Cartoons that Shook the World

by Joe Kubert and Rafael Medoff

(Kubert is president of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, in New Jersey, and has been an editor and artist for DC Comics for more than forty years. Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

The power of a cartoon!

Muslims throughout the world feel deeply offended by depictions of Islam’s founder, Muhammad, in political cartoons that were published recently in a Danish newspaper, and subsequently reprinted in newspapers elsewhere in Europe.

Across the Muslim world, protesters have erupted in furty. In Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian Authority areas, and elsewhere, European embassies and offices have been set afire or shot at.

It could get worse. Demonstrators in Ramallah reportedly chanted “Bin Laden our beloved, Denmark must be blown up!” A Gaza preacher urged that “heads be severed” in response to the cartoons. At a rally in London, a Muslim woman held a placard bearing the threat, “Prepare for the Real Holocaust.”

For an art form that is sometimes mistakenly assumed to be less than serious, these cartoons have triggered a deadly serious reaction.

The truth about political cartoons is that they are one of the most powerful forms of communication. Pundits may fill page after page with insightful commentary, but one powerful illustration packs far more intellectual and emotional punch than the written word.

And this is nothing new. Political cartoons have been around almost forever, annoying and offending their targets probably since pre-historic times. Early humans who performed poorly in the hunt may well have returned home to find themselves lampooned in cave wall-paintings.

Throughout history, cartoon illustrations have often had a much more significant impact on our society than is generally realized. A cartoon mocking 1884 Republican presidential candidate James Blaine, printed on the front page of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and plastered on billboards around the state on election eve, played a key role in Democrat Grover Cleveland’s narrow victory in New York, which won him the White House. During World War One, the U.S. government held cartoonists in such high regard that it established a Bureau of Cartoons to try to involve them in supporting the war effort. Stung by cartoonists’ barbs, angry politicians in Pennsylvania, New York, California, Indiana and Alabama in the late 1800s and early 1900s went so far as to introduce legislation attempting to restrict what cartoonists could draw.

Even when such laws were passed, they were eventually repealed. But in response to the Danish controversy, there are again voices calling for restrictions. The Vatican has asserted that “The right to freedom of expression … cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.”

Censorship would be a mistake. It would give any religious group veto power over the cartoons –or writings, or speeches– of its opponents. Yes, cartoonists can be offensive. And unfortunately, there are occasions when artists consciously try to be outrageous in order to provoke a response. One recalls several incidents when artists in New York City depicted Christian religious symbols in a shockingly offensive manner. But that does not justify rioting or censorship. In a civilized society, people respond to offensive art by refraining from entering the museum in question or buying that particular newspaper.

Last year, a Rutgers University student newspaper, The Medium, published a horribly offensive cartoon depicting a frightened Jew sitting on a carnival-like platform above an oven, with a sign exhorting passersby to “knock a Jew in the oven.” The cartoon was widely denounced as a desecration of the memory of the Holocaust. And some critics urged the administration to stop funding the newspaper. But nobody burned down the Rutgers campus or threatened to decapitate The Medium’s editor.

Western leaders are treading lightly in their remarks about the Danish controversy, hoping to avoid adding more fuel to the fire of Muslim anger. Some of their comments have left something to be desired. The State Department’s spokesman said the Danish cartoons about Muhammad are as objectionable as the anti-Jewish cartoons that often appear in Arab newspapers. But surely he should recognize that the Danish cartoons appeared in independent newspapers which the Danish government cannot control. The antisemitic caricatures in the Arab press are typically published in newspapers over which their governments exercise complete control–and which they could bring to a halt at any time, if they so chose.

Most important, Western leaders need to say clearly that while Muslims may find the cartoons offensive, the violent response to the cartoons is absolutely unacceptable. Establishing the ground rules for how to conduct a civilized debate, not searching for ways to appease the angry mobs, should be our goal. Surely we must strive to live in a world governed by reason and civility, rather than one in which cartoonists or their editors must fear for their lives.

February 2006