Thursday, February 16, 2006


My fertile imagination went full throttle and couldn’t help conjuring up a World War III scenario being sparked by print journalism in a small European country of a few million people. Straight out of a futuristic novel? The possibility is there if we go by the extreme rage that resulted from a few pen and ink strokes.

Much has been written about the Islamic outrage across the world that resulted from newspaper cartoons depicting Islam, one of which shows the prophet Muhammad with a turban shaped like a bomb. This was supposed to portray those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam. Another one supposedly shows the prophet surrounded by two women fully covered from head to toe, their eyes peering out of an oblong slit on their black chadors while the eyes of the prophet are covered with an oblong band. This was supposed to show Islam’s blind spot when it comes to women’s freedom.

Besieged Denmark was not wanting in supporters. Several European newspapers published the same cartoons to show defiance.

For Muslims, to depict their prophet Muhammad in any visual way--even in a benign way--is blasphemy. But Jesus Christ, whom Muslims consider also a prophet, has been visually depicted in a million and one ways and for so many purposes and it is mostly okay.

Blasphemy or freedom of expression? What is blasphemy for one may not be blasphemy for another. What is taboo for you may not be taboo for me. How far can we go with what some consider sacred? Is it necessary to provoke? Must we always refrain from challenging the sacred and taboo?

But violent outrage when the sacred is touched is another thing. Muslims shouting ``Death to Jews and Christians!’’ do not resolve the matter.

What is more deserving of outrage, those pen-and-ink doodles of the prophet Muhammad (offensive they may be to the Muslims) or the killing of thousands of innocents by terrorists who wrongly invoke Islam? Where is the worldwide Islamic outrage over the latter?

Frankly, I did not know that depicting the prophet Muhammad in any visual way, even in a positive way, was considered blasphemy, a grave offense deserving of severe punishment.

To be honest, I was a bit scared when last December I ran in this column the Koran account on Mary’s maternity and Jesus’ birth that I found so colorful and interesting. Would Muslims take offense that I, a Christian, so happily quoted their scriptures? Would I be stalked and forced to apologize? You never know.

The very day that piece came out I received email from Muslims here and abroad expressing their gladness and appreciation. (But a Christian reader castigated me.) I heaved a sigh of relief and ran a Part 2 quoting the letters.

To go back to the topic of cartoons and caricatures, I quote Bob Staake, caricaturist and author of ``The Complete Book of Caricatures’’, an immensely informative and entertaining book. ``Indeed, for many caricaturists, reaction—either pro, but especially con—validates the caricature itself. Particularly for a newspaper editorial cartoonist, the lack of response can be perceived as a pretty good indicator that the cartoonist may be missing the mark. On the other hand, a pile of hate mail, a barrage of obscene phone calls, even a death threat or lawsuit attest that the cartoonist is fulfilling his mission. You can generally gauge an editorial cartoonist’s effectiveness by the number of people he’s able to enrage.’’

The case of the cartoons first published in Denmark is an unprecedented scenario straight out of a caricaturist’s nightmare. Staake couldn’t have foreseen that.

Staake’s book has hundreds of caricatures of famous and infamous persons and situations created by geniuses of pen and ink scattered over five chapters of essays and interviews with caricaturists.

I spotted one that could offend religious sensibilities. Singer Madonna of ``Like a Virgin’’ fame, is portrayed as Our Lady of Perpetual Help carrying the baby Sean Penn (by Ori Hofmekler).

God speaks after three former US presidents and Gerry Brown utter their mouthful about their God experience. Says the frustrated God through Edward Sorel’s cartoons: ``The devil gets H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Sam Clemens, Billie Holiday, Gershwin, Porter, Schubert…and…and I…I keep getting dreck like this!!!’’ Dreck means…

Caricature could also entertain, illustrate a point, depict a reality. Cartoonist/sculptor/animator Gerald Scarfe says: ``It proves to be a rallying point around which other people who feel the same way can gather. I don’t think a caricature can change the world, but it can cause people to say, `That’s the way I feel.’’

Going over Staake’s book I couldn’t help but realize that caricature is an art form in itself. The variety of styles is amazing. Stark clean lines or countless dots (like that of a nearly cross-eyed Cory Aquino by Mike Ramirez), puppet caricatures or air-brushed images, squiggly lines or photo-like portraits, bulbous noses and pointed beaks, tremendous teeth and drooping eyes. But this is not just about faces, this is also about actions and situations. Nixon as Godzilla, Reagan as Dracula about to dig into Liberty’s neck, Karl Marx thinking aloud, Woody Allen as a satyr. Even the smallest detail could say it all.

Writes Staake: ``British caricaturist Ralph Steadman has a proclivity for attacking his subjects with vicious caricatures that lack any iota of subtlety…(His) caricatures are the by-product of his frustration. `There is despair in me of the human condition. You just don’t compromise if you are going to draw about it. Caricature isn't a business, it's a cause. It's the next best thing to shooting somebody.’’’