Apparently some newspapers are refusing to run two installments of Berkeley Breathed's comic strip.
Here is the Opus comic strip by Berke Breathed that many newspapers decided not to run. Why? According to this story in Editor & Publisher, it was the references to Islam, a not-so-subtle sex joke, or the combination of the two. (Link via NRO Media Blog.)
The Post is of course entitled to run or not run whatever cartoons it prefers. Still, we're equally entitled to discuss and, when sensible, criticize its editorial judgment. And it seems to be an odd judgment here. An Editor & Publisher column reports that managers at the Washington Post Writers Group give two possible reasons: "a sex joke a little stronger than we normally see" and that some papers "won't publish any Muslim-related humor, whether pro or con." Yet the sex joke seems quite tame — as best I can tell, it's that Steve Dallas "won't be getting" sex from the girlfriend who converted to being a "radical Islamist." And the reference to Islam seems quite tame, too.
And this is what troubles me: If I'm right that few papers — especially the Washington Post, which isn't exactly in one of the nation's most sexually reticent markets — would normally be put off simply by a mild sexual reference, then we really do have a situation where any humor about Islam (or at least any humor that might be seen as mildly pejorative, or that involves any sexual references, however mild) is off the table. We've gone beyond the position that papers ought to, as a matter of editorial judgment and respect for readers' sensibilities, avoid depictions of Mohammed. Whatever one might say about such a judgment (and a similar judgment about other religions, for instance one that excludes jokes at the expense of the Virgin Mary or some such), at least it would have a pretty narrow effect. Not so if the test is "won't publish any Muslim-related humor, whether pro or con," or even if the test is "won't publish any humor that relates to radical Muslim sexual behavior": That would substantially limit humorous commentary on Islam, on Muslims, and on Muslim practices.
As those who like to stress the importance of accommodating world Islam in various ways point out, there are a billion Muslims out there. But that cuts both ways: A faith that is this important in the world is an important subject of discussion, both in traditional academic and political debate and in that part of social debate that happens through humor and even the comics.
I stress that I'm not speaking about legal rules; as I've argued before, cartoons that depict Mohammed should be as constitutionally protected as other cartoons, and newspaper decisions to reject whatever cartoons they want to reject should be constitutionally protected, too. But if I'm right in my analysis above, then it looks like certain media outlets are establishing or reinforcing a social norm that immunizes Islam and Muslims from a certain kind of commentary. And we as readers and writers should try to fight such a social norm, by criticizing those who are acting on it.
Finally, if I'm mistaken about the tameness of the sexual reference in this cartoon, please do let me know. On the other hand, if you can support this judgment by pointing (a URL would be great) to cartoons that the Washington Post has run that include similar sexual references — or, better yet, include similar sexual references in a context that refers to religion (say, evangelical Christianity) — then please pass those along as well.
The other Opus comic that many newspapers refused to print is here. I don't find it any more inflammatory or risque than the last one.
The Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, investigates the reasons the Post and other papers refused to run two recent installments of Berke Breathed's "Opus" comic strip. The purported justification was that the strips could be offensive to Muslims. Yet as Howell discovers, it does not seem that Muslims were offended.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, wasn't offended. " 'Opus' poked fun at the strip's characters, not Muslims or Islam. I see hundreds worse on the Internet every day," he said.
Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University, also wasn't offended. He said there is a strong Muslim tradition of satire and self-deprecation. "I think there is a danger of us becoming so politically correct that we end up by blunting the critics' bent and the satirists' wit. Muslims need to be sensitive to the fact that in Western culture there is a healthy tradition of not taking things too seriously."