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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Justified Comment

When I started this blog, there were a few issues I promised myself I wouldn’t go near, and on the…

By Heba Elasaad , in Arab press making the news Blogs , on March 13, 2008

When I started this blog, there were a few issues I promised myself I wouldn’t go near, and on the top of that list is the frustratingly exhausted Danish cartoon controversy.

But Egypt’s done it again so here’s me talking about what I just said I wouldn’t.

Apparently, the wise as always Anas Al-Feki, Egypt’s information minister, has decided to ban four publications that reprinted the infamous cartoons, including New York’s Wall Street Journal.

I think this is absurd for obvious reasons, but that’s not what I want to get into in this short post. I think what is most interesting about the cartoons and their publication is what they say about the question of what constitutes justified, publishable comment.

There was a discussion in an ethics class I attended this week that dealt with freedom of expression and the lines that are or aren’t crossed by commentators. I thought it was interesting how religious groups were generally approached in comparison to other ‘offended communities,’ and by that I mean groups targeted by apparently offensive commentary based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

It seems to be easier to accept certain defenses – such as the freedom to critique or even, as was mentioned in class, the defense of artistic expression – when the target has anything to do with the religiously sacred.

Again, I completely disagree with the ban placed on the papers and I am in no way an advocate of the extreme reactions to the cartoons’ initial publications, but I can’t help but feel there was a serious lack of sympathy and understanding of the Muslim community’s concern.

I think part of the problem lies in the differing views on what the cartoons actually represented.

Moving beyond the issue of creating an image of the Prophet, to many Muslims I’ve spoken to, this had nothing to do with a freedom of opinion. The cartoons were attacking something fundamentally wrong: that the Prophet himself advocated/preached violence. The cartoons didn’t attack the practice of fundamentalists or even go so far as to generalize, as many do, and just say ‘Muslims.’ They seemed to target the core of Islamic belief, namely the teachings of the Prophet specifically – the doctrine as represented through him.

The cartoons ultimately signified the extent to which Muslims and their beliefs are stereotyped and generalized, and were nothing more than symbols of ignorance, irresponsibility and blatant racism at an already sensitive time.

I realize I’m at risk of oversimplifying the issue, but what is it that makes these cartoons so different from ones that target the gay community, African Americans or Judaism?

What makes this reasonable commentary?