(WARNING: This article contains cartoons by Bosch Fawstin that some readers might find offensive.)
This morning, a headline from Robot 6 caught my eye. "Muhammad cartoonist to be added to hate group list," it read, and I clicked to find that it was talking about Bosch Fawstin, the winner of the "Draw Muhammad" contest that ended in a violent attack and the death of the attackers, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but it's unknown whether they were actually involved. The group behind the event, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is already listed as a hate group.
Now, let me make clear that I think a contest like the one above, while a legal expression of free speech that should absolutely be protected under the first amendment, is one of those cases of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should." In other words, while I support its right to exist, I personally believe it was gross trolling motivated by bigotry and xenophobia (which doesn't excuse violence - they are separate but related issues). It's free speech, but it's free speech that I disagree with and don't respect. And for me, it ends there, or it ends at my expressing my own dissenting opinion on it.
As a result of my general distaste for the contest, I simply hadn't really followed any of the cartoons or the participants, and kind of just assumed they were a bunch of local, unknown nutjobs. So I was surprised when I learned that Bosch Fawstin, the winner of the contest, is a pretty famous name in comics.
Fawstin is an American born former Muslim who became an athiest, and who uses his comics to promote his political beliefs, many of which appear to be anti-Islam. His blog is full of conservative political cartoons, and it's obvious what his political leanings are, not that being conservative is a crime. Here's a recent one called "Obama's position on Iran:"
Here's one about the debate over the Indiana law allowing business to use religious beliefs as a defense against accusations of discrimination:
You get the idea.
Fawstin is the author of a comic called "The infidel," currently available on comiXology (where it is rated four stars with 103 reviews), which is described as follows:
THE INFIDEL is about twin brothers Killian Duke and Salaam Duka whose Muslim background comes to the forefront of their lives on 9/11. Killian responds to the atrocity by creating a counter-jihad superhero comic book called PIGMAN, as Salaam fully surrenders to Islam. Pigman's battle against his archenemy SuperJihad is echoed by the escalating conflict between the twins.
Not elaborated on in that description, Pigman, the character in the comic within the comic, is apparently an ex-Muslim himself, who wears a suit made of pig skin and kills Muslims, inspired by 9/11. On Fawstin's blog, he lists praise for the book, some from fellow conservative comic book creators, and some from notable comics media sites:
Here's some pages from the comic:
Fawstin was also featured on The Daily Show in 2011 in a segment about Batman having a Muslim sidekick (Fawstin was against this), and has been written about a few times on Bleeding Cool and CBR and probably lots of other sites. Fawstin's work has been compared to Frank Miller, and that comparison seems apt. But perhaps most shockingly, Fawstin is a former Eisner nominee for his 2004 comic, "Table of One," described as:
'Dirty Harry as a Waiter'. It's one hell of a night in an underground restaurant in Manhattan. William Howland's boss bet against him lasting a year as a waiter under him. It's pay-up time. But on this night, Will's code to treat all as they deserve doesn't serve anyone well, and he might not even last the night.
And that book received some praise as well:
And now Fawstin has one more "accolade" to add to his blog:
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which includes AFDI on its annual list of U.S. hate groups, plans to add Fawstin to its 2016 report, Heidi Beirich, director of the tracking effort, told Reuters on Monday.
“He’s like the artist of the movement,” Beirich said. “His views, they are hate views.” She said his website is "virulently ugly" in its anti-Muslim views.
Fawstin, who said he is atheist, laughed when asked about the law center's report: "So they want to put a cartoonist on there who doesn't act out violently? Go for it."
The inclusion of the AFDI, who, as mentioned above, were behind the contest, is pretty clear cut. In response to an anti-Islamophobia event, the group felt the need to hold an antaganostic event designed to purposely offend and degrade Muslims. But the addition of Fawstin is more complicated, and raises some interesting and rather difficult questions:
- If Fawstin belongs on the list of hate groups, does someone like Frank Miller, who wrote a similarly-themed (but less well-received) comic about killing Muslims called "Holy Terror," belong there as well?
- If so, what does that mean for major Hollywood movie studios promoting movies based on his work, such as the upcoming Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice, set to launch a multi-movie franchise?
- Or for that matter, for DC Comics, who promoted Miller's return to writing Batman comics as a major event just last month?
- What about Charlie Hebdo, which the world was pretty much unanimously celebrating in January after an attack on their building killed several cartoonists and editors, and whose defiant "Je Suis Charlie" slogan can still be readily be found on t-shirts and social media avatars.
- How do Charlie Hebdo's anti-Islam cartoons and drawings of Muhammad differ from Fawstin's?
- If the attacks on the contest were successful instead of thwarted, would the media and public response be different?
- Can, and should, comics ever be classified as "hate speech?"
- What about this particular comic:
Many websites & TV shows aren't showing my prize-winning Mohammad cartoon in their reports. Help fix that by sharing. pic.twitter.com/ghegMe8i2h— Bosch Fawstin (@BoschFawstin) May 6, 2015
I think that some of the things Fawstin has said are wrong and offensive (as I think of many far more successful and well known comics professionals). I'm sure there are even worse things he's said and done that I'm not aware of. But classifying cartoons, especially the ones above, as "hate speech?" That I'm not so sure about.
What do you think?
This isn't an easy one, folks. Share your thoughts in the comments below.