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It's just a cartoon

Adrian Raeside talks about Muslim riots, Tom Toles, and the state of editorial cartoons

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Back in September a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The illustrations went along with a story on self-censorship and free speech, prompted by a Danish author’s difficulty in finding an artist willing to draw a picture of Muhammad for a children’s book – allegedly because the artists feared a violent backlash from extremist Muslims.

According to some interpretations the of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, it is blasphemous to draw, sculpt, or otherwise create an idol of the prophet. Because Allah is "the originator of the heavens and the earth… (and there is) nothing like a likeness of Him" some believe that attempts to capture Allah’s likeness are an insult to His creation. The same rule is also applied to the prophet Muhammad.

It took a few months for those cartoons – and other cartoons and images not part of the original publishing – to make their way back to the Middle East, but when they did the reaction was explosive. In late January and early February, several Danish embassies were abandoned because of protests, and one embassy in Beirut was burned to the ground. Dozens of protesters have also been injured at various protests, and at least five protesters have died so far in clashes with police and military (all in Afghanistan).

Some of the original cartoonists have gone into hiding, and various people associated with printing and reprinting the cartoons in several countries have received death threats.

It’s been an eventful few weeks for cartoonists to say the least but things got even stranger when some of the top brass at the Pentagon took exception to a cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Tom Toles of the Washington Post. The cartoon depicts a soldier missing arms and legs, with Defence Secretary Donald standing over him and saying "I’m listing your condition as ‘battle hardened’."

The Pentagon called the cartoon "tasteless", and the theme of their letter has been echoed by other supporters of the current administration who have accused Toles of using the tragedy of wounded soldiers to make a political point against Rumsfeld and the administration.

Most cartoonists and newspaper editors, when asked, have voiced their support for Toles, and the Washington Post and for freedom of speech.

At the same time, only one North American publication – Calgary’s Western Standard – has reprinted the Muslim cartoon from Jyllands-Posten.

Pique Newsmagazine caught up with journeyman editorial cartoonist Adrian Raeside last week to discuss these latest developments, and the current atmosphere for Canadian cartoonists.

Raeside has been a cartoonist for the Victoria Times Colonist for over 28 years, and his Other Coast comic strip now appears in over 200 publications around the world. He has also written 12 books and countless television scripts, mostly for children. His work also appears in Pique Newsmagazine every week.

Pique: You’ve been in the business a long time. Has the role of the editorial cartoonist changed?

Adrian Raeside: The job hasn’t changed, although the industry is changing. What we’re seeing is the fracturing of the media market – newspapers compete with all these new publications and web logs, and it’s tough for artists to make a go of things because the audience is so fractured as well. There are many writers and artists that wouldn’t make it in a daily paper, but they’re out there doing well on the web.

Pique: What do you make of all the recent furor over editorial cartoons. Have we lost our sense of humour, or is it possible that some cartoonists overstepped some real boundaries?

AR: I think the first thing we have to remember is that the (Muhammad) cartoons in question weren’t really cartoons, they were illustrations and weren’t really editorial content.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some of the more inflammatory cartoons that have everyone bent out of shape weren’t even published. They were drawn by someone else and put into circulation… by people who had an agenda and are probably enjoying all the trouble they’ve caused.

Editorial cartoonists only react to what’s in the news or things that actually happened, we don’t make the news. Now and then something we draw will provoke a really strong reaction, and I’m always surprised by which cartoon gets the most reaction. Usually, it’s because the reader didn’t get the humour or see the point of what the cartoonist was trying to achieve. The rest of the time, it’s an ideological difference and it doesn’t matter what you draw, they’re going to hate it.

Pique: Are we just worse at reading cartoons, or has the climate for what you do changed ?

AR: The political arena is nastier now than it has been in any of my 28 years of covering Canadian politics. I don’t know if it’s because Canadians are more polarized or sensitive, but it used to be that you could take the piss out of someone like (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper without getting a lot of offended mail about it. It’s weird, I could take the piss out of (Prime Minister Paul) Martin and not get any comment from Liberals, but Conservatives are quick to get their shorts in a bunch.

I also get letters from environmentalists, who I make fun of a lot, even though I am green at heart and support what they do. I’m an equal opportunity cartoonist.

