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Muslim Artist Draws Line on Cartoons

Times Staff Writer

As an Arab American Muslim editorial cartoonist, Khalil Bendib knows what it’s like to be under attack. The Berkeley-based Bendib says he has received death threats over the past two decades for his provocative stands on Palestine, Israel, militarism and other hot-button issues.

But as violence mounts worldwide over Danish editorial cartoons that many Muslims believe defame the prophet Muhammad, the artist is taking a different view from some cartoonists when it comes to free speech. Just as yelling fire in a crowded theater should not be protected speech, he argued in an interview this week, neither should attacks on Islam’s most revered prophet.

“The concept of freedom of expression in a democratic society must always be balanced by the no less important notion of social responsibility,” said Bendib, 49, who has clients worldwide. “These crude caricatures are, in Muslim eyes only, the latest sign of the West’s utter contempt for their dearest values and traditions.”

He said Muslims may not have reacted so harshly had they not felt under siege by both homegrown Islamic extremists and what many view as Western occupiers of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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“Muslims are stuck between a rock and a hard place: foreigners invading their lands on the one hand and the homegrown menace of Islamic extremists on the other,” said Bendib, a Paris native of Algerian descent. “It’s a catastrophe.”

But he condemned the violent backlash, as have most major U.S. Muslim groups, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles and the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

On Wednesday, President Bush called on Islamic nations to “stop the violence,” as four more protesters in Afghanistan were killed by police during demonstrations over the cartoons. The cartoons have also set off a tense debate over freedom of expression that has divided even members of the Assn. of American Editorial Cartoonists.

Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News, defended her Danish colleagues and said no religious group should be allowed to place their sacred symbols off limits for public debate.

In her own work, she said, she has portrayed Jesus Christ with a smoking shotgun to criticize Christian murderers of abortion doctors, and a Star of David as a hoop through which politicians must leap to get elected -- and has been denounced for it.

“Change wouldn’t happen if any group or all groups were above criticism,” said Wilkinson, adding that she was disappointed that relatively few U.S. newspapers have published the cartoons.

Others, however, are more ambivalent. Nick Anderson, the cartoonist association’s vice president who draws for the Louisville Courier-Journal, called the cartoons “needlessly inflammatory” and questioned the motives of the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in publishing them.

Noting news reports that the newspaper declined three years ago to publish cartoons satirizing Jesus Christ’s resurrection as too provocative, Anderson said he wondered if Jyllands-Posten was simply trying to “stick a finger in the eyes of Muslims.”

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Anderson said the association, which represents about 200 editorial cartoonists, unequivocally supports the right to publish the cartoons and condemns the violent backlash. But “there is just no consensus” on the wisdom of publishing them, he said.

In his own cartoon on the issue, Bendib portrayed what he views as a double standard practiced by Europeans who assert free speech in regard to anti-Islamic sentiments and restrict it in relation to anti-Semitism -- through laws, for instance, against Holocaust deniers.

Bendib “presents a perspective that I think is simply lacking in any meaningful way in the mainstream American media,” said Nidal Ibrahim, publisher of Arab American Business Magazine in Huntington Beach. “He brings a cultural and nuanced understanding that goes a long way in helping Americans understand the Middle East.”

Bendib said he views his journalistic mission as giving voice to the underdog -- not only Arabs and Muslims, but also minorities and the poor.

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“Anytime there’s an underdog group, I always somehow naturally identify with them,” said Bendib, whose cartoons also take on Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden.

Bendib said his alternative viewpoints were in part shaped by his upbringing as the child of Algerian Muslims who suffered under French colonial rule. The young Bendib was born in Paris, spent his early years in Morocco and went to Algeria after it won independence in 1962.

Bendib said he drew his first political cartoon at age 3: a picture of an Algerian soldier saluting an Algerian flag. By age 13, he said, he had decided on his profession.

Bendib headed to the United States, the birthplace of the comic strip. He enrolled in a master’s program on East Asian languages and culture at USC. As an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Trojan, he wasted little time in making waves. The editor once told him he was the “most hated man” on the largely conservative campus for his frequent skewering of then-President Reagan.

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After he was hired by the San Bernardino Sun in 1987, Bendib said he began receiving his first death threats -- usually for cartoons expressing criticism of Israel over the Palestinian issue. Despite his opposition to the Persian Gulf War and national economic policies that he believed hurt the poor for the sake of the rich, Bendib said his editor stood by him even if he disagreed with his politics.

“They never really censored me,” Bendib said, adding that the few times the editor rejected his cartoons it was because of questions of taste, not politics. But fear for his safety led him to blur his Arab American identity by using the pen name Ben Dib -- a decision that he said embarrasses him today.

In 1998, he left the Sun and moved from Diamond Bar to Berkeley. That city was a good place to be when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

“Instead of getting threats and hate, I was getting solidarity and calls of support from Christians and Jews,” he said. “It was amazing.”

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