To publish or not to publish the infamous Mohammed cartoons has become the defining journalistic question of our time. Here at The Michigan Review, a conservative student publication at the University of Michigan, we amateurs faced the same choice as the pros. “You gotta show that you’re not afraid to do it,” urged one alumnus.
But we elected not to publish.
We based our decision on several factors. The most important is that we aren’t Danish.
Our choice, as American college students, was fundamentally different from the one faced by Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Jyllands-Posten, which commissioned and published the cartoons that set off riots around the world. As Rose recently explained in the Washington Post, the cartoons came in direct response to “several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” European fear of offending resident Muslims led to the closing of an art exhibit and forced an illustrator of a children’s book on Mohammed into anonymity.
The media only reports on the violent backlash in the Middle East; it never mentioned that the cartoons themselves, and the decision of Rose and other European editors to publish them, was itself a backlash of sorts.
It took but an acquaintance with the logic behind the Rose’s decision to publish the infamous Mohammed cartoons to realize that The Michigan Review shouldn’t publish them. Upon reading Rose’s explanation, it becomes clear that the cartoons were commissioned and printed to combat a Danish issue, between its natural citizens and its Muslims.
The context in which the cartoons were published is an entire culture apart, making them largely indecipherable to most college students. Printing these cartoons, in the wake of so many other doing the same and their easy access via a Google search, would not have advanced anybody’s understanding of the issues at hand. It would have amounted to a cheap publicity stunt.
Rose framed the publication of the Muhammad cartoons as a means of including Muslims in Danish culture. Printing cartoons offensive to Danish Muslims placed them on equal standing with Danish Christians, who are often exposed to cartoons profaning their faith and its symbols.
But that laudable desire to treat Muslims “just like everyone else” is precisely the reason The Michigan Review declined to print the cartoons. Jews and Christians had been spared the indignity of having their religion degraded in our pages; we didn’t feel the need to single out Muslims, and certainly not at the urging of a double-dog dare from those hoping to agitate the campus Left.
Controversies such as this make every publication walk the tightrope between reporting and becoming the news. As young journalists, we aim to do the former and to avoid the latter. Our goal is to win the culture wars rather than merely fight them, and it is our belief that publishing the cartoons would have sullied The Michigan Review’s reputation as a responsible voice of conservatism on campus. It is not easy being conservative in Ann Arbor, but the Review has achieved a certain credibility and standing in our community because it has built up a loyal readership and avoided opportunities to generate meaningless controversy. If a newspaper makes a winning argument, but no one reads it, did it in fact make a winning argument?
In the end, we determined that any value our paper could add by publishing the cartoons would be outweighed by the stigma of being known as “the paper that published the cartoons.” In one fell swoop, The Michigan Review’s rich history of nearly 25 years would be reduced-literally–to a cartoon.
The Danish cartoons arose from a desire to combat European self-censorship, but the almost-uniform refusal of American editors to reprint the cartoons speaks to the extent to which our press truly is free. In the case of The Michigan Review, this meant freedom from the sophomoric, macho impulse to offend for the sake of it, as if to pretend that discretion isn’t the better part of valor. Americans self-censor because we don’t see the need to offend; Europeans self-censor because they fear an Islamic backlash. The Danes profane the prophet Mohammed to include Muslims in their culture; we don’t profane Mohammed because, frankly, we wouldn’t do it to anyone else.