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Where was the 'Where's Muhammad?' cartoon?

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, October 10, 2010; A17

"Non Sequitur" is a popular comic that runs daily in about 800 newspapers, including this one. But the "Non Sequitur" cartoon that appeared in last Sunday's Post was not the one creator Wiley Miller drew for that day.

Editors at The Post and many other papers pulled the cartoon and replaced it with one that had appeared previously. They were concerned it might offend and provoke some Post readers, especially Muslims.

Miller is known for social satire. But at first glance, the single-panel cartoon he drew for last Sunday seems benign. It is a bucolic scene imitating the best-selling children's book "Where's Waldo?" A grassy park is jammed with activity. Animals frolic. Children buy ice cream. Adults stroll and sunbathe. A caption reads: "Where's Muhammad?"

Miller's cartoon is clearly a satirical reference to the global furor that ensued in 2006 after a Danish newspaper invited cartoonists to draw the prophet Muhammad as they see him. After the cartoons were published, Muslims in many countries demonstrated against what they viewed as the lampooning of Islam's holiest figure.

Miller's Sunday drawing also keyed on "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!," a free-speech protest this year by cartoonists responding to what was widely interpreted as a death threat from an Islamic cleric against two animators who depicted Muhammad wearing a bear suit in an episode of the "South Park" television show. If enough cartoonists drew Muhammad, protest organizers reasoned, it would be impractical to threaten all of them.

What is clever about last Sunday's "Where's Muhammad?" comic is that the prophet does not appear in it.

Still, Style editor Ned Martel said he decided to yank it, after conferring with others, including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, because "it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message." He added that "the point of the joke was not immediately clear" and that readers might think that Muhammad was somewhere in the drawing.

Some readers accused The Post of censorship. "Cowards," e-mailed John D. Stackpole of Fort Washington, one of several who used that word.

Miller is fuming. The award-winning cartoonist, who lives in Maine, told me the cartoon was meant to satirize "the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons," as well as "media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that contains the word 'Muhammad.' "

"The wonderful irony [is that] great newspapers like The Washington Post, that took on Nixon . . . run in fear of this very tame cartoon, thus validating the accuracy of the satire," he said by e-mail.

Through an apparent oversight, the "Where's Muhammad?" cartoon was put on The Post's Web site. Brauchli said he was unaware, adding, "Ideally, we wouldn't have done that if we withheld it from print."

Oddly, The Post published a similar cartoon by Miller at the height of the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006. It showed a street artist next to a sign reading: "Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!"

Miller said he has received no negative reaction to last Sunday's cartoon. On The Post's blog Comic Riffs, which first reported the "Non Sequitur" story and interviewed Miller, there was some negative reader response to the decision. On the popular http://GoComics.com Web site, which has a loyal audience of cartoon fanatics, most comments laud the drawing.

But is it offensive to Muslims?

"The reference [to Muhammad] in this case was so vague that I don't even know if offense comes into it," said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group that combats stereotyping of Islam and Muslims.

The Post should always consider the religious sensitivities of readers. But in this case, I think editors were wrong to withhold the cartoon.

Clearly, Miller has a right to draw the cartoon, and The Post has the right to run it. But this is a question of editorial judgment.

Yes, Miller was trying to be provocative. But "Non Sequitur" followers expect that. And there's a difference between provoking anger and provoking readers to think.

Surely some may be displeased by "Where's Muhammad?" But unlike with the Danish cartoons, it's hard to imagine it would incite protests. Miller intentionally did not depict Muhammad, and the cartoon is not a blasphemous attack on the prophet. If anything, it's a powerful and witty endorsement of freedom of expression.

Post editors believe their decision was prudent, given the past cartoon controversies and heightened sensitivities surrounding Islam. But it also can be seen as timid. And it sets an awfully low threshold for decisions on whether to withhold words or images that might offend.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the ombloghttp://voices.washingtonpost.com/ombudsman-blog/.

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