Last year, I drew a cartoon that showed a man in Middle Eastern apparel at the wheel of a Ryder truck hauling a nuclear warhead. The caption read, “What Would Mohammed Drive?” Besides referring to the vehicle that Timothy McVeigh rode into Oklahoma City, the drawing was a takeoff on the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign created by Christian evangelicals to challenge the morality of owning gas-guzzling SUVs. The cartoon’s main target, of course, was the faith-based politics of a different denomination. Predictably, the Shiite hit the fan.
Can you say “fatwa”? My newspaper, The Tallahassee Democrat, and I received more than 20,000 e-mails demanding an apology for misrepresenting the peace-loving religion of the Prophet Mohammed — or else. Some spelled out the “else”: death, mutilation, Internet spam. “I will cut your fingers and put them in your mother’s ass.” “What you did, Mr. Dog, will cost you your life. Soon you will join the dogs … hahaha in hell.” “Just wait … we will see you in hell with all jews … .” The onslaught was orchestrated by an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR bills itself as an “advocacy group.” I was to discover that among the followers of Islam it advocated for were the men convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. At any rate, its campaign against me included flash-floods of e-mail intended to shut down servers at my newspaper and my syndicate, as well as viruses aimed at my home computer. The controversy became a subject of newspaper editorials, columns, Web logs, talk radio, and CNN. I was condemned on the front page of the Saudi publication Arab News by the secretary general of the Muslim World League.
My answer to the criticism was published in the Democrat (and reprinted around the country) under the headline With All Due Respect, an Apology Is Not in Order. I almost felt that I could have written the response in my sleep. In my thirty-year career, I have regularly drawn cartoons that offended religious fundamentalists and true believers of every stripe, a fact that I tend to list in the “Accomplishments” column of my résumé. I have outraged Christians by skewering Jerry Falwell, Catholics by needling the pope, and Jews by criticizing Israel. Those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar. No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. Despite differences of culture and creed, they all seem to share the notion that there is only one way of looking at things, their way. What I have learned from years of this is one of the great lessons of all the world’s religions: we are all one in our humanness.
In my response, I reminded readers that my “What Would Mohammed Drive?” drawing was an assault not upon Islam but on the distortion of the Muslim religion by murderous fanatics - the followers of Mohammed who flew those planes into our buildings, to be sure, but also the Taliban killers of noncompliant women and destroyers of great art, the true believers who decapitated an American reporter, the young Palestinian suicide bombers taking out patrons of pizza parlors in the name of the Prophet Mohammed.
Then I gave my Journalism 101 lecture on the First Amendment, explaining that in this country we do not apologize for our opinions. Free speech is the linchpin of our republic. All other freedoms flow from it. After all, we don’t need a First Amendment to allow us to run boring, inoffensive cartoons. We need constitutional protection for our right to express unpopular views. If we can’t discuss the great issues of the day on the pages of our newspapers fearlessly, and without apology, where can we discuss them? In the streets with guns? In cafés with strapped-on bombs?
Although my initial reaction to the “Mohammed” hostilities was that I had been there before, gradually I began to feel that there was something new, something darker afoot. The repressive impulses of that old-time religion were now being fed by the subtler inhibitions of mammon and the marketplace. Ignorance and bigotry were reinventing themselves in the post-Christian age by dressing up as “sensitivity” and masquerading as a public virtue that may be as destructive to our rights as religious zealotry. We seem to be entering a Techno Dark Age, in which the machines that were designed to serve the free flow of information have fallen into the hands of an anti-intellectual mobocracy.