Free expression should never be suppressed, but should be exercised with respectful restraint

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SHAFAQNA – As we celebrate the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day this Sunday, we should remember that freedom of expression and good journalism, while both pillars of democratic society, are not the same thing.

So it is not inconsistent to both defend the right of American news media to harshly criticize Islam and to simultaneously counsel prudence in the exercise of that right.

American news media should extend respect and restraint toward Islam in the same degree as they would any other religious tradition.

Just as we recognize that anti-Semitic commentary, for example, has no place in proper journalism, despite the fact it may be protected speech, the same is true of hateful and misleading images of Muslims.

In this sense, the French political satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, which – among other slights to Islam – published pornographic caricatures mocking the Prophet Muhammad, is no example for American news media to follow.

Muslims citizens of France, already disempowered and marginalized in French society, experienced the cartoons as little more than expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Their pain was not ameliorated by the fact that Charlie Hebdo also satirized Catholicism and Judaism. The hurt and humiliation of African Americans would be no different if an American publication featured cartoons of Little Black Sambo, the late 19th-century character in a children’s book that depicted African Americans as perpetually childlike and naive.

Journalism fills a more edifying role when it challenges power and official authority, rather than rubbing salt in the wounds of the powerless.

It is the role of news outlets to condemn atrocities when they happen. That being said promoting violence should never be part of the equation.

If journalism’s goal is to provide fair and balanced reporting as well as editorial and analysis that educates the public, we must simultaneously seek understanding – not justification, but understanding – of that which we condemn.

Why has violence peaked in a number of Muslim-majority countries in the last few years?

Do differences in values truly explain our conflicts with some Muslims?

Are there changes to our own policies and actions that we should consider so as to promote reconciliation?

If we do not pose these questions, we run the substantial risk of seeing more, not fewer such atrocities in the future.

Sadly, the extent and intensity of our confrontation with large parts of the Muslim world seem only to have multiplied over the last decades, suggesting that our policies may be aggravating, rather than curing, the problem. Good journalism can help us understand why as we strive to alter this dangerous cycle.

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