The (un)Funny Pages: Examining the Arabic-Language Media's Role in the Danish Cartoon Crisis
By Andrew Exum

Over the past several months, no event—not even the continuing war in Iraq or the election of Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—has strained Western-Islamic relations to the degree that they have been by the publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad in a Danish daily newspaper.

Following the cartoons’ publication, riots and demonstrations spread from London to Islamabad as Muslims worldwide expressed their outrage at the printed representation of the holy prophet. In Damascus, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were sacked and burned in front of television cameras with the Syrian police unable—or unwilling—to stop the rioting. Elsewhere, hundreds of protesters were killed across the Islamic world in the midst of demonstrations that were often characterized by rage and violence.

Having briefly returned home to America after almost two years living in Lebanon, I watched on television as a large mob attempted to burn the Danish embassy in Beirut and strained already tense Muslim-Christian relations in that city by throwing rocks through the windows of a nearby church. Both sides of the divide, it seemed, were united only by mutual incomprehension of the other. Westerners couldn’t understand Muslim anger; Muslims couldn’t understand why the West would allow such insults to their faith.

Driving me to the airport on my way back to the Middle East, my uncle—normally a tolerant man—remarked that scenes like those shown on television had him almost convinced that Islam really must be a violent, irrational religion. And as soon as I touched ground in Cairo, taxi drivers there were asking me how on earth the West could be so stupid and insensitive as to publish—and then re-publish—such vile affronts to the Islamic World.

Given a little time to reflect on what are now, thankfully, events that seem to have petered out in all but memory, we can begin to think critically about not only the publication of the cartoons and what that says about the West but also about the protests and what they say about the Islamic World. Specifically, we can ask what role, if any, did the Arabic-language media play in the protests?

One narrative maintains that the Arabic-language media—especially the Pan-Arab networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya—provoked further unrest by their seemingly endless images of protesters and demonstrations. Others argue that the Pan-Arab networks and Arabic-language newspapers were only broadcasting and publishing the news their viewers and readers cared about—and there can surely be no doubt that the cartoon controversy was something about which the majority of the readers and viewers in the Arab world indeed cared.

The reality is that the Arabic-language media did in fact play a role in the cartoon controversy and the resulting violence and demonstrations. And in some cases this role went beyond simply reporting the facts. But to what degree the Arabic-language media acquitted itself during the crisis and whether or not the Arabic-language media should be held accountable for any violence or unrest, however, are trickier questions to answer.

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Given the events of the past year, Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen has one of the most difficult jobs in the Middle East as director of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute in Cairo. A reserved Arabic-speaking Dane who chooses his words carefully, he sat in his office recently and told TBS that the cartoons initially “didn’t cause much of a stir” when they were first published in late September 2005.

But over the next few months, Skovgaard-Petersen watched as the outrage in the Muslim world grew until it reached what he identifies as a turning point on the weekend of January 19th and 20th when calls for a boycott of Danish goods gathered steam in the Gulf states and in Saudi Arabia in particular. “I think the Arab media had a lot to do with this,” Skovgaard-Petersen recalled. Some of the media simply reported the boycott as it took place, others “actually promoted it,” he said. For the most part, the Pan-Arab newspapers, in Skovgaard-Petersen’s view, stuck to reporting while some local papers—such as Egypt’s Al Gumhuriya—were notable for promoting the paper itself through the paper’s promotion of the boycott.

This is an interesting phenomenon, and Skovgaard-Petersen is perceptive in noting the way in which the cartoon controversy raised commercial opportunities for Arabic-language media who suddenly found themselves reaching what was, for them, a much wider audience than normal. Some Arabic-language media, while reporting an obviously legitimate news story, put an undoubtedly populist spin on the issue, motivated perhaps by ratings as much as by journalistic principles. Skovgaard-Petersen singled out the Pan-Arab network Al Jazeera, in particular, which he says took a “very combative stance” on the issue. Other networks (Skovgaard-Petersen mentioned Al Arabiya) at least allowed space for Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s voice to be heard alongside those of his critics.

But is it really notable that a news organization would package its coverage of an event based on the possibility it might gain in ratings? Or that a news organization would promote itself while covering a news story? Don’t all news organizations do that regardless of what story they happen to be covering?

Long-time Al Jazeera observer Hugh Miles notes that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the cartoon controversy was consistent with the network’s long-standing modus operandi. “My impression was that Al Jazeera presented the news with the same commercial bias with which they always present their stories—that is, toward a predominantly Arab male audience.” Miles, the author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, says that given Al Jazeera’s audience of mostly Muslim Arab males, what he saw of their coverage of the controversy seemed “pretty reasonable.”

Neither Skovgaard-Petersen nor Miles saw anything that could be described as actual provocation. “I didn’t see any incitement to violence,” Skovgaard-Petersen told me. Indeed, looking back at news reports from January and February, many of the riots and demonstrations predictably took place following Friday prayers, not during the nightly newscasts. And it is difficult to imagine the sacking of the Danish embassy in Damascus as having taken place without both the permission and also the encouragement of the Syrian regime, a minority regime under pressure from the West at the time and eager to score points with its Sunni majority and their influential clerics.

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Overall, while the Pan-Arab media might have approached the cartoon story enthusiastically for personal, journalistic, and commercial reasons, it’s unreasonable to hold them responsible for any of the violence that struck the Arab world from Gaza to Baghdad.

Speaking from Dubai, Al Arabiya spokesman Jihad Ballout said that he felt his network did a commendable job during the controversy. “We tried to be as calm about it and as thorough as possible,” he said. “We walked a pretty fine line between reporting the news and trying not to incite or provoke further violence … As you might imagine, it was difficult—emotions were pretty high.” Responding to allegations that news organizations used the cartoon controversy to broaden their audience, Ballout admitted that “it’s a fact of life that there’s an audience out there you appeal to and try to broaden.” But he quickly added that the relationship with the audience is a two-way street, and that the audience also expects the stations to uphold their journalistic ethics and integrity.

In the end, all questions about how the Arabic-language media handled the cartoon controversy boil down to a matter of perspective. As Hugh Miles argued, “All news is biased, and all media pitch themselves toward an audience. The question is whether or not that bias grows so strong that it becomes cheerleading at some point. Did that happen with Al Jazeera? No, not if you look at it from within an Islamic context. But it’s a subjective question, isn’t it? It’s a question of differing points of view. So if you’re a secular Westerner and you flip on Al Jazeera, you might be horrified by what you see as bias.”

Perhaps, then, a better approach than blaming the media might be to start asking the considerably tougher questions about the perception gap dividing the West and the Islamic world, and how, if possible, that gap can be bridged.

Andrew Exum was born in East Tennessee and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000. After university, he accepted a commission in the US Army and was decorated for valor while leading a platoon of infantrymen in Afghanistan in early 2002. Exum subsequently led a platoon of Army Rangers into Iraq in 2003 and developed his academic interest in the Middle East while serving there. After leaving the Army, Exum earned a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut in early 2006 and has accepted a fellowship in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Military and Security Studies Program for the 2006-2007 academic year. Exum is the author of one book, This Man's Army, which won a 2005 Distinguished Writing Award from the Army Historical Foundation. Exum lives in Cairo. He is a TBS contributing editor.

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