Above is a cartoon, by Cameron Cardow of the Ottawa Citizen, that USA Today selected as its daily editorial cartoon for February 2. It’s not a terribly hard cartoon to parse: Islam is the modern equivalent of Nazism, and threatens a new Holocaust. The cartoon lists entities that have nothing in common with each other aside from their connection to Islam–political movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, who have been the targets of far more violence than they are responsible for, along with groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, terrorist groups whose victims are primarily Muslim. Hezbollah and ISIS are actually engaged in intense warfare with each other.
In case you missed the point, the cartoon puts one of the holiest phrases in Islam–”Allah Akbar,” or “God is great”–in the mouth of a Nazi skeleton.
(Along with its roll call of Muslim villains, the cartoon includes the phrase “politically correct”– which I can only take to mean that people who criticize the politics of cartoons — for example — are a kind of Nazi too.)
No doubt defenders of the cartoon will say that it’s only talking about the bad kind of Islam, which is just as persuasive as making a list of all the horrible people you can think of from a particular ethnic group and then saying that you’re only talking about the bad people from that ethnic group. One would hope USA Today would decline to make such a smear its daily editorial cartoon.
Following criticism of the cartoon by FAIR and intense feedback from readers, Brian Gallagher, the editor of USA Today‘s editorial page, wrote to those who had contacted him about the cartoon:
I rarely respond to letter-writing campaigns, but I’ll take a moment to respond to this one because I think that FAIR’s glib analysis of the editorial cartoon published recently in USA Today is so reflexively unthoughtful that it undermines the goal we share: to fight Islamophobia.
I imagine many of you are unfamiliar with what we’ve said on the issue, and therefore vulnerable to false suppositions, but our history on the subject is extensive and public. Time and again since 9/11, we’ve written editorials and published columns debunking attempts to blame all Muslims for the acts of extremists, whether in the dispute over the New York mosque or, in a more positive vein, to point out why the radical Islamists have gotten so little traction here.
But that does not mean the public debate should be sterilized to the point where the behavior of the extremists cannot be exposed, criticized or mocked, simply because a false inference might somehow offend someone.
Criticizing violent Islamists does not tarnish all Muslims any more than criticizing Nazis is an offense to all Germans (though all surely suffer from the association).
In that context, FAIR’s superficial assumption plays right into the Islamists’ hands. Is there anything they’d like better than for an attack on them to be perceived by all Muslims as an attack on them?
If you parse the available evidence, I think it’s nearly indisputable that the cartoon’s target was the terrorists. Here it is:
* The cartoon pictures a skeleton in a Nazi uniform bearing the names of ISIS, Boko Haram and other groups. The message is that those groups pose a genocidal threat akin to the one posed by the Nazis. They surely do. And what purpose could there be in including the names if that was not the point? None, I think. Nor would we have published the cartoon without them.
* The cartoon also shows the skeleton shouting “Allah Akbar.” Yes, this is an expression of faith employed throughout Islam. But one sad consequence of the extremists’ actions is that the term has been hijacked. Much of the non-Muslim public now identifies those words as a defiant declaration of faith uttered by terrorists before blowing themselves up. We’ve seen this over and over again. This may be uncomfortable, and it surely is a perversion, but it is also fact. So is the cartoonist who is trying to effective by playing into his readers’ frame of reference really out of bounds in using the image to convey a point about Islamist extremism? I think not. If some people are offended, their anger should be directed at the terrorists who’ve corrupted the words, not at those who criticize them. It was a sharply targeted cartoon utterly unlike Charlie Hebdo’s gratuitous attacks on Islam generally.
* An additional line of criticism is that by publishing a cartoon of this nature, we’re making a joke. I get that one. I’ve seen it before on unrelated subjects. But it is rooted in a misunderstanding of what editorials cartoons are. While they frequently employ humor to make a point, getting laughs is not their purpose. Witness the somber or inspirational editorial cartoons that typically appear after tragedies like 9/11, or look at the nature of the content that surrounds them on editorial pages. They are not comic books or comic strips. Rather, their goal is to provoke thought, sometimes by making people uncomfortable.
Another measure of a cartoon is the spontaneous reaction it evokes from readers. This one didn’t draw much–three critical letters, three complimentary letters and one making a tangential point. I’m excluding the FAIR-driven letters, as we always do with letter-writing campaigns, because they are repetition of a single opinion exposed by the organization driving the letter-writing campaign.
But the larger point here is about the nature of public debate as the world–-and Muslims in particular–-try to cope with the threat of radical Islam. We need to see Islam as it is: a predominantly peaceful religion that is afflicted by a primitive minority that seeks to override the rules of modern civilization.
I guarantee you we’re going to pursue that mission in two ways. We are going to continue attacking Islamophobia, and we are going to continue rallying people against the threat posed by radical Islam. And we will attempt to do so more thoughtfully than the well-intentioned but counterproductive critic at FAIR who played not to your reason but to your emotions.
Thank you for hearing me out.
Editorial page editor
To which I replied:
Dear Mr. Gallagher:
Allow me to pitch you a couple of cartoon ideas.
How about a Nazi skeleton bearing the names of Meyer Lansky, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, the Stern Gang, Leopold and Loeb, Bernie Madoff and Baruch Goldstein? In case readers don’t catch what these villains have in common, we could have a word balloon saying, “Mazel Tov, Baby!”
If that doesn’t appeal, perhaps the same Nazi skeleton but this time with labels like “Lord’s Resistance Army,” “Fred Phelps,” “IRA” and “Tim McVeigh”? He would be holding in his arms a bombing victim, and coming out of his mouth would be the phrase “Body of Christ, Baby!”
I’ll save you the trouble of writing a rejection letter, because I know why you wouldn’t run cartoons like these: You would recognize that lumping people together who have nothing in common but their religion is straight-out bigotry. You wouldn’t take it seriously as a defense if I pointed out that the Lord’s Resistance Army and McVeigh really were bad guys.
Yet your cartoonist can put ISIS, Iran, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Hamas and “Jihad” into one pot and label them all “Allah Akbar,” and you don’t see what the problem is. That inability to apply the same rules of decency when it comes to Islam is, I think, itself a form of Islamophobia.
You say that the letters you got were the “repetition of a single opinion” driven by FAIR. I can assure you that each person who wrote to you saw that cartoon themselves and gave you their own reaction to it. I doubt any of them would not have seen an anti-Muslim message in it had they not been swayed by FAIR’s emotional appeal.
You can send feedback to USA Today’s editorial page editor Brian Gallagher at [email protected]. Please remember that respectful communication is most effective.
A version of this post first appeared on the Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting website.