At this weekend’s SPX we had some fun calling the main panel room “The UN,” and indeed the attendees had a grand time making paper placards for various countries, adding to the fun. Well now, lo and behold, the fantasy became reality yesterday, as an international group of political cartoonists went to the UN for a program entitled “Cartooning for Peace.”
Political cartoonists discussed the power of their pens and brushes at the United Nations on Monday and the pressures they face — highlighted by the Muslim outrage over a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.
More than 15 cartoonists from Denmark, the Middle East, the United States, Africa and other countries, drew a fine line between freedom of expression and respecting religious beliefs during a program on their changing profession entitled “Cartooning for Peace: The responsibility of political cartoonists?”
Cartoons “can encourage us to look critically at ourselves, and increase our empathy for the sufferings and frustration of others,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in opening remarks at the gathering. “But they can also do the opposite. They have, in short, a big responsibility.”
I wonder if a suitable subtitle for this story should be, “cartoonists hand over their balls.”
First I want to make clear that I’m opposed to America’s wars and occupations of Moslem countries and recognize that for the past century the British and American governments by turns have been creating a lot of misery in those places with their merchantile and Cold War machinations. We have a lot to answer for here.
What sort of culture do we have that upholds the right to produce stuff like “Piss Christ” (which I have no problem with, but did offend a lot of Christians) but walks on egg-shells when it comes to a different religion?
This all started because someone wanted to write a children’s book about Mohammed but couldn’t find an illustrator because they were all intimidated by the potential for violence directed against them personally. (An illustrator was eventually found but he insisted on working anonymously.) The Jyllands-Posten editors wanted to make a statement about free speech.
And the reason there were riots was not solely because those cartoons were drawn and published in Jyllands-Posten, but because a group of ambitious imams living in Europe took those cartoons, threw in some far more offensive images from elsewhere and toured North Africa and the Middle East inciting outrage.
I think it is wrong to charge the Jyllands-Posten or its cartoonists with inciting deadly riots. Responsibility can be more fairly laid at the feet of those clerics.
By the way, there is no general ban on images depicting Mohammed, although it is generally avoided in the way that Christian artists avoid depicting God directly. Respectful images, particularly those created by master Moslem artists, are not only permitted but sometimes celebrated. Images which are disrespectful will draw the wrath of clerics and their devotees, and sometimes what is respectful and what is not is difficult for Westerners to understand so they tend to avoid the subject out of, well, prudence or cowardice, take your pick.