down his sword. Jesus wept at the Palm branches because they misunderstood that Jesus did not come to be a military leader. Too often however, Christians have misunderstood Jesus’ command to be meek as a command not to be confrontational. This too is a grave misunderstanding which has led Christians to isolate themselves from the public forum where they cease to be salt and light to their culture. We must be non-violent but we must also be confrontational. To fall towards either extreme is to miss Jesus’ message. To be confrontational will certainly cause others to be offended and for this I will be scorned, yet I will do as I have seen my Lord Jesus do, for that is what it is to be His disciple. May he give me the wisdom to balance the tightrope of being “non-violently confrontational” for His sake.

    The attitude of Militant Islam in our day is as heinous as the Christian Crusades and the Nazi Holocaust. It cannot be overstated that we cower to such a threat at the expense of many lives. It is my prayer that peace loving Muslims will lead the confrontation against the militants and bring a change amongst all those who claim to follow Mohammed. I also hope that this cartoon crisis will serve as a catalyst to bring that to happen soon.