Where Was the ‘Where’s Muhammad?’ Cartoon?

Andrew Alexander, Washington Post, October 10, 2010

“Non Sequitur” is a popular comic that runs daily in about 800 newspapers, including this one. But the “Non Sequitur” cartoon that appeared in last Sunday’s Post was not the one creator Wiley Miller drew for that day.

Editors at The Post and many other papers pulled the cartoon and replaced it with one that had appeared previously. They were concerned it might offend and provoke some Post readers, especially Muslims.

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What is clever about last Sunday’s “Where’s Muhammad?” comic is that the prophet does not appear in it.

Still, Style editor Ned Martel said he decided to yank it, after conferring with others, including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, because “it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.” He added that “the point of the joke was not immediately clear” and that readers might think that Muhammad was somewhere in the drawing.

Some readers accused The Post of censorship. “Cowards,” e-mailed John D. Stackpole of Fort Washington, one of several who used that word.

Miller is fuming. The award-winning cartoonist, who lives in Maine, told me the cartoon was meant to satirize “the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons,” as well as “media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that contains the word ‘Muhammad.’ ”

“The wonderful irony [is that] great newspapers like The Washington Post, that took on Nixon . . . run in fear of this very tame cartoon, thus validating the accuracy of the satire,” he said by e-mail.

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Surely some may be displeased by “Where’s Muhammad?” But unlike with the Danish cartoons, it’s hard to imagine it would incite protests. Miller intentionally did not depict Muhammad, and the cartoon is not a blasphemous attack on the prophet. If anything, it’s a powerful and witty endorsement of freedom of expression.

Post editors believe their decision was prudent, given the past cartoon controversies and heightened sensitivities surrounding Islam. But it also can be seen as timid. And it sets an awfully low threshold for decisions on whether to withhold words or images that might offend.

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