Pique: So what do you think is behind this Muslim cartoon issue? Are Muslims really offended by the cartoons themselves, or was this the last straw?

AR: I think the cartoons have become a rallying point for a lot of pent-up frustration in the Muslim world. Sadly, some of the world’s poorest people are Muslims.

You also have to look at how they are treated by their own governments – there are a lot of poor people in Saudi Arabia, and in Nigeria, where there is all of this tribal oil wealth. So why weren’t there protests outside of the Saudi, or Nigerian embassies as well as the Danish embassy?

What we’re seeing with this cartoon issue and everywhere… is a small group of people who are twisting the facts to advance their hidden and not so hidden agendas. Some of the cartoons they’re seeing in Muslim countries were not even published, so someone is deliberately trying to stir things up… quite successfully.

I just wish the same people who were out on the street saying they were outraged and offended because of the cartoons would be out on the streets protesting every time Al Jazeera showed footage of a Western hostage being beheaded (in Iraq).

Pique: There is Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, all these legitimate grievances, which is why people think it’s strange that Muslims are rioting over cartoons.

AR: In some regions, and especially in places like Iraq, when it comes to violence I think they’re inured to it at this point. There are entire generations who have grown up surrounded by violence, which is tragic, because people have got used to it.

Yes, the cartoons are an issue, but I suspect the underlying social conditions and feelings of helplessness are contributing to the outrage.

Pique: If you worked for Jyllands-Posten, and there was a call for editorial cartoons of Muhammad, would you have participated?

AR: I’ve seen the cartoons, and for myself personally – and I’m not a Muslim – I really can’t see what was so offensive in them. But then, I’m a cynical agnostic.

I probably wouldn’t draw on this subject matter in the first place. I don’t see what Muhammad has to do with the events of today. Sure, I would depict the Iranian president, or Yassir Arafat, or a Saudi Prince – they’re all fair game because they’re in the news . But as for those specific cartoons, I question what relevance, if any, they have now.

Pique: Is this issue going to go away, or are we seeing the beginning of something?

AR: If you take the Muslim riots in France last year – young people rioted every night, and eventually they stopped. I don’t think anything has changed for them in France since then, so I assume at some point this cycle of violence will run out of steam too. But then something else will come along to take its place. Maybe the new footage of British soldiers beating the crap out of Iraqi kids is going to replace the cartoon issue, I don’t know.

It’s not the cartoonists or the Danish newspaper that have been hurt by this, it’s the poor guys in the streets of these countries who are hurting themselves and each other with their protests. That’s the real tragedy.

From what I know, the prophet Muhammad was a man of peace and forgiveness – if that’s Islam, then I whole-heartedly subscribe to it. It’s unfortunate that radicals have hijacked that religion for their own ends. But then, the same thing has happened to our western religions in the past. It’s nothing new.

Pique: It was hard to see all the rioting and death, and then not be able to see and judge the cartoons for ourselves. What about the decision by most North American news outlets not to run them? Were they being respectful or afraid?

AR: It’s really up to the individual editor to make the decision as to whether to publish them, but I suspect most editors would look at them as a hot potato. Is publishing them worth spending half the day answering phone calls and mail from angry readers and then spending the rest of the day going before the TV cameras justifying their decision to publish? What’s more important, reporting on local issues that affect us, or stirring up a hornets nest on an issue that really has no relevance to our day-to-day lives?

I recall a few times an editor has said he’d publish an unusually tasteless cartoon of mine, on condition I take all the phone calls from readers. Yep, I chickened out.

In response to the riots, I drew a cartoon that showed a television set tuned to Al Jazeera, and on the scrolling news bar across the bottom I put the cartoonist threat level at ‘orange.’ It was a joke of course, I was implying jokingly that a cartoonist to them is what a terrorist is to us, but the paper got a fair bit of mail from angry readers who took it the wrong way.

When things spin out of control, people stop thinking clearly. They didn’t read the cartoon through, and went ballistic. I sometimes wonder whether the immediacy of email has made it easier to send off an electronic blast before you’ve had your breakfast wheaties. Ten years ago, you’d have to find paper, find a pen, find an envelope, go to the post office, line up. By then, you’d have forgotten why you were so pissed off in the first place.

