After more than 2 dozen papers temporarily dropped Berkeley Breathed’s Opus this last Sunday, many are questioning if the strip was offensive enough to warrant such action. The strip apparently didn’t offend Sheila Musaji, the editor of The American Muslim. Sheila wrote on her publication’s blog that:
As a Muslim I was offended by the Muhammad cartoons run in Denmark, and I was offended by the violent response on the part of some Muslims. I am also offended when someone makes fun of Jesus, Moses, an entire religion, etc. Muslims were offended in that instance because their Prophet and the faith of Islam was being maligned.
Making fun of Islam (or any religion) is offensive, making fun of Muslims, there is no problem, and there are plenty of Muslim comedians and comic strip artists who do just that all the time. This cartoon is funny, and most Muslims would also laugh. We might not agree with everything it insinuates, but so what!
She echoed sentiments that there seemed to be a double standard regarding humor that takes swipes at Christians versus other minorities. Fox news reports that the week earlier an Opus strip made fun of the recently deceased Rev. Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority (see cartoon), but no effort was made to alert editors of content that might be offensive to Christians.
Regarding the two week segment of Opus that did get flagged, Amy Lago, comics editor at Washington Post Writers Group, reportedly “flagged some of the syndicate’s newspaper clients for two reasons: because of the possibility that the jokes about Islam would be misconstrued and because of the sexual innuendo in the punchline.”
According to Fox News the Washington Post pulled the strip after showing it “to Muslim staffers at The Washington Post to gauge their reaction, and they responded “emotionally” to the depiction of a woman dressed in traditional Muslim garb and espousing conservative Islamic views.” Also reported is the decision to pull the strip went to the “highest echelons of The Washington Post.”
Conservative blogger Eugene Volokh of Volokh Conspiracy, who calls the strip “quite tame,” questions whether the Washington Post should have even yanked the strip simply based on the content. He worries that by worrying so much about sensibilities, we’re depriving ourselves the ability to talk about important issues regarding Islam.
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.
UPDATE: As noted by a reader in the comments, the Today Show visited this issue. You can see video of the 6 minute segment on their site. Scroll down to “Is Islam off-limits in comic strips?”