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Wednesday, March 1, 2006 08:28 am

Cartoons and clashing cultures at the Daily Illini

The best response is to educate the ignorant, and that includes me

I wouldn’t have published the cartoons, but I wouldn’t have suspended the Daily Illini editors who did. And I wouldn’t have participated in violent protests over the cartoons. Neither would have Muhammad. Fellowship of Reconciliation, the peace group, tells a story from the Hadith (sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad) that Muhammad was with his companions in the simple mosque of Medina. The mosque had an earthen floor and was open on all sides. A Bedouin man walked in and began to urinate in the corner. Muhammad’s companions were incensed, yelling at him to stop, and threatening to assault him. “No,” the Prophet told his followers. “Let him be. He does not know any better.” When the man had finished, Muhammad addressed him gently: “This place is not meant for urine, but only for prayer and the remembrance of Allah.” Then he told his followers to get water to wash the floor. The Prophet Muhammad, who preached repelling evil with kindness, would not approve of violent protests over cartoons, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “He would have responded by educating the ignorant.” Which includes most of us when it comes to the topics of freedom of speech vs. cultural sensitivity and Islamic relations. We all could use some education in these areas. Unfortunately, the two student editors of the Daily Illini, independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois, got a quick education in corporate hypocrisy and doublespeak when they were suspended from their jobs for republishing on Feb. 9 the offensive Danish cartoons. The publisher of the newspaper, Mary Cory of the DI’s parent company, Illini Media, told alumni the suspension came, not because the cartoons were published, and not because the editors did not have the right to publish them, but because they didn’t follow proper procedures by notifying the executive team and editorial board that they intended to publish the cartoons. The suspended editor-in-chief, Acton Gorton, says he has never heard of such a requirement or seen it in writing. He says he followed normal practice. “All editors present in the newsroom the night before publication learned of our decision to publish the cartoons. There were no objections.” Gorton is supposed to find out March 2 whether he gets reinstated, fired, or brought back on staff at a lower position. Meanwhile, he tells Illinois Times, he was surprised, after the publication, by the assumption of his fellow newspaper staff members that publishing the cartoons would incite violence. “The staff was really angry because they said I put their lives at risk,” he said. Some staffers told him they wouldn’t be able to get jobs when it became known they work for a “hate” publication. The publisher instituted new security measures at the newspaper office. Gorton calls these reactions “Islamophobia.” So far there have been no threats, no violence, only quiet protests and a lot of discussion. “Just because there is violence in the Middle East doesn’t mean we can’t handle these things here.” University of Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman wrote in a letter to the editor that he was “saddened” by the publication of the cartoons “that have so offended Muslims around the world.” Gorton finds it sad that this comes from an official who has been largely silent about university mascot Chief Illiniwek, who offends Native Americans and many others. “If there’s any kind of controversy about insensitivity on campus, it ought to be about the Chief,” says Gorton. Now back to whether Gorton and his fellow editor, Chuck Prochaska, made the right decision by publishing the cartoons. Gorton says his readers needed to see the cartoons in order to understand what the global controversy was all about. “This is a story about images,” he says. “You can’t tell the story without the imagery.” Well sure you can. “We discuss pornography in papers without showing images,” says Ahmed M. Rehab, of CAIR in Chicago. “We discuss violent acts of war and terror without showing graphic images of maimed corpses. We discuss anti-Semitism without reprinting vile anti-Semitic depictions. So this editor’s argument that we had to print the racist cartoons just to understand the situation really was paper-thin, and a lot of people saw straight through it.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations says garbage from the press wouldn’t faze the Prophet Muhammad, who responded to his critics with forgiveness and kindness. They tell the story that every day a woman would throw garbage in the path of the prophet, to insult him. But one day she didn’t do it. So the Prophet Muhamad inquired about her health. He thought she might be sick.
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