Tales of Transgression or Clashing Paradigms: The Danish Cartoon Controversy and Arab Media

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study looks at the extensive coverage of the Danish cartoon controversy on the web pages of the two leading Arabic satellite TV stations, al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, to examine the reemerging thesis of "clash of civilizations" and rising anti Americanism on Arabic media. The analysis identifies "transgression" as an overarching frame, but finds less support for a dominant "clash of civilizations" frame in Arab media. The media coverage appears to "legitimize" Muslims' reactions to the publication of Prophet Muhammad cartoons, without abetting the "clash" thesis as some have proposed.

Introduction

While a Danish publication of a dozen cartoons in the waning months of 2005 caricaturing Prophet Muhammad as terrorist has enraged many Muslims and led to rioting in Muslim nations, it has simultaneously posed significant questions about the deeper implications of such a row. Those implications prominently focus on the cultural differences and value systems between two worlds, the worlds of Islam and the West. Despite a large variability, world press commentaries and editorials have boiled the issue down to an essential conflict between free expression and censorship for religious considerations in this case (Brooks, 2006; BBC World Press Review, February 03, 2006). Two media narratives have consequently been constructed about either a potential reconciliation of those differences, or the inevitable nature of the collision of these worlds. The latter narrative of "collision" hearkens back to existing thought and paradigms on a "clash of civilizations" that were promulgated in the early 1990s by authors like Samuel Huntington (1993). More importantly, the media represent a key player in the cartoon controversy as both 'cause' and 'effect' at the same time. The 'causal' aspect narrowly lies in the publication of those controversial cartoons whereas the 'effect' aspects center on media practices, specifically in the conversations about free expression that the controversy subsequently engendered.

This research paper scrutinizes those intricate issues through an examination of how Arab media have covered the incidents enveloping the cartoons' publication and controversies. The driving theoretical force behind the project is the poignancy of the "clash of civilizations" paradigm in this incident that I seek to investigate through the lenses of media coverage. The central research question focuses on how Arab media have framed the cartoon row and what space, if any, has been allocated to a "clash of civilizations" frame. That research question invokes and examines the perception of Arab media as being anti-American and anti-Western in their coverage (Cochrane, 2004; Darwish, 2003). Studying Arab media coverage here utilizes framing analysis to draw sense out of the larger media picture presented to Arab audiences. Due to practical considerations, examination of Arab media is limited to two powerful media outlets in the Arabic speaking world, al Jazeera and al Arabiya (Media Tenor, 2006). Access to their broadcasts is solved through an examination of six weeks' stories that both networks posted and archived on their Arabic language websites. The analysis of the immediate coverage identifies a number of news frames, both primary and supplementary, that, as this article will argue, could usefully be classified as a "meta-narrative" frame of "transgression" rather than a "clash of civilizations."

Al Jazeera and al Arabiya news channels represent a new breed of journalism that is entirely dependent on satellite broadcasting in challenging a traditionally state-dominated news media in the Middle East. The advent of satellite news media in the region has been conducive to constructing a transnational Arab audience from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf (Zayani, 2005). News Satellite Television Channels, like al Jazeera and al Arabiya, address this broad and heterogeneous audience composing the Arab Street (Hafez, 2001; Zayani, 2005). …