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'Cartoonists Must Afflict the Comfortable'
Interview with Martin Rowson, political cartoonist for The Guardian
Javier Espinoza (Javier21a)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-16 11:39 (KST)   
He gets around 400 hate mails every time he upsets Republicans in the United States with his depictions of George Bush or from "Zionists" when he is critical of Israel. Sometimes, he is even physically threatened. "They take offence as the first form to respond. Their reaction is something similar to: "I disagree with what you say, but you should not have said it in the first place."

He even admitted to this reporter in a phone conversation on Monday that some people could consider his drawings offensive. And although Martin Rowson, political cartoonist for The Guardian, believes people in his profession must "afflict the comfortable, challenge the powerful" he says he would not have published the Muslim Prophet cartoons because "Muslims are powerless," yet he stirs controversy: "I would gladly attack the Muslim pope with the same venom I have attacked God or the Pope."

Are we living the cartoon wars?

I don't think so. As far as I am concerned, the cartoonists must afflict the comfortable, challenge the most powerful. In this instance (the publication of the cartoons of the Muslim Prophet), the people in Denmark who were being attacked are Danish Muslims, who are poor, isolated, powerless.

Would you have published the cartoons?

I wouldn't have published or drawn these cartoons because Muslims are powerless.

And what about the extra cartoons with disgusting or choking images used by imams and politicians in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia?

The cartoons become a pretext for continuing a political struggle. I am concerned for my colleagues who are in hiding and who were exploited by the newspaper.


Well, cartoonists are, by and large, poor, needy people who would do anything for money.

Tools of the Trade

Bush: idiot
Arafat: corpse
Blair: green
China: plastic
UK: tesco
CIA: long hall flight
Condoleezza Rice: lipstick
The state of the world: gray
The state of Britain: grayer
UN: tombstone
Iran: bang
Saddam: beard
Muhammad: camel
Iraq: cock-up
God: fiction
Martin Rowson: in hiding
Would you have published them, if the Muslims were not "powerless"?

If they had been in a position of power, I would.

But don't Muslims have a considerable amount of power in the U.K.?

No, because in my mind, it is a mental juggling act. To issue those cartoons in this country would be attacking a vulnerable minority group, they are poor, they are powerless.

Could you elaborate on the power argument and religion?

You see, I am atheist and I am deeply offended by people who believe in God, they should worry about being human. I do not believe in an afterlife. We should be concerned about this life. But I do not expect them to stop believing in God just because it offends me.

In Europe, we have had centuries of wars where a tenth of the population was killed because of religion. Now we have implemented liberal secularism in which you are allowed to argue, but not kill each other. It is a system to regulate hatred. Yet, there are religious people throughout this world who would immediately accept the idea that if someone offends your religion, they should die. We are between mad hot-heads and moderates. The problem with religion is that it implies that I have a greater authority, which you have no right to question under any circumstances, and therefore, I can run things by telling people what to do when I claim to have God on my side.

Well, don't you think Muslims have also used the power of their religion?

What has happened in the Muslim community is that they are using religion as a method of defense from the disadvantages they suffer because they live in a racist country here in the UK and they want their dignity back. The Danish cartoons were saying: "Islam is terrorism."

Not according to the editor, Flemming Rose who said exactly the opposite: that people have linked both things wrongly.

I know cartoons can be misunderstood. I have offended the wrong people sometimes. My job is to offend the right people. We live in a post religious society and this is why the people who set the media agenda do not know exactly how to react and do not understand what the fuss is about because they are not religious themselves. Yet, they try not to inflame the argument. I think it is important we have a "Babel of arguments" all the time.

Should cartoonists be inciters?

Cartoonists by nature should always be oppositional. The whole point is to satirize the elites because once you start supporting power then it becomes propaganda. It is a blurred edge. Satire as opposed to humor has to attack the power. If it attacks the misfortunate, it becomes bullying.

Do you have the right to insult people's faiths just because of freedom of speech?

Yes, because I believe religion is an artificial human construction and it does not have any special feature to make it immune. There should be no no-go area. However, I don't do racism and sexism because they are in a disadvantageous position. And although I would not paint the Muslim Prophet, I would gladly attack the Muslim pope if there was one with the same venom I have attacked God, the Roman Pope, etc.

You once wrote: "Meanwhile, I suppose we'll get more and more comics, making more and more money, and become less and less relevant, until they finally reach the condition of newspapers. The opposite seems to be happening. You have a lot of power now.

We have a certain amount of power in our hands, but people have the liberty not to look at them. Because cartoons are so in your face, it is different from the way you read; inevitably they are going to appear to be more inflammatory. Cartoons are almost always intended to be malicious, unpleasant and vicious. Drawing a character is a way of doing voodoo. In the UK, they have been for the last 300 years, part of the common trust of political exchange. You regulate hatred in the structure of the liberal secularism. Cartoons are the assassination without the blood. They are an opportunity to laugh, to make people with power look ridiculous.

Do you want to change the world with your cartoons?

No. Well, I do obviously do, but I don't think that I am going to. I doubt cartoons make any difference, but they make you laugh and release endorphins that makes you feel better and make people realize politicians can't get away from everything. I have the power, the right to encourage others to hate you if I want to.

Do you ever get scared of the reaction people might have of your cartoons?

Well, to be honest, when the first hate mail came I tried to engage in some kind of debate, but they only wanted to change an opinion that was not going to. Then I gave Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld crosses as opposed to swastikas. The reaction got to be more offensive than before. The ultimate defense is: Why do you get so upset? It is just a picture. It is just a stupid drawing. But of course, your goal is to offend people.

What is the mind of a cartoonist like?

I hate to think. They always tell me cartoonists have different brains. They are going to have to wait for my autopsy to find out. But even if it sounds pompous I always think that we need a healthy democracy to engage in a feast of thoughts and denigrate our leaders.

Are you serious about the world?

Yes. Cynicism is very bad, but it is good to be skeptical.

Would you say your cartoons are offensive?

I'm sure they are for some people. They are not for me, anyway.

Have you ever censored yourself?

I normally discuss it with the newspaper, and once I get assigned a cartoon, I do it. Otherwise, it would be a complete waste of my time. I do not have a black room for censored stuff.

What does the world need to be more peaceful?

Like Oliver Cromwell once said: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." We need more skeptical people to recognize that they might be wrong in their own beliefs and then the wrongness in other people can be more bearable.

Background: In 1925, David Low upset the Muslim community when drawing the Prophet looking up at English cricket hero Sir Jack Hobbs. Low also attacked the Nazis and ended up on their death list.
The row over newspaper cartoons has intensified as European journalists refuse to give in to the wrath of Arab world. What is your take on this?  (2006-02-06 ~ 2006-02-20)
Freedom of the press should never be compromised
Religious sensitivities should be duly respected
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Javier Espinoza

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