Cartoonists fight for freedom - Monocolumn | Monocle


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19 May 2010

Tomorrow, what is being billed as a small but potentially important gesture of resistance to superstition and indignation will be attempted: the inaugural Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

On the Hit & Run blog of American magazine Reason, senior editor Michael C Moynihan is promising to post the best pictures of Mohammed he receives from readers.

“I’m only going to filter on grounds of quality,” he says. “I wouldn’t not post something because I’m worried about the sensibilities of fundamentalists but I won’t post anything that’s just tedious.”

Moynihan is custodian rather than originator of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. The idea was originally that of Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris, responding to the fracas prompted by two episodes of “South Park”, which aired in the US in April.

The dynamics of this ruckus are wearisomely familiar, as they have been since 14 February 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini declared that writing novels could be a capital crime – and discovered, doubtless to his surprise and delight, that much of the western world was prepared to be equivocal about, and thereby acquiescent in, such nonsense (a phenomenon repeated during the cartoon wars of 2005-6, when Muslim clerics decided that depictions of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper violated Islamic proscriptions of idolatry, and most western media fearfully refused to reprint the images).

The “South Park” episodes contained lampoons of many religious figures, Mohammed included. “South Park” auteurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone were subsequently threatened by self-appointed guardians of God’s reputation (a hitherto little-regarded cell called Revolution Muslim). And reason buckled, as it often does when menaced by mania: “South Park” broadcaster Comedy Central bleeped over some dialogue, and is not streaming the episode on its website.

Similarly, Norris’s resolve faltered after the whimsical illustration with which she announced Everybody Draw Mohammed Day went viral: her website now bears an apology to Muslims, and a request that the event be called off. The idea has nevertheless acquired momentum: at time of writing, a Facebook group promoting the day has 32,184 members. “The point is to spread the pool,” says Moynihan. “They can’t threaten thousands of people. And to show solidarity with Matt, Trey and everyone in this position. Reason is a smallish publication, but until the New York Times and Wall Street Journal stand up to the murderer’s veto, until the media get past this squishy concept of ‘offence’, it’s worth doing.”

As Moynihan notes, the “South Park” incident is just one battle in a continuous attritional struggle against people who think they’ve a right not to be offended, and who are willing to employ violence to uphold that right.

Within the last fortnight, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who once drew irreverent images of Mohammed, has been assaulted while delivering a lecture, seen his website hacked, and had his home attacked by arsonists: this is on top of investigations in the US and Ireland into plots to kill him.

“Religion,” notes Moynihan, “is not something immutable like race. Backing down at this is backing down at intolerance. Every two-bit entertainer will stand up for Kerry or Obama or whatever – where are the protests in defence of freedom of speech?”


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