In these days of political correctness, if I draw something about a black basketball player who was taking drugs or beat up on a chambermaid, all of a sudden I’m racist to some people. They of course ignore the dozens of cartoons I drew over the years slamming racism, or apartheid in South Africa. You tend to be judged by the last cartoon you draw.

We’re in the news a lot now, which is a good thing I guess, but if you step back and look at it, what we do is just black ink on white paper and wraps fish the next day. A cartoonist has never closed down a hospital bed, or cut anyone off welfare or taken away someone’s pension. The worst thing I’ve done is not pay a parking ticket. Okay, there have been a few speeding tickets and there was that incident in a Las Vegas massage parlor…

Pique: Have you ever been censored?

AR: I have editors that look over my shoulder, but I tend to censor myself. I drew one on the Iranian President the other day, just before this whole (cartoon) thing, and I pulled it. I’ll wait a week or two to run it. Not because it’s offensive. Well, it is to the Iranian President and George W. Bush, but I don’t want it to be taken the wrong way or be related back to this current cartoon story. Timing is everything.

With my Other Coast comic strip, I work four to six weeks ahead of publication date, because of production deadlines. During those four weeks, events can change. Immediately after 9/11, I had to pull two strips that were about airline travel – innocuous gags like barbequing food at your seat, but so soon after the events of 9/11, the cartoons took on extra meaning that I didn’t intend. It happens from time to time – what’s funny one week can be tragic the next. I want to make people laugh a little and to think a little, but I don’t deliberately set out to hurt anyone with my cartoons. Except certain politicians.

Pique: What about the timing of the Muslim cartoons – was that just bad timing, with wars and other things going on?

AR: Those cartoons were published almost six months before the protests. It wasn’t until a guy from Denmark brought them to the Middle East that the controversy took off. And as for timing, I can’t remember a period when there wasn’t a war going on, somewhere. However, it was good timing for radical Islamists.

Pique: What about Tom Toles’ cartoon. What is your take on that?

AR:

The cartoon by Tom Toles says it all, how unelected bureaucrats casually send people to war – generally poor young men and women who are being used as cannon fodder in a war that’s not winnable. The cartoon showed the callousness of Rumsfeld, sending the troops to get torn up and killed, and the way those in power put a cynical spin on the lousy decisions they make.

Polls show a majority of Americans realize the decision to go into Iraq was colossal insanity and Pentagon mandarins are desperately worried about losing their tight control over the real truth about the situation in Iraq.

Tom’s cartoon captures that beautifully. It’s a really brilliant piece.

Pique: Going back to the Bill Vander Zalm suit, when he sued (Bob Bierman) over that cartoon. Did that create any kind of chill for cartoonists in the province?

AR: Once again it brought cartoons to the forefront, which was good, and Vander Zalm lost on appeal, which was really good. If anything, I think it empowered cartoonists, although it didn’t feel like it at the time.

I thought a lot of (Bierman’s Vander Zalm cartoons) were more hard-hitting than the one of him pulling the wings off a fly, but that’s the one that set Zalm off.

I don’t know what it is. Like Toles’ cartoon of Rumsfeld, something – usually the cartoon you think the least offensive – just gets them. Usually the grain of truth.

Toles never sent anyone to Iraq, or took a reservist away from his business and family for six months that turned into a year and a half. What Toles does, on the scale of things, doesn’t matter. But what Rumsfeld does is serious – people die because of his decisions. I guess it’s a lot harder to see the humour when you’re the person that made a bad decision in the first place.

Pique: Has the role of the cartoonist changed, if people are more sensitive than they used to be?

AR: It all comes down to drawing what I think is funny, makes a point and perhaps if I’m lucky, gets cut out and stuck on a fridge door for a day or two. I look back on cartoons I drew over 20 years ago, and guess what? There was the same doom and gloom about the same issues we deal with today. Oil, conflict in the Middle East, pollution, corruption, etc. – only the names have changed. The world didn’t end and it’s obvious my cartoons didn’t change a goddamn thing.

But a good editorial cartoon can have a way of putting things back into perspective. When you can laugh at what may be a complex, or serious issue, maybe, just maybe it’s not really that important.

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