The recent events surrounding the publication of cartoons in Denmark have left everybody astounded -- especially editorial cartoonists like myself.
For once I have decided to trade my brushes for a laptop on this issue, principally because the space normally allocated to my cartoons cannot say what I want to say. Had I been given enough space, I would have drawn this article.
The debate over the cartoons has been intense to the point that it is now tedious, ranging from freedom of expression to a clash of cultural values and even to a clash of civilizations. What is also apparent is the fact that the debate has been exploited and hijacked by radical and extreme elements on both sides of the divide -- those defending the right of free speech and those who defend the Muslim faith. What has also clearly come out is that faith has a deeper significance than merely belonging to the faithful. It is held dearly, and it is closely connected to the lives of those who maintain it.
Although the Danish cartoons might not appear offensive to many, they certainly insult principles that Muslims hold sacred. With my limited knowledge of Islam and the respect that I have for that faith, I would not have drawn them. One has the right to sneeze, but that does not include the right to sneeze in somebody's face.
The cartoonists involved have admitted they know very little about Islam. In one of the cartoons, the Prophet Mohammed is depicted as a terrorist, thereby explicitly equating Islam with terrorism. As an editorial cartoonist, I always try to find more about my subjects before rendering my final sketches. All of us (including cartoonists) agree that cartoons are a powerful tool of communication. But how responsibly do cartoonists exercise that power?
I recently attended a presentation on the constraints of creativity faced by editorial cartoonists. What limitations to artistic freedom do editorial cartoonists encounter in their work? Top cartoonists from the US, Switzerland, Turkey, South Africa, Singapore, Japan, Kenya, and Israel showcased their unpublished work. The general feeling was that there was no absolute freedom. Cartoonists and editors loosely agreed that there would always be cultural and religious issues to take into account when determining what can and should be published.
But should such considerations override free speech at any cost? I don't think so. Freedom of expression is never categorically right or wrong; instead, it accommodates rights and wrongs. The Danish cartoons were offensive, but did their publication warrant the killing of innocent individuals, attacking Danish and Western embassies and their citizens, and the burning of the Danish flag around the world? Did those who drew those cartoons represent Danes and the West? Did those who burned the Danish flag and issued the threats represent Islam?
My answer is no. The issue is therefore not about the beliefs themselves as much as it is about how the faithful deal with offense, and why. For example, there have been publications of equally insensitive anti-Semitic cartoons in many Arab countries, against which no Muslim ever raised a finger. And, as a cartoonist from Africa, I've seen racist and offensive cartoons in some Western publications. Do they represent Western values? No, yet they reflect part of the cultural problem of the West.