The Boston Phoenix did something refreshing this week, publicly conceding that they chose not to run the now infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed because they were afraid of being killed if they did so—calling in effect for a coalition of the terrorized. The editor then appeared on TV and outright called for “a communion, if you will, with—with people to oppose the terrorists. Fear is part of it.” How people capitulating to terror would oppose terrorists was left unclear.
What’s more, his fears appear both unfounded and cowardly. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the largest American paper to run the images, received, rather than bombs, a crowd of protesters just large enough to fill a camera frame; after being filmed, the crowd promptly dispersed. The belief expressed by many that some American Muslim street would respond to editorial cartoons with deranged violence would be laughable if it wasn’t so offensive. Still, it’s no secret that many newspapermen feel physically intimidated.
In the abstract, most everyone agrees that a free press is worth maintaining in the face of violence, actual or threatened. Yet even as reporters and editors have privately expressed their disgust, their newspapers have avoided running the cartoons, claiming on one hand that they are so offensive to Muslims that they can’t in good conscience be shown, and on the other that they are not shown because they are of limited news-worth. Readers are as insulted as newspaperfolk by such explanations.
Though there’s no question that the issue of religious offense shouldn’t matter to a free, secular press, we’d never have printed these fairly banal cartoons (which were first published to inflame, also a prerogative of a free press) on their own merits. Still, there is no way to honestly report the story of the insane violence they’ve engendered without running them. Claiming, as many have, that there’s no need to run images easily available online begs the question: What’s the point of a newspaper if reporting is deliberately left incomplete?
This week, we’d planned to run several of the 12 much-discussed if barely shown cartoons in New York Press, the newspaper we edited. We also planned to run the utterly profane counterfeit images (one shows Mohammed mounted by a dog) that it seems were ginned up—and were certainly reproduced and distributed—by Danish clerics who used them to raise funds from several evil dictatorships, and then used the money to buy Danish flags to burn and rent mobs to do the burning. As intended, a gullible Western press yet again portrayed Muslims as mindless savages to be feared and placated.
Because there can be no fear check on a free and open press, and because of the self-evident newsworthiness of the cartoons, the editorial staff of New York Press collectively resigned when ownership decided to kill the images and several thousand words dedicated to them just hours before the paper was to go to print on Tuesday. Below is the editorial we’d planned to run on the issue’s cover, followed by our letter of resignation and a link to several of the essays that were to have run in the Press, along with the cartoons.
—Harry Siegel and Tim Marchman
Given our druthers, we’d have dedicated this cover to the remarkable A.R. Brook Lynn’s photographs of the equally remarkable Jodie Fletcher, all in honor of St. Valentine. We’d figured that by now every paper in the country would have run the images that first appeared in September in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, to send a message to the barbarians who’ve belatedly responded to them with a loud and bloody rampage, as well as their handlers and fellow-travelers, and that for us to pile on would be gratuitous.
Imagine our surprise, then, when the EU, the Vatican, and prominent members of the Bush administration and the Blair government (to name but a few) were joined by pretty much the entire free press of the English-speaking world in offering a rioters’ veto to Muslim extremists. A few outlets claimed outright the cartoons justified the bloody response; most did so implicitly by refusing to run them.
As we write, Russia has expelled Danish humanitarian workers from Chechnya, and Iran has halted trade with Denmark and announced a state-sponsored Holocaust denial cartoon contest, ostensibly to make a point about free speech. (The door swings as convenient between free speech and tolerance, with violence as the hinge connecting the often-opposed ideas.) In Lebanon, a “spontaneous” demonstration—comprised almost entirely of Syrians, many of them known mercenaries—culminated in grenades being thrown into the Danish embassy. The Organization of Islamic Conferences and the Arab League have demanded that the United Nations impose sanctions on Denmark, and a boycott of Danish goods has been effected. From Gaza City to Karachi to London, violent riots and protests have broken out as religionists demand vengeance for the offense dealt to their tender sensibilities.
Who knew militant Muslims kept so many Danish flags handy for future burning?
Inside this number of New York Press, you’ll find the cartoons that have served as the pretext for a campaign of violence and intimidation against Western artists, journalists, diplomats and humanitarian workers—not coincidentally, those who embody the very freedoms and obligations upon which our civilization is founded. You’ll also find the three counterfeit images apparently produced and certainly displayed by a group of Danish imams as they went on a tour of wealthy Muslim countries seeking funding for a planned uprising of the so-called street, along with historical and contemporary images of Mohammed, some reverent, others not, none of which inspired any such violence. Most important, you’ll find writing and reporting that explains in clear, informed terms what all this is about and why it’s important that you see the images on which we’ve all been asked to pass judgment, sight unseen.
Among the most important of those reasons is that without understanding how little the provocation for this wave of violence, it is impossible to realize the gravity of the disservice done to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, when Westerners elevate homicidal zealots into spokesmen for their religion and treat murderous nihilism as a normative expression of their culture and beliefs.
When cartoonists have bounties put on their heads and editors are sacked for offending religious sensitivities, and when the governments of at least some of the great democracies are more eager to be seen as tolerant than to do what is right, a matter such as this becomes a test of whether or not the West is willing to defend, without apology, its basic freedoms against those who would undo them.
New York Press, like so many other publications, has suborned its own professed principles.
For all the talk of freedom of speech, only the New York Sun locally and two other papers nationally have mustered the minimal courage needed to print simple and not especially offensive editorial cartoons that have been used as a pretext for great and greatly menacing violence directed against journalists, cartoonists, humanitarian aid workers, diplomats and others who represent the basic values and obligations of Western civilization. Having been ordered at the 11th hour to pull the now-infamous Danish cartoons from an issue dedicated to them, the editorial group—consisting of myself, managing editor Tim Marchman, arts editor Jonathan Leaf and one-man city hall bureau Azi Paybarah, chose instead to resign our positions.
We have no desire to be free speech martyrs, but it would have been nakedly hypocritical to avoid the same cartoons we’d criticized others for not running, cartoons that however absurdly have inspired arson, kidnapping and murder and forced cartoonists in at least two continents to go into hiding. Editors have already been forced to leave papers in Jordan and France for having run these cartoons. We have no illusions about the power of the Press (NY Press, we mean), but even on the far margins of the world-historical stage, we are not willing to side with the enemies of the values we hold dear, a free press not least among them.
This was not an easy decision. I’ve been reading the Press since 1988 and have dreamed of running it for nearly as long. The paper’s editorial staff has worked impossibly hard hours and has come quite a ways in only a few months towards restoring the paper’s tarnished editorial reputation and credibility. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and wish we’d had time to finish the job. I wish the Press all the best, and hope that under new ownership and leadership it can again be an invaluable read for all good Gothamites.
—Harry Siegel, for the editors.
Several more of the essays that were to have run with the issue can be found here, with thanks to their respective authors for permission to reprint.