Saturday 1 July 2006

Reading the Opium Grower's Gazette (2006)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIIII No. 1 Summer  2006

Reading the
Opium Grower's Gazette

Martin Rowson

A talk about the limits of Free Speech was held by the South Place Ethical Society's in February 2006. As part of the discussion, the cartoonist, Martin Rowson, described his experience of how London's Fleet Street responded to the initiative by the editor of the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Postern, to challenge the 'informal' censorship of cartoons on Islamic themes, by inviting various cartoonists to participate in a special competition in his paper. The results, as everyone now knows, was an uproar at the 'offence' caused to devout Muslims, that in due course cost several lives and left many of the participants in the exercise in free speech in hiding for their lives. Although most of the Western democracies, and quite a few Islamic countries did publish the Danish cartoons, no national paper in the UK was prepared to. We reprint a special extract below.

On the Friday following the outbreak of the whole row, I pitched an idea to The Independent On Sunday, for whom I draw a cartoon strip called 'The Week Digested', meant to sum up the news of the last seven days, where two Taliban fighters were sitting on top of a mountain in Southern Afghanistan reading the cartoon section of the Opium Growers' Gazette, when one of them starts ranting furiously about a cartoon he sees, finishing his rant by saying "I mean, this doesn't even look like Graham Souness!", who'd just resigned or been sacked from whatever football team he managed. In the next frame, my two characters suddenly look over their shoulders into the distance, with one of them saying 'Hey! Wow! That mushroom cloud over Iran looks just exactly like the Pro...' - but gets his head chopped off in mid-sentence.

In the final frame, the disembodied head was going to be saying 'Well really! All I was going to say was that it looked like the profits Shell are making from destroying the planet! Some people have no sense of humour!' I was told to think again, and stay off the topic.

My dealings with The Scotsman, whose Saturday op-ed cartoon I draw, seemed easier to begin with. I said I was going to draw someone (unseen) reading France Soir, with a thinks bubble coming from behind the paper containing the words 'But these don't even look like me!' The deputy editor was fine with this, although at around four o'clock I gave him the option of discussing it further with the editor. Needless to say, the idea was spiked, so instead I drew a Middle Eastern looking husband and wife sitting reading the papers, with the wife saying 'After you with the funnies section, dear!' to her husband, who's looking furious and holding a burning newspaper. 

I had most fun with the Daily Mirror on the Sunday, as I tried again and again to illustrate Tony Parsons' column which was, inevitably, about the cartoons (he was against them) and the protest march in London on Friday (he was against that too). First I offered a cartoon of a young Muslim ranting against the cartoons, while an older one was agreeing, and saying everyone should have a mature and rational debate. The young hothead was then going to shout 'What! You mean we can't bomb them!'

That was spiked, as was my next effort, which had the baby in the 'I love Al Qaeda' hat looking up and thinking 'Hmmm ... That's a bit childish'. They then suggested that I illustrate Parsons' second lead, which was about the Celebrity Big Brother contestant and cosmetic surgery victim Pete Burns, so I drew Pete, pouting grotesquely in his monkey skin coat, saying 'Why can't there be a chuffin' prohibition on the depiction of MY image?' That was rejected too, in case, they said, anyone thought the Mirror was comparing a transvestite pop star to the Prophet Mohammed. They finally ran the Pete cartoon with a dull, alternative caption, and apologised for their caution, telling me that the Mirror has around 80,000 Muslim readers, and their considerations were commercial as much as anything else. My response that people would have to buy the Mirror before burning it anyway made little impression, needless to say.

Even on The Guardian, the cartoon I eventually got published, of protestors in front of the burning Danish consulate in Beirut, with one of them saying 'Funny how you can always see faces in the flames. Why, over there looks just exactly like ...' before being interrupted by another rioter shouting 'Don't even think it!' had to be approved by Alan Rusbridger himself, a degree of editorial caution I'd never previously encountered in the eleven and a half years I've worked for the paper.

In a way, but only in a way, I understand that caution. Cartoons have a strangely direct power, a viscerality and immediacy which you never achieve in printed text, however inflammatory the words . . . Therein, I suppose, lies the secret of cartoons' staying power and universality. Every nation has cartoons, with the possible exception of Afghanistan under the Taliban, even if in many places those cartoons are little more than crude propaganda, doing dark voodoo on the regime's behalf to compound its own latest twist on tribalism. This is particularly true, as I'm sure you all know, of cartoons in Islamic countries, which frequently merge the Star of David of the Israeli flag with the Nazi swastika. As I've said, the same methods are used for a multiplicity of different effects, although the effect most frequently sought is annoyance or injury (although without the blood) on the part of your victims as much as laughter from your readers.

