Let's Ban the Bin Laden Cliche

Islamic law has not yet made it forbidden to draw or otherwise represent the image of Osama Bin Laden. Neither has Creators Syndicate, Inc., the distributor of cartoonist Bob Gorrell, whose cartoon published July 22 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch featured a Bin Laden likeness. To be sure, Islamic law and political cartoons are strange bedfellows. But on the subject of drawing Bin Laden the two messaging systems, exotically different, are in complete harmony. Much proverbial ink has been spilled on political cartoonists in the wake of Jyllands Posten’s cartoon series on Muhammad in 2005. Then, the Danish newspaper emphasized its editorial track record as an equal opportunity offender of religious sensibilities. More significantly, it believed in not backing down from what is, by any view, a necessary global conversation bringing the criticism of Islam and media self-censorship to the table.

Cartoonists like Seattle’s Molly Norris, who venture into the realm of interacting with Islam and Muslims through the medium of cartoons, walk a harrowing artistic tightrope. This often includes the obligatory grisly reference to Theo Van Gogh or even “going ghost” at the insistence of the FBI, as in the current case of Ms. Norris. In the run-up to the Norris-inspired artistic demonstration in May called “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day,” syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker analogized: “Who could have guessed that the clash of civilizations would be fought by cartoon characters?”

However, with another RTD-published cartoon (August 18) stirring the Muslim community in Richmond, I want to suggest – audaciously – that this American cultural moment is in need of another religious ban, but of a different sort. Thou Shalt Not Draw Osama!

Surely the 21st century Islamic mood is set for Muslims across the various schools of thought to come together to expressly prohibit the image-depiction of that notorious, and notoriously glamorized, Bin Laden. Would a ban like this be enough to set aside the arguments about Western-styled free speech rights colliding with austere religious law? Not likely. But three dream-like effects could emerge from such a hoped-for conciliation.

First, as a turnabout, perhaps more media publishers would be compelled to think longer and harder before publishing the image of Osama. In the Gorrell cartoon published by the RTD in July, the first panel illustrates President Obama touting Muslim achievements in mathematics. This panel is trumped by the second panel, which shows an image of Bin Laden adding up the possibilities of coordinated terrorist attacks on major world cities. Get it, adding up? It’s math!

If Bin Laden cannot be drawn into the panel, well, gone is the bearded face of a jaded mountain outlaw with his sidekick gun. (Not to mention his aberrant ideology baptized in Islam.) No longer available is the easy visceral reaction. Kiss good-bye the convenient denigration of a non-monolithic religious tradition, the majority of its faithful adherents and its unique historical contribution to the advancement of the cultural common good.

Second, with less Osama imagery filling the print or digital page, I imagine the street discourse of the American public would be given the social green light to transcend the typical ignorance or usual politics. This is only another way to say: we could transcend ourselves. Wouldn’t the diminished appropriation of Bin Laden’s image help to move us beyond the familiar borders created by trotting out the terrorist-jihadist script?

Everything from veil-wearing Muslim women at suburban malls to Islamic center-building Muslims in Manhattan to U.S.-Middle East foreign policy (OK, that’s too far) could become, in time and with practice, a qualitatively better conversation. Unjust street rhetoric undoubtedly dies hard, and these are vehemently rhetorical times, but what of the life that might be resurrected from the death of Osama the Image?

Third, a cartoon ban of this magnitude could incite an absolute “let freedom reign” for cartoonists. Think about it. In the Osama vacuum there would be an open space inviting fresh images to proceed from the stale pen. Creative-types in Richmond and beyond get drunk every day on this sort of elixir.

Admittedly it’s still hard to see Muslims around the world in differing contexts converting to cartoons. Islam and artistic expression have a complicated historical relationship. Besides, a cartoon is simply unable to provide eternal salvation at the end of the day.

But wider cartoonish creativity – with honest intellectual range, respectful religious understanding and earnest cultural appreciation – certainly would be a welcome development for Muslims, for American Muslims in particular, and for my friends in Richmond who happen to be Muslim. And this is a good enough reason for me to beat this cartoon drum.

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