Payne: Je suis Charlie: Cartoonists in the cross-hairs

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I have never penned a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. Never mocked Jesus Christ. Or the Pope. It’s not my style of satire. It’s not the content that mainstream newspaper readers of The Detroit News expect.

But I have caricatured Christ multiple times. In good humor. For example, with a donkey lampooning the silly “What would Jesus drive?” protests against SUVs during the 2003 auto show.

It’s hard to believe drawing a religious figure’s likeness would lead to execution. Yet that is the fate that befell four of my cartoon peers in Paris last week at the hands of radical Islamists.

It doesn’t comfort me that their cartoons appeared in an edgy satirical magazine. It’s a thin line that separates different forms of expression — a line that terrorists don’t differentiate.

Their attack on Charlie Hebdo was an act of intimidation against anyone who doesn’t share their intolerant, doctrinaire world view. It’s an attack on all free people.

I’ve been buoyed by the strong, public reaction from Detroit-area Muslims and the 3 million people who bought Charlie Hedbo (traditionally an obscure, 30,000-circulation periodical) in its first publication since the Jan. 7 attack.

“Je suis Charlie,” the French chanted in the streets. I am Charlie.

In the first days after the attacks I was unsure if that sentiment would be shared.

“Satire, fairly or not, has always seemed less ‘serious’ than other forms of journalism, more of an indulgence,” wrote Fox News media reporter Howard Kurtz, echoing my own concerns that many would throw cartoonists under the bus. Kurtz rightly reasoned that “as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reminds us, cartoonists, satirists and funnymen are often on the front lines of very risky battles.”

In the 25 years I have been in the cartoon business, Islamic attacks on controversial journalism have been a harbinger of worse violence to come.

In 1987, cartoonist Naji Salim Al-Ali fled Kuwait for England under death threats for his cartoons critical of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Gunmen killed him on a London street.

In 1989, Iran took out a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his fictional “Satanic Verses” novel, deemed a mocking of Mohammed by Iran’s ruling imams. Yet Iran’s fanaticism prefaced decades of state-sponsored terror groups like Hezbollah.

In 2005, a Danish paper published a dozen cartoons of Mohammed to reassert the power of free speech, concerned that the terror attacks of 9/11 had cowed freedom of expression.

Clearly, satire isn’t the problem, but rather a tool radical Islamists use to advance their agenda.

Islam is not the first religion perverted by extremists. Post-Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan claimed itself the enforcer of Protestant values as it burned crosses on the lawns of blacks, Jews and Catholics. The way to confront such perversions of peaceful religions is for mainstream holy figures to denounce the fringe. As Christian churches did to the Klan. And as leading Detroit Muslims are doing in the wake of the Paris attacks.

I was joined on Fox 2 News’ “Let It Rip,” a day after the slaughter, by fellow newspaperman Osama Siblani, publisher of Metro Detroit’s Arab-American News, and Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of Dearborn Heights. Both fiercely denounced the Charlie attacks.

Said the imam, who last week dedicated a Friday service to condemning the attack: “Freedom of speech comes with responsibility, but disagreement does not come with destruction.”

That’s how you fight terror. With military intelligence and strikes, yes. But also by marginalizing the extremists in our midst.

Shame is a powerful tool. As is humor.

Henry Payne is The Detroit News auto critic and an editorial cartoonist with Universal Press Syndicate.

hpayne@detroitnews.com .