Jewish World Review Jan. 6, 2003 / 3 Shevat, 5763

How do you say "freedom
of speech" in Arabic?

By Doug Marlette | Last month, I drew a cartoon showing a man in Middle Eastern garb driving a Ryder truck hauling a nuke with the caption, "What Would Mohammed Drive?" The drawing was a take-off on the recent controversy among Christian evangelicals over the morality of driving gas-guzzling SUV's. "What Would Jesus Drive?"

To a cartoonist working in the current geo-political atmosphere it is a natural step to ask what would Mohammed Drive? And I'm sorry to report that the image in post-9/11 America that leaps to mind is the Ryder truck given to us by the terrorist Timothy McVeigh, carrying a nuclear warhead and driven, alas, not by an Irish-Catholic or a Chasidic Jew or a Southern Baptist, but, yes, by an Islamic militant.

Unfortunately, for many Americans these days, such a leap of the imagination is not a great stretch. Hence, the Homeland Security office. Over the last year we have watched Islamic militants commit suicide by flying planes into our buildings, killing thousands of innocent civilians, including many Arab-Americans. In Afghanistan, we watched the Taliban murder noncompliant women and destroy great works of art. We watched an American reporter decapitated by Muslim "true believers." We watched young Palestinian suicide bombers murder innocents in cafes and markets and on buses, in the name of the Prophet Muhammed.

Such nihilists are considered by many Muslims to be martyrs worthy of admiration and emulation. Meanwhile, an Arab country led by a genocidal maniac intent upon developing weapons of mass destruction is bringing us into war.

How would you have drawn it?


Did Mr. Marlette go too far?

Click here to send a message. (He received thousands from angry Muslims.)

Click here to go to his JWR cartoon page.

Click here to read our Kathleen Parker's first column on the controversy and his book.

My cartoon has prompted a firestorm of reaction orchestrated by a lobbying group called CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations). This is not the first time my cartoons have prompted such organized attacks. Years ago when I went after the corrupt excesses of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker 's Praise The Lord Club, for example, I similarly outraged fundamentalist Christians with cartoons that, like this one, depicted the obvious correlations of real events to instinctive imagery.

That, by the way, defines the art of political cartooning. The objective is not to soothe and tend sensitive psyches, but to jab and poke in an attempt to get at deeper truths, popular or otherwise. The truth, like it or not, is that Muslim fundamentalists have committed devastating acts of terrorism against our country in the name of their prophet. CAIR reprinted my cartoon in their newsletter, and encouraged their subscribers to email and call me, my newspaper and my syndicate to complain. During the past few days we have received more than 4,500 emails, and counting, all saying more or less the same thing about me and my drawing: Blasphemy. Ignorant. Bigoted, Disrespectful to our Prophet Mohammed. Hateful. "Donkey"? They all demanded an apology. Quite a few threatened mutilation and death.

My only regret is that the thousands who emailed me complaining felt that my drawing was an assault upon their religion or its founder. It was not. It was an assault on the distortion of their religion by murderous fanatics and zealots. In fact, I have received death threats and hate mail throughout the years for standing up for the rights of minorities in my drawings, including Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Just as Christianity and Judaism and probably Zoroastrianism are distorted by murderous fanatics and zealots, so too is the religion of Islam. May I rest assured that the constituents of CAIR who emailed their outrage to me and my newspaper were just as vigorous in condemning those who dishonored their religion with the attack on the World Trade Center? Have they been equally diligent at protesting the widespread support-among intellectuals, "charities," and government officials-that the terrorists enjoy in the Muslim states of the Middle East? Were they part of the anti-Taliban movement in this country that long predated 9/11? Did they pummel Al Queda with similar protests and bombard the Taliban with demands that they apologize for spreading a false image of Islam with their hatred and destruction?

In my 30-year career I have regularly drawn cartoons that offend religious fundamentalists and true believers of every stripe, a fact that I tend to list in the "Accomplishments" column of my resume. I have outraged fundamentalist Christians by skewering Jerry Falwell, Roman Catholics by needling the Pope, and Jews by criticizing Israel. I have vast experience upsetting people with my art.

What I have learned from this experience is that those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar. No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. A certain humorlessness, self-righteousness and literal-mindedness binds them all together. Despite differences of culture and creed, they all seem to share the egocentric notion that there is only one way of looking at things, their way, and that others have no right to see things differently. What I have learned from years of experience with this is one of the great lessons of all the world's religions: We are all One in our humanness.

Here is my answer to them: In this country we do not apologize for our opinions. Free speech is the linchpin of our republic. All other freedoms flow from it. I realize this may be a repugnant concept for many of those who wrote, but let me be clear. I do not apologize for my drawing. Granted, there is nothing "fair" about cartoons. You cannot say "On The Other Hand" in them. They are harder to defend with logic. But this is why we have a First Amendment. So that we don't feel the necessity to apologize for our ideas.

After all, we don't need constitutional protection to run boring, inoffensive cartoons. We don't need constitutional protection to make money from advertising. We don't need constitutional protection to tell readers exactly what they want to hear. We need constitutional protection for our right to express unpopular views. The point of opinion pages is to focus attention, to stimulate debate and to provoke argument. By that standard, my cartoon did what it was supposed to do. If we can't discuss the great issues of the day on those pages of our newspapers, fearlessly and without apology, where can we discuss them? In the streets with guns? In cafes with detonator vests and strapped-on bombs?

I welcome the thoughts of all those who made the effort to email me. But what I would urge them to consider is that minorities should be especially vigilant about free speech and circumspect about urging apologies for opinions. Because history shows that when free speech goes, it is always the minorities who are the most vulnerable and who suffer the most from its absence. Just ask the Arabs currently being held in detention without being charged with a crime. That's how it works in totalitarian regimes. This is not a totalitarian country, which, I presume, is one of the reasons those who wrote to me live here.

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New JWR contributor Doug Marlette is a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist and the author of, most recently, "The Bridge".


© 2003, Doug Marlette<