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Cartoonists Weigh In On The Cartoon Controversy

So what do cartoonists think about those controversial French cartoons that mocked the Prophet Muhammad?

The cartoons, which ran last week in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, led the French government to close down diplomatic missions in 20 Muslim countries last Friday out of concern they might be attacked. There were protests, but no serious violence

A range of cartoonists seem to agree on a few things: that the magazine had the right to publish, but that it was an irresponsible or even a boneheaded thing to do, especially considering the existing anger over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims.

"I think a lot of us are kind of horrified," says Matt Wuerker, Politico's staff cartoonist and incoming president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists. "Over the last few years, people have gotten the idea that cartoons are radioactive because they have the power to inspire riots. That doesn't help cartooning in a certain sense."

Wuerker recalled an episode in 2005 when cartoons insulting Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper, setting off violent protests. He says cartoonists know what could happen when they intentionally malign Muhammad in print: threats, protests and personal danger.

Global Consequences

The repercussions can extend far beyond the cartoonist and the publication.

Daryl Cagle, cartoonist for and founder of the political cartoon and column syndicate Cagle Cartoons, says that each time there's a blowup about cartoons, editors become newly timid about the work they print, limiting the expression of those artists who aren't even looking for a fight.

"Cartoonists would send me cartoons that looked relatively tame, but the editors killed them because they were being hypervigilant," Cagle says, remembering the aftermath of the 2005 controversy.

Mark Fiore, a self-syndicated animator whose work won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, is concerned that the French incident creates the impression that all cartoonists are recklessly provocative.

"I think the more this kind of thing happens, the more cartoonists are going to be seen as people who are trying to stick a fork into an open wound just because they can," Fiore says.

Wrestling With Self-Censorship

Patrick Chappatte, who is based in Geneva and draws for the International Herald Tribune and other European papers, has traveled the world as a cartoonist and a reporter. He says the reputation of cartoonists has already suffered.

"It's been more dangerous to say that you're a cartoonist in this world. You prefer to say you're a journalist, which is ironic because journalists are not so welcome, either," he says.

Chappatte says he's most concerned about calls to limit free speech. Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik appealed to the United Nations last week to stop the circulation of blasphemous material.

"The question for me is not shall I draw Muhammad. I don't need to draw the prophet," he says. "But shall I make cartoons about extremist Islam and this culture clash we're seeing all over? The answer of course is yes."

Unlike Chappatte, Fiore does occasionally depict Muhammad in his political animations, though he says the outrage over the French cartoons has influenced his recent work.

While preparing a recent animation, he says, he went back and forth before deciding to put a black box over the eyes of the actors in a clip he used of Innocence of Muslims.

"Have I self-censored? I like to think I haven't. But whenever I've made Muhammad appear with some sort of obscuring device, it's to put something else forward in the cartoon, not to just hide behind something," he says.

Terry Mosher, who draws under the name Aislin for the Montreal Gazette, says that in this highly charged climate, cartoonists have to exercise more caution.

Last week, he drew a shadowy figure peeking out from under a manhole cover in the street with the caption "Cartoonists go to ground ... again ... "

Mosher doesn't think cartoonists should be afraid to tackle important issues. Still, he says, they must understand the power they have to inflame.

"Bottom line is this is a drawing on a piece of paper. This is not a hand grenade. This is a thought expressed in a satirical way," he says. "But sarcasm is one of the greatest inventions of a free society."

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