And that applies across the board, from the neo-conservative Americans who regularly deluge me with hate mail every time The Guardian runs one of my anti-Bush cartoons on their website (with my email address thoughtfully published below), accusing me of, and I quote, 'moral imbecility' . . . to the Zionists who respond to every cartoon I or any other cartoonist draws which is even slightly critical of Israel by saying, invariably, that this is the most disgustingly anti-Semitic image to have appeared since the closure of the Nazi paper Der Sturmer. In each case, including the Islamic one, the tactic is obvious: that taking offence is the best form of attack, and is the best way to intimidate your enemies into silence.

And though I sometimes bridle when a cartoon I've drawn of Ariel Sharon making him look like a fat old Jewish man gets me compared to being one of the cheerleaders, if not architects, of the Holocaust, in the light of everything I've said so far this morning, I have to take it on the chin, steady myself and shout back. If it wasn't for the tragic consequences of the over-reaction - the cartoonists in hiding, the corpses lying in what's called 'The Arab street', shot dead in their own Islamic countries - I suppose I'd be rather pleased that they'd reacted so splendidly to the satirist's teasing, and so you should carry on teasing them because it worked. As with all teasing, the victim all too often makes himself look more ridiculous the more he tries to defend himself, and thus opens himself to yet further teasing.

[ . . .] Humour, as I've argued, is a complex thing, just like life. It can be used as a weapon and also as armour. But it has its limitations, despite its ubiquity in our endless attempts to navigate through our lives in a bearable way. So, while jokes are fine, and that includes cartoons, it's also essential that we occasionally straighten our faces so we are able to recognise the true state of things: that we understand that this stopped being about cartoons or depictions of Mohammed or religious sensibilities and started being about the ongoing struggle for power within Islam almost as soon as the ink dried; that we recognise that the young idiots who marched through London calling for beheadings and bombs probably had most in common with the young idiots of my generation who instinctively supported the IRA and the Baader-Meinhof gang because, being young and idiotic, they're seduced by the romantic glamour of rebellion and political violence, and they wanted to piss off their parents.

That the apocalyptic and terrifying ravings, and indeed the murderous actions , of parts of the Islamic world are exactly the same as the revenge fantasies exemplified in The Book of Revelation or any other quasi-political manifesto dressed up as mystical gibberish and produced by the powerless who've recruited a thing they call God to their side; that we see how the appalling legacy of Islamic and European colonialism and the abject failings of politics from Ba-athism to pan-Arabism to nationalism to Islamism have painted huge numbers of Moslems into a corner where the only direction they can now go is up. And all of that is what should inform how we now engage with, and argue with, and hope to pacify yet not appease Islam, which is in such a mess that this great world religion has reduced itself to the status of a petulant child who comes and thumps you in the playground simply because you've looked at it.

In that engagement, remember that cartoons and satire are almost by definition reactionary: they respond to and comment on events, and contribute to the Babel of argument that is the human experience by adding ridicule or insult or a simple belly laugh, and that, often, makes us feel better. As I've said, cartoons are blunt instruments with limited function, so they shouldn't, by and large, be making the weather, but moaning about it afterwards . And in fact the only actually funny cartoon I've seen concerning this whole nonsensical affair was by Bill Leak in The Australian and showed four jihadis, weeping with laughter over the beheaded corpse of a cartoonist, one of them saying 'Call yourself a cartoonist? You can't even draw breath!' and captioned at the bottom: 'Now THAT's funny!'

Is it necessary to de-construct that? Do I have to rip it apart to show the contradictory layers and meaning and significance, the irony, the voodoo, the counter voodoo, the twisting and twisted symbolism? I think not, but you get the point, and the point is that things are not, and never can be, simply black and white.

Extract of a talk to the South Place Ethical Society, by Martin Rowson,
26 February 2006 The South Place Ethical Society meets regularly at Conway Hall, 25 red Lion Square, London (tel 0207242 8037 for more details. The full text of the talk is in the Ethical Record of April 2006, Vol 111 No 3

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