You may find this post quite rambling because I find myself struggling with what to say about the Danish cartoons and the violence they've incited in parts of the Muslim world. Even though I am often a critic of his, I appreciate the situation President Bush is in at the moment as he attempts to walk a tightrope between supporting freedom of the press and encouraging the press to be responsible and considerate of others. Of course, these riots have taken on a life of their own. As time passes, the riots have less to do with the cartoons, in my opinion, but that's not my subject today. I want to consider the role of humor and its impact.
One of my favorite cartoonists, Doug Marlette, got in hot water a few years back. It was after the "What Would Jesus Do" campaign changed into the "What Would Jesus Drive." Some religious leaders encouraged their followers to consider their impact on the environment. Their idea was that Jesus would drive something that conserved gas and polluted less. Marlette created a strip asking "What would Mohammed drive, showing a rental truck with explosives. I don’t think he actually depicted Mohammed in the drawing, but nonetheless, found himself in hot-water with his publisher and others. I didn’t have problems with it because I saw the strip from so many different angles. Marlette was poking fun at those asking, "What would Jesus drive?" (he’s often been a critic of the church—especially folks like Pat Robertson). But in this strip, he also called terrorist like the first World Trade Center bombers into question. Would their prophet do this? If not, then why should they try to blow up a building with a rental truck? Of course, many refused to see it either way and thought he was making fun of Islam’s prophet.
I struggle with how to respond to these comic strips as a Christian—a follower of a man who teaches us to live gently and humbly and to turn the other cheek. It seems that if I am to be true to my faith, I have to be willing to stand up with those who are marginalized and to be willing to "go the extra mile" on their behalf. When the riots first broke out, President Bush challenged both the drawings as well as calling those in the Muslim world to refrain from their use of offensive comics about Jews and Christians. It seems this was an appropriate response, calling both sides to a higher moral plane.
I also struggle over the use of humor and satire, as I’ve acknowledged before. True satire pokes fun in a way that calls out the best in people. If we are able to laugh at ourselves, or see the absurdity of our position, we have a chance to become a better person (or society). However, there’s a thin line between calling out the best in others and belittling them. Furthermore, humor often fails to translate across languages and cultures—which is going to be an increasing problem in our instant world. A hundred years ago, a comic strip in Denmark would not have had a global impact.
I worry when political cartoonists have to tread carefully out of fear of safety for themselves and their families. Several years ago Mark Pinskey (who is Jewish) wrote a book titled : The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family. Pinskey noted that the producers of the Simpson’s (at least up to that time) had made fun of the Christian, Jewish and Hindi faiths, but not Islam. When asking the writers about why they had steered away from Islam, from what I recall, he received several comments. One of which, they acknowledged, is that the writing team consists of those from Jewish, Christian and Hindi backgrounds, but none from an Islamic background. I like this reason. Jokes are always a lot better when the blunt of the joke is directed at the comedian rather than at others. Perhaps this is why the Danish cartoons are so offensives.
What do you think? How can we both support freedom of speech and be civil to one another? Is there a way this "crisis" can be used to call both sides to be more respectful (fewer depictions of Jews and Christians from the Islamic press as well as better treatment of the their faith in ours)?