Chicago Tribune: Is faith fair fodder for cartoons?

Some newspaper editors think a satirical political cartoonist who often tackles taboo topics might have crossed a line when he incorporated a sexual innuendo into a comic strip about a character’s conversion to radical Islam. But it’s not the first strip by the artist to poke fun at religion.

The controversial “Opus” comic strip this past Sunday depicted a conversation between Steve and his spiritual seeker girlfriend Lola Granola, who suddenly appears in a hijab and niqab (head scarf and face-covering) to explain why she is unexpectedly becoming a “radical Islamist–hot new fad on the planet.”

The cartoon ran in the Tribune, but it did not run in the Washington Post, the strip’s home newspaper, or a couple dozen other papers that pick it up. (It did run on The Washington Post Writers Group sent an alert to subscribers offering an alternative strip from a previous year in case they feared the Muslim cartoon would touch a nerve with readers.

Tribune editors heeded the warning but decided to let it fly, said Barbara Schaffner, the editor in charge of comics. So far, according to Karisue Wyson at the Washington Post Writers Group, there have been no repercussions at papers that published the cartoon. A second cartoon along the same plotline is scheduled to appear in some papers Sunday.

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of Chicago’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he did not find the “subtle” sexual innuendo all that inappropriate for the cartoon’s adult readership. He added that whether he finds the cartoon offensive or not, the artist had every right to pen it and the paper had every right to publish it. But he does take issue with its content.

“It’s a terrible stretch to associate this kind of modesty found in the average Muslim woman with radical Islam which has connotations of threat to society,” Rehab said. “I wouldn’t be so uptight about this point if Muslims were understood in the West. In the charged atmosphere where we’re seeing misunderstanding translate into hate crimes or overt acts of prejudice, it’s irresponsible to make that association.”

Editors at the Washington Post, the newspaper that syndicates “Opus,” reportedly showed the strips to Muslim employees who disapproved of the depiction of a woman dressed in traditional Muslim garb, declaring conservative Islamic views and making a sexual innuendo.

But the same care apparently was not taken with any of the previous irreverent cartoons that reference Lola’s spiritual quest, which included introducing the Amish to nude yoga.

The punch line of an Aug. 19 “Opus” poked fun at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. In that strip, Lola is practicing more yoga and talking to the penguin character Opus about who makes it into heaven.

Opus, incredulously: “Liberals? Evolutionists? Feminists? ACLU lawyers?”

Lola: “Yep.”

Opus: “Kennedy Democrats? French people? Manly women who don’t shave … they’re all up there?”

Lola: “Yep.”

Opus: “With Jerry Falwell?”

Lola: “Yep.”

Opus: “Goodness, must HE be annoyed!”

Lola: “Eternally.”

A series of political cartoons that depicted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, published in Denmark last year, sparked violent protests throughout the Muslim world. The Quran, Islam’s sacred book, does not explicitly ban images of Allah or Muhammad. But visual depictions of Muhammad or other prophets such as Moses or Abraham are traditionally eschewed in order to discourage idolatry, or worship of an object as a god. That the cartoons also portray Muhammad as a terrorist only increased the anger among Muslims who regarded them as an attack on the sacred.

The Tribune chose not to publish the Danish cartoons because editors decided the images inaccurately depicted Islam as a violent religion and it was not necessary to print the cartoons in order to explain them to readers.

Prophet Muhammad isn’t the only religious figure depicted in cartoons in ways that make some readers cringe. In Malaysia last week, the government suspended publication of a Tamil-language daily as punishment for printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette. Malaysia’s newspapers are regulated by the government and barred from printing potentially provocative material on religion, race and other topics.

Should American newspapers stay away from cartoons with provocative religious content? Does it depend on context or climate for that particular religious group? Do you think the “Opus” cartoon crosses the line?

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