Worldwide Protests, Proof of the Power of Cartoons

Muslims in the Middle East and Asia participate in more violent protests over a Danish cartoon of Muhammad. Commentator Joel Pett says the riots — and deaths — are evidence of the power of cartoons. He is a Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald Leader and USA Today.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For commentator Joel Pett, the uproar over the Danish drawings is evidence of the power of cartoons. Pett is an editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald Leader and USA Today.

JOEL PETT, reporting:

Cartoonists crossed the line against portraying Muhammad to test the limits of free speech. We're born limit testers, conceived with some why not chromosome. Our ink-stained fingers still bear the hot stove scars. We sneak peaks at eclipses and remove tags under penalty of law. We're good at questioning authority. That's why we went pro.

So as a cartoonist, I completely understand and share the impulse to mock religion. In fact, I think mockery is my religion. I sure have lots of faith in its power, as demonstrated by this whole uproar. Recently, my main religious targets have been pedophile priests and fundamentalist Christians. They're perfect foils. The pedophile priests, because they're guilty as sin, and the Christian conservatives, because their faith obliges them to forgive me.

The current conflagration in the Muslim world is not without its ironies. The Bush administration State Department deplore the cartoons and warned against "inciting religious hatred," as if Muslim rage springs solely from some rotten cartoons in Denmark, not from U.S. Israeli policy or decades old chumminess with the Saudi royals, Abu Ghraib, or that little matter of the occupation of Iraq.

Former President Clinton called the cartoons totally outrageous. Now, I admire Clinton, but in this case, he may be on the side of the virgins but not the angels. Coincidentally, this whole thing overshadowed a domestic editorial cartoon dispute. Last week, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff signed a letter to the Washington Post deploring a Tom Toles's cartoon for using a limbless soldier as a metaphor for a battered U.S. Army. Apparently, the Pentagon's religion forbids the depiction of certain icons too.

As in all tragedies, there's even humor if you look hard enough. Boycotters beware, because in addition to high-end furniture and yogurt, Denmark also manufactures over half the world's insulin. I'm not joining any insulin boycott, I'm making my own. But for those who do, at least it won't be long before you won't have to look at anymore blasphemous cartoons.

Cartoonists always stand ready to mock the sacred, but rarely do we find co- conspiratorial editors. So while I applaud the bravery -- or stupidity, it's a fine line -- of my European counterparts, I'm especially impressed by their editors and a few in this country who have dared to show us what the fuss is all about. But since tolerance of diversity is essential to this whole thing, I won't second guess those who've refused to bring the Jihad down upon themselves by printing them.

As embassies, flags, yogurt and anything else combustible are torched in protest, the burning question I have is with the growing number of U.S. papers that aren't supporting cartoonists here. Many of our largest papers, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, have no staff cartoonists, and our ranks are dwindling weekly. In the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, the thief is punished by cutting off his hand. The call of the mobs right now is to punish the offending cartoonist by cutting off their heads. Maybe we should feel lucky in the U.S. where, devoted to the almighty profit margins, they just cut off our incomes.

NORRIS: Joel Pett is a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald Leader and USA Today.

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