By Dr Tim Benson

Despite the outrage caused by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in several European newspapers, such controversy is nothing new in the realm of political caricature.

Eighty-one years ago David Low caused a similar response from the Muslim world when he drew a rather benign looking Muhammad gazing up at English cricket hero Sir Jack Hobbs. Appearing in the Indian version of the Morning Post, it, according to a Calcutta correspondent, "convulsed many Muslims in speechless rage. Meetings were held and resolutions of protest were passed."

Cartoonists are only too aware that to approach religion as a subject can be a minefield. Steve Bell of The Guardian admits that the Muslim Fatwa is something of a deterrent when portraying anyone in the Arab world. He was particularly aware of this during the Salman Rushdie affair in the early ’80s. According to Bell: "It does make you think twice, although I did my best at the time, taking the piss out of Ayatollah Khomeni."

A particular risk for the cartoonist is that, unlike the written word, the cartoon, as a visual image, can be more easily misinterpreted.

For example, The Independent’s Dave Brown drew a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby (in an allusion to a well-known Goya painting) to comment upon Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Many Jewish people believed the imagery in the cartoon had been lifted straight from the virulent anti-Semitic Nazi organ Die Sturmer. They felt Brown was making reference to the medieval blood libel where Jews had been falsely accused of slitting the throats of Christian children in order to use their blood to butter their matzah.

Another famous example of a cartoon being misunderstood is Philip Zec’s cartoon of March 1942, published in the Daily Mirror, showing a torpedoed merchant seaman hanging onto a life raft. The caption read: "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny: Official".

The cartoon was intended to show that the public should use fuel sparingly as it was costing lives to bring it across the North Atlantic. However, the cartoon so infuriated prime minister Winston Churchill, due to his misreading of it, that he almost had the paper shut down.

When The Guardian’s Les Gibbard redrew the image of the Zec cartoon to comment on the sinking of the Belgrano in 1982, he was accused of being a traitor on the front page of The Sun.

During the ’30s cartoonists had the Nazis up in arms by ridiculing their Führer in the free British press. In July 1936, during the Berlin Olympics, Sidney Strube of the Daily Express produced a cartoon to which Hitler himself took an instant dislike.

Orders were given that all copies of that day’s Daily Express were to be confiscated as soon as they arrived in Germany.

Foreign secretary Lord Halifax held talks with German propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who complained that British cartoonists were damaging Anglo-German relations. Goebbels singled out David Low for special attention.

Halifax told the Evening Standard’s manager: "You cannot imagine the frenzy that these cartoons cause. As soon as a copy of the Evening Standard arrives it is pounced upon for Low’s cartoon. If it is of Hitler, telephones buzz, tempers rise, fevers mount, and the whole governmental system of Germany is in uproar."

Low agreed to lay off the Fuhrer, but the respite lasted only three weeks as Hitler then went and occupied Austria. Low felt vindicated and consequently renewed his attacks upon the Nazi regime.

After the war, Low and Strube found their names on the Nazi death list, emphasising that a cartoonist’s lot is not always a safe one. A cartoonist who picks a provocative approach to a religious issue is likely to face an emotional and furious backlash, and may require a secure hideaway and change of name.

Dr Tim Benson is the founder of The Political Cartoon Gallery, 32 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS www.politicalcartoon.co.uk

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