First they came for the funny ones

Posted: Feb 01, 2006 12:04 AM

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of political cartoonists.

Not this time for the ones losing newspaper jobs, but for those whose lives are literally on the line thanks to outraged Islamists offering a bounty for their heads.

The cartoonists in question are a dozen Danish artists who drew Muhammad-themed cartoons last September for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten during an exercise to test the limits of free speech. The cartoon-a-thon was conceived in response to complaints from a Danish author who couldn't find anyone to illustrate her Muhammad children's book.

Although the book itself was not controversial, the Muslim faith considers it blasphemy to depict the Prophet in any way. Thus, in December, the youth branch of Pakistan's largest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, offered a bounty for murdered cartoonists.

One could make a quick argument against publishing some of the cartoons for being mediocre, but free speech makes no demand for quality. More to the point, the Danish cartoon controversy proves the larger truth that those groups most vocal in demanding tolerance from others are usually themselves the least tolerant.

Denmark is a cautionary tale for those who doubt the insidious and serious nature of our enemies and illustrates the deep schism between believers in democratic ideals and many of those we hope to convert. In the relaxed parlance of our uniquely Western attitude toward irreverence, they don't get it.

Until Muslim nations and peoples do get the idea that free expression means freedom to offend as well as the necessary correlative - to be offended - we have a problem. And people like former President Bill Clinton, who essentially sided with jihadists with his recent comments on the cartoon controversy, have done much to exacerbate it.

Is it possible that Clinton doesn't get it either?

In a confusion of moral equivalency, Clinton compared the cartoons to anti-Semitism and condemned them as "appalling."

"So now what are we going to do? ... Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?" he said Monday at an economic conference in the Qatari capital of Doha.

No, what is appalling is that a Western leader who still wields enormous power would sacrifice an opportunity to explain big ideas and big principles to a part of the world that clearly doesn't understand them. Instead, he finessed the moment and caved to the kind of virtue that feels good in the present but that gets people killed in the future.

It's too bad Clinton didn't consult with veteran American political cartoonist Doug Marlette (who coined the term "Faux Bubba" just for Clinton), as Danish journalists did last November after the controversy began.

Few have more experience with religious outrage than Marlette or are more articulate about the democratic principles cartoons serve. Marlette, too, has been on the receiving end of Islamist death threats - for a Muhammad-related cartoon he drew in 2002 ( - and won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on Jim and Tammy Bakker's Praise the Lord Club.

In an interview with Jyllands-Posten, Marlette rejected the idea that Westerners ought to make special concessions to sensitive Muslims.

"The genius of Western democracy is that there should be no 'special' rights or privileges for any group or class of people. All are created equal and are treated equally under the law. Law is insensitive that way. And so is intellectual inquiry. And so is good satire."

None of us likes it when our icons are busted, or our revered symbols ridiculed. But we tolerate offense in the spirit of larger freedoms under rules that have sustained us for centuries.

What we have learned over time is that free expression is society's relief valve, without which aggression and hostility go underground. What eventually bubbles back up to the surface is the sort of spirit that drives today's jihadists. Better to air and view our disagreements by the light of day - in the public forum - rather than wait for them to find expression by darker means.

As Marlette puts it: "... our ability to engage in vigorous debate and to tolerate robust intellectual discourse and all the attendant controversies is a measure of the health of society."

Too bad Clinton didn't say that. But then, Clinton has always been best at saying what he perceives people want to hear, rather than what is true.