Published August 28, 2007
A popular comic strip that poked fun at the Rev. Jerry Falwell without incident one week ago was deemed too controversial to run over the weekend because this time it took a humorous swipe at Muslim fundamentalists.
The Washington Post and several other newspapers around the country did not run Sunday's installment of Berkeley Breathed's "Opus," in which the spiritual fad-seeking character Lola Granola appears in a headscarf and explains to her boyfriend, Steve, why she wants to become a radical Islamist.
The installment did not appear in the Post's print version, but it ran on WashingtonPost.com and Salon.com. The same will hold true for the upcoming Sept. 2 strip, which is a continuation of the plotline.
The Washington Post Writers Group syndicates "Opus," and the Post is the cartoon's home newspaper. The syndicate sent out an alert about the two strips in question, according to Writers Group comics editor Amy Lago.
Sources told FOXNews.com that the strips were shown to Muslim staffers at The Washington Post to gauge their reaction, and they responded "emotionally" to the depiction of a woman dressed in traditional Muslim garb and espousing conservative Islamic views.
There was also considerable alarm over the strip at the highest echelons of The Washington Post Co., according to the sources.
Lago said she flagged some of the syndicate's newspaper clients for two reasons: because of the possibility that the jokes about Islam would be misconstrued and because of the sexual innuendo in the punchline.
"The strip came in and I knew we would have to send out an alert to all the newspapers," Lago said. "I do that fairly regularly with materials that might pose issues for local areas. ... We knew that because it was a sex joke, it could raise issues. And there is another client that has issues with any Muslim depiction whatsoever."
Editors from The Washington Post declined to comment on why they made the decision to pull the two comic strips.
In the Aug. 26 "Opus," Lola — who asks to be called Fatima Struggle — tries to talk Steve into accepting her latest phase.
"Steve, think about what you're not getting," she says from behind her hijab and veil. "You're not getting a girlfriend obsessed with decadent Western crud. You're not getting a girlfriend blathering about 'American Idol.' And you're not getting a girlfriend who resists a man's rightful place."
Steve thinks about it, looks pleased for an instant and then looks disturbed again.
"Anything else I won't be getting, Fatima?" he asks sardonically.
"God willing," she replies.
A series of political cartoons that featured the prophet Mohammed were published in Denmark last year, sparking violent protests throughout the Muslim world. Those cartoons spurred a debate about the satirical depiction of religion in comic strips and other media.
The Aug. 19 "Opus" ended with a joke about the late Jerry Falwell. In that strip, Lola, fresh from a quest to become an Amish nudist, is doing yoga and talking to the penguin character Opus about who goes to heaven.
"Liberals? Evolutionists? Feminists? ACLU lawyers?" Opus asks incredulously. "Yep," replies Lola.
"Kennedy Democrats? French people? Manly women who don't shave ... they're all up there?" Opus wonders. "Yep," Lola repeats.
"With Jerry Falwell?" asks Opus. "Yep," Lola says again.
Opus looks up in an aha! sort of moment. "Goodness, must HE be annoyed!" the penguin exclaims.
"Eternally," Lola replies.
Lago said she didn't flag newspapers about that strip because she didn't think readers would misunderstand the humor.
"They're not going to take it seriously," she said.
But she did alert newspapers about the Muslim-themed cartoon because there was a question about whether Muslim readers would be offended.
"I don't necessarily think it's poking fun [at Islam]," Lago said. "But the question with Muslims is, are they taking it seriously?"
The "Opus" strip in question takes swipes at Islamists — a term used for radical Muslims — as opposed to moderate Muslims, she pointed out, but there was concern that the distinction wouldn't be clear. And, she said, racy jokes sometimes draw fire, too.
"There have been a lot of complaints coming in about sex jokes lately," she said.
In this case, Breathed, who also drew the popular “Bloom County” strip, took the somewhat unusual step of alerting fans to the fact that the current and upcoming "Opus" cartoons had been withheld by a number of newspapers.
"Note to Opus readers: The Opus strips for August 26 and September 2 have been withheld from publication by a large number of client newspapers across the country, including Opus’ host paper The Washington Post. The strips may be viewed in a large format on their respective dates at Salon.com," the notice reads on Breathed’s Web site, www.berkeleybreathed.com.
The comics editor at a competing syndicate, King Features — which handles the "Mallard Fillmore," "Mutts," "Zits" and "Blondie" strips, among many others — said flagging newspapers about possibly objectionable content is fairly standard, especially since the funnies pages historically have been kid-friendly.
"The comics page in the paper is a very safe place traditionally," Brendan Burford said. "There are a few lightning rods, and a few lightning rods are good ... but there could be kids reading things."
It's also important to consider the deliverer of the message, he said. In this case, Breathed is known to be a satirical political cartoonist who tackles taboo topics.
In general, when there is a question about possibly offensive content, the cartoonist is involved in how to "soften the blow" if necessary, according to Burford.
As far as whether the Post and the Post Writers Group syndicate treated content about conservative Christians differently than it did content about conservative Muslims, it certainly could be taken that way.
"It appears on the surface to be a double standard," Burford said, "but at the same time, the climate of the world probably informs their decision with how to go forward with it."