A Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist is under fire from Muslims for his depiction of a Middle Eastern-looking man behind the steering wheel of a nuclear-bomb laden truck under the headline, “What would Muhammad drive?”

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim World League are demanding an apology from Doug Marlette’s syndicator, Tribune Media Services, and from his employer, the Tallahassee Democrat.

Cartoon by Doug Marlette, used with permission

The cartoon shows a Ryder rental truck like the one used by convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

In a phone interview, Marlette told WorldNetDaily he would not apologize, though he has received more than 4,500 e-mails from angry Muslims, with some threats of death and mutilation.

The Tallahassee Democrat also has declined to apologize, but primarily because it did not publish the cartoon in its print edition. The drawing appeared inadvertently on its website, however, before being pulled, according to the paper’s executive editor.

In a response to be published Sunday in the Tallahassee Democrat, Marlette noted his cartoon is a takeoff on the recent controversy among some Protestants over the morality of driving gas-guzzling SUVs – “What Would Jesus drive?”

He explained that “to a cartoonist working in the current geo-political atmosphere, it is a natural step to ask, ‘What would Muhammad Drive?'”

“And I’m sorry to report,” he said, “that the image in post-9/11 America that leaps to mind is the Ryder truck given to us by the terrorist Timothy McVeigh, carrying a nuclear warhead and driven, alas, not by an Irish-Catholic or a Jewish Hasidim or a Southern Baptist, but, yes, by an Islamic militant.”

Muslims consider depictions of their prophet to be blasphemous, but Marlette told WND he did not have Muhammad in mind when he drew the picture of the truck driver, but rather a “generic” Arab headdress-wearing man.

Political cartoonist Doug Marlette

Noting that cartoon images should not be taken literally, he pointed out “there were no Ryder trucks in Muhammad’s time.”

Similary, he said, “I could have drawn a cartoon of ‘What would Jesus drive?’ with some Pentecostal guy driving an SUV.”

‘How would you have drawn it?’

Marlette said the cartoon prompted a “firestorm of reaction” from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which reprinted it and organized an e-mail campaign.

The e-mails all said essentially the same thing about him and his drawing, he said. The Muslim writers used terms such as “blasphemy,” “ignorant,” “bigoted,” “hateful” and “donkey.”

In his upcoming published response, Marlette recounted attacks by terrorists over the past year or so, beginning with Sept. 11, 2001.

“Such nihilists are considered by many Muslims to be martyrs worthy of admiration and emulation,” he said. “Meanwhile, an Arab country led by a genocidal maniac intent upon developing weapons of mass destruction is bringing us into war.”

“How would you have drawn [the cartoon]?” he asked.

Marlette said the objective of political cartooning “is not to soothe and tend sensitive psyches, but to jab and poke in an attempt to get at deeper truths, popular or otherwise. The truth, like it or not, is that Muslim fundamentalists have committed devastating acts of terrorism against our country in the name of their prophet.”

‘Image of Islam’

Abdullah Al-Turki, secretary general of the Muslim World League, has demanded the Tallahassee Democrat apologize to the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims and promise not to publish such material again.

“Some enemies of Islam have been trying to tarnish the image of Muhammad just as they publish misleading information about and wrong interpretation of the Holy Quran,” said Turki, according to the Saudi publication Arab News.

However, Tallahassee Democrat Executive Editor John Winn Miller said in an editorial Tuesday no apology is in order because his paper refused to publish the cartoon in its print edition.

Miller, explaining his paper has no control of Marlette’s outside work, said the cartoonist “sends us his cartoons and we decide whether to print them or not.”

But he admitted, “Unbeknownst to me, we had an automatic system that placed all of Doug’s political cartoons on our website. When that happened with the bomb cartoon, we were flooded with thousands of e-mails and phone calls demanding an apology.”

“We did not publish the cartoon, and we won’t because I don’t think it is particularly funny,” Miller said. “And I, frankly, am uneasy about making fun of religious icons in the Democrat. We have run cartoons making fun of priests because of their actions in the abuse scandal – but not because of their religion. There were some cartoons that we did not run because we thought they crossed the line of good taste. Different editors draw that line in different places.”

But Miller said he defends Marlette’s “right to ridicule anyone.”

“This is an honored American tradition,” the editor said. “Granted, good comedy like his often depends on exaggerations. But he does have some fair basis for satire in this case. While the vast majority of Muslims are a peaceful people and preach a peaceful religion, there are some who have subverted the message of the prophet Muhammad for their own violent purposes.

“So to anyone who was offended by Doug’s cartoon, I’m sorry,” Miller wrote. “But I do not apologize for his right to make a point, even if it makes some people mad.”

When Marlette joined the Democrat earlier this year, Miller said in a June 21 news story by his paper the cartoonist can be “provocative, but he’ll have an editor.”

CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad complained “it now seems to be ‘open season’ on Islam in certain religious and political circles.”

“Defamatory attacks on Islam and on the prophet Muhammad by media outlets or religious leaders only serve to harm our nation’s image worldwide and divide America along religious lines,” Awad said.

Noting Muslims object to any visual representations of their prophet, Awad also criticized a “racist and stereotypical” portrayal of Muhammad.

“By learning more about the prophet Muhammad, people of conscience will discover that he was a prime example of tolerance and mercy,” said Awad, who suggested viewing the recent controversial PBS documentary, “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.”

Note of thanks

In a letter to the Tallahassee Democrat, a reader expressed thanks for Marlette’s cartoon.

“I have noticed outrage about the cartoon, but I have not noticed outrage from Muslims concerning the devastation and carnage that radical Islamists have caused,” wrote Rebecca Davis. “Their silence concerning radical groups from their own faith speaks louder than words.”

Columnist Kathleen Parker comments in Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel, “As the year wraps up, Marlette is on the receiving end of an Islamist fatwa protesting a dead-on editorial cartoon.”

Marlette, born in Greensboro, N.C., began drawing political cartoons for the Charlotte Observer in 1972, then moved to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987 and New York Newsday in 1989. He won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, mainly for cartoons about the scandal surrounding televangelist Jim Bakker.

Marlette’s comic strip “Kudzu” appears in more than 300 newspapers and was produced as a musical at Ford’s Theater in Washington. He is the only cartoonist to have received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. His book “The Bridge” earned a novel-of-the-year award from the Southeast Booksellers Association in April and has been bought by Tom Cruise for film production at Paramount Studios.

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