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When cartoons are the news
San Francisco Chronicle


February 07, 2006

Amid violent protests around the world over reproduction of Danish cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad - which Muslims consider blasphemy - editorial cartoonists face a conundrum:

How do they address one of the most urgent topics of the day without inciting further violence?

Among the several cartoonists interviewed this week, none will use images of the prophet, though for different reasons.


"There's a general aversion to iconography in the Muslim faith, and it's something that should be respected," said Khalil Bendib of Berkeley, who calls himself the only Muslim political cartoonist in the United States.

Born in Paris and raised in Algeria and Morocco, Bendib, 47, has lived in California since 1977. His cartoons, distributed to more than 1,000 newspapers and appearing on, are consistently critical of President Bush and the war in Iraq.

"Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau, reached by e-mail, said he would never use images of the prophet.

"Nor will I be using any imagery that mocks Jesus Christ," said Trudeau, whose strip is published in 600 news outlets.

"I may not agree with their reasons for dropping any particular strip, in fact, I usually don't, but I will defend their right and responsibility to delete material that they feel is inappropriate for their readership," he said.

"It's not censorship, it's editing. Just because a society has almost unlimited freedom of expression doesn't mean we should ever stop thinking about its consequences in the real world."

Bendip shares Trudeau's conviction. "Where do you draw the line between freedom of expression and responsibility?" he asked.

"Is freedom an abstract absolute, or is it something that you have to ask yourself - what is helpful, what is truthful - each time you pick up a pen?" Bendip said.

Americans are used to satire, said cartoonist Ruben Bolling. His weekly strip, "Tom the Dancing Bug," appears in 50 publications including the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.

"It seems strange to us to hear that commentary about religious ideas shouldn't be expressed," said Bolling, who often comments on religion through his character, God-man.

"I can't imagine I was ever going to do anything on Muhammad, but this does have a chilling effect," Bolling said.

Ward Sutton is unsure how he will address the controversy in his comic, "Sutton Impact," which appears in the Village Voice and a dozen other papers.

"I'm not going to defend the cartoons published in Denmark - I haven't seen them - but free speech is a crucial part of a free society," Sutton said. "I should be able to make fun of Muhammad as well as Jesus."

As cartoonists, editors and publishers struggle with the issue, moderate voices in the Muslim world, while denouncing the recent violence, say the cartoons should not have been published.

Bendip is one of these. A longtime critic of the Iraq war, he's surprised to find himself saluting President Bush.

"It's something I never have a chance to do in my work," he said.

Bendip commends the administration for "expressing solidarity with Muslims" by speaking out against the cartoons.

"It goes to show you that even a stopped clock is right twice a day."


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