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Cartoonist Defender Asks Muslims to Accept Free Speech Principles

Cartoonist Defender Asks Muslims to Accept Free Speech Principles

A media rights activist who defends political cartoonists who come under attack for their work says Muslims should try to better understand the western idea of free speech, even if they find the message offensive to their religion.

Police in Ireland earlier this month arrested seven people, including an American woman, in connection to what they say was a plot to kill Lars Vilks.

He's the Swedish cartoonist who an al-Qaida linked group wants killed for depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.

Irish authorities tie at least some of the suspects to another American woman who U.S. officials say tried to recruit people for the assassination plot.

That woman, Colleen LaRose, calls herself Jihad Jane, and is charged in the U.S. with conspiring to give material support to terrorists.

Former U.S. State Department official Robert Russell said he understands why Vilks' cartoon in 2007 offends some Muslims. "In Islam, pigs are considered haram, taboo, dirty. Many people don't understand in the West that also dogs are haram. Dogs are considered dirty and haram just like pigs," he said.

Russell heads the Cartoonists Rights Network International, and counts among his clients, cartoonists who have been imprisoned, tortured, even killed.

Russell says Vilks may have gone too far in making his point about freedom of speech, but those allegedly involved in a plot against him are even more misguided.

Russell collects drawings. He shows one of the first controversial cartoons published in the U.S. related to fears over Islam. "Bob Gorrell published this. Now this is not supposed to be the Prophet Muhammad. This is just a cleric. This is just any Islamic cleric, of course, with a bomb in his headdress," he said.

The picture looks similar to one of the cartoons of Muhammad published in Danish newspapers in 2005. That one showed the prophet with a bomb in his turban and lead to deadly riots.

Russell says people angered by such cartoons should resort to freedom of expression themselves, not fatwas, or death threats. "I think the best advice I could have for Muslims is please exercise your freedom of speech as the cartoonist was exercising. Please exercise your own freedom of speech, take your own cartoonist to do some drawing and write articles and send them to the newspaper," he said.

Russell organizes cartoon events at college campuses across the United States. Here at American University in Washington, cartoonist Joel Pett shows how he draws U.S. President Barack Obama.

"Big ears, big old jug ears like that," he said.

Pett says, cartoonists are essential to showing the lighter side of life, especially in difficult times. "The fact of the matter is you might as well laugh as cry and the tragedy that is the human condition invites sarcasm, invites irony, invites satire, invites laughter. What else are you going to do?"

Back at his home and headquarters in suburban Washington, Russell says Muslims should understand that western societies fought for specific rights during hundreds of years of war over religion. "We learned that a secularly based freedom of speech guarantees access to everybody, by everybody and that no religious sensibility and no religious feelings should trump the ability of the individual to express themselves freely," he said.

So, Russell says, even if in the Vilks case, he does not defend the particular cartoon in question, cartoonists around the world should keep their right to draw and provoke, and ask questions about the world we live in.