Is The Pen Still Mightier Than The Sword?

In a interview on the "Evening News" last night (which can be seen in full on the Web), CBS anchor Bob Schieffer talks with Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, about the spreading violence in the Muslim world over a series of cartoons published in European newspapers depicting the Prophet Muhammad – something forbidden in Islam. Day by day, the violence has grown and increasingly the anger is being directed toward the United States, which has not been a part of the story to this point.

Almost every close observer of the situation will say there is more to the outrage sparked by the cartoons than just the drawings themselves, that it is part of a larger feeling of disrespect felt throughout the Muslim world. That may be the case, but the cartoon story is a prime example of the dynamic that has shaped our world for the past five years and will likely continue to dominate it for the foreseeable future.

Whether or not you want to characterize the conflict as a "clash or civilizations" or not strikes me as a semantic argument because there's no denying the cultural differences at odds here that make the challenges of discussing almost anything – from politics to individual rights to economics – seem almost insurmountable at times. As Mr. Ahmed tells Schieffer in their discussion over the cartoon issue, it's a "classic confrontation" between "an immovable object and an irresistible force."

All of which brings us to the role of Western media, specifically U.S. media, in this face-off. Often lost in discussing this story is the fact that the cartoons were originally printed in a Danish newspaper some five months ago (conspiracy theories are currently raging as to why they've suddenly become a flashpoint but that's for another time). Since the initial protests last week, many news outlets in Europe have re-published or aired the drawings in support of freedom of speech, which has resulted in more outrage among Muslims.

So far, almost every U.S. news outlet has refrained from following suit. Yesterday, we explained the policy of CBS News on this issue, which is to not air or post the images. Some news organizations have displayed blurred images of the drawings, some have linked to other places on the Web to find them and at least one, the Philadelphia Inquirer, published some of them.

As many have argued, the story of this outpouring of violent protests can be told without actually showing the drawings that sparked them in the first place. Just noting that Islam forbids images of Muhammad should be enough, the thinking goes. Part of having the freedom of speech, certainly, is the responsibility that goes along with it and the freedom not to speak. U.S. news outlets are under no obligation to air these pictures, it's a part of their editorial judgment. But that doesn't make the specific judgment not to publish or air them sound.

It's a responsible position to withhold images that offend common sensibilities and exist only to degrade or inspire action against a particular group. But when those images become the basis for a major global story, it becomes less defensible. Add in the availability of access to the drawings on the Internet and the refusal on the part of major media outlets to recreate the images starts looking like a head-in-the-sand exercise.

Unmentioned in this media debate are the images themselves. Holding with CBS News policy, which hosts our little blog here, PE won't show them but they are widely available for view all over the Web. If you're looking for something that will take your breath away with disdain for whoever would dare create such a work, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Compared to what we're used to in the U.S. – be it editorial cartoons, movies, or even prime time programs – these drawings would hardly merit a second glance for most, let alone cause some systemic shock. When South Park features Jesus Christ as a character, you'll hear some titters and complaints about the state of our culture. But you won't see any embassies on fire.

Perhaps part of the reason the U.S. media is reluctant to show them is because most of us would scratch our heads in disbelief over how they could possibly spark such violence. Just about any group or belief you can imagine – Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Hispanics, Blacks, Men, Women and even Canadians – are treated much worse. And so ingrained is the freedom of expression, that it's generally tolerated, even celebrated at times. When Christians are subjected to images like "Piss Christ," why, we would ask, should Muslims be exempt? Why should the American press have a separate standard of religious sensitivity? Is the American press actually more scared of being targeted by protests or violence than they admit?

The problem is that the pictures are out there. Yes, publishing them in the American press might further offend some who are already offended, but not to do so gives the American public an incomplete picture. And that limits education on both sides – understanding why this has caused so much violence on the one part, and learning to respect freedoms on the other.

It seems to me that by not airing or running these images, the U.S. media is sending a clear signal of understanding to the Muslim world. I worry though that it's also sending a signal that we, as a society, care more about not offending that particular segment of the world than we do about our own freedom of expression. Perhaps the sword is mightier after all.