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Brutal, Bilious, Offensive Cartooning Is What We Do and Have Done for Centuries

15/01/2015 11:51 GMT | Updated 16/03/2015 09:59 GMT

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#JeSuisCharlie in Belfast

Charlie Hebdo was categorically correct to publish the prophet on its front cover. To ask cartoonists not to draw Mohammed would be like cartoonists to ask Muslims to give up their prophet. That's what they do - Politicians, the powerful and belief systems get drawn. That's what happens in our world, "brutal, bilious" and outrageously offensive cartoons. It's in our post-enlightenment DNA. An unspoken deal: as eels get skinned the privileged get drawn.

In Western Europe and the anglo-sphere nothing is sacred. A secular world where the spell of the clerical class has been broken. If a crowd of Catholics or phalanx of Protestants or some angry cleric decked in Christian robes denounced cartoons, they'd get laughed out of town.

The powerful get mocked, it's as simple as that, and Europe's clerics have come to accept this. A beautiful, liberating thing. As John Lloyd, who for years satirically gutted the privileged, said:

"The whole point of living here is you're allowed to say these things and you are not shot or incarcerated."

So normal is cartooning and such is the vanity of politicians that no matter how horribly you draw them, the only thing worse than being drawn is not being drawn. Sarkozy loves being drawn so much that the late Tignous refused to draw him.

And French cartoons have long taken these satirical norms and freedoms to a higher level, remorselessly irreverent in a way others aren't. That's what gives the world l'exception Francais. Gratuitously offensive cartooning is what the country of Honoré Daumier does. As Olivier Tonneau said plainly:

"Even if you dislike its humour, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire - and after all was only intended for a French audience."

As the anglo-French cartoonist Ronald Searle said, cartoonists, a special band of artists, have licence to draw cartoons that are "grotesque" and "cruel".

That is the great heritage and patrimony that us cartoonists, and France especially, enjoy. A sacred, cherished right. As Georges Wolinski said in 2006, "We are lucky, France is a paradise". And his response to the Danish cartoon controversy, his remarks are most relevant:

"What could I have said [to the press about the Danish Muhammad cartooons], beyond the same old thing. We laugh at everything. That is what we do. No subject is off limits... In Cuba there are plenty of cartoonists, plenty of satirical papers. But no one would dare draw a cartoon of Castro... We are lucky, France is a paradise."

And it's this tradition of total disregard for power blocs and orthodoxy that made me start doing political cartooning. As part of the dispossessed and unemployed I wanted to join and enjoy the freedoms that Gillray, Hogarth and Cruickshank and Daumier and David Low and Steve Bell possessed to make and change opinions and effect change.

The Charlie Hebdo nightmare is what happens when the militantly secularist France of Honoré Daumier meets a belief system incompatible with caustic graphic depiction.

This is the cleavage and conflict at the heart of this horror. Olivier Tonneau said:

"Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organised religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître."

Laurent Léger, journalist at Charlie Hebdo said the same thing:

"The aim is to laugh. We want to laugh at the extremists -- every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept."

Those of the muslim faith claim their belief sacred and inscrutable without a thought for the sacred rights of cartoonists in the western world. They are asking for special treatment and privileges. They want to render impotent the pen and claim immunity from the satirical beatings that other confessions get.

And the continual cry that you have offended 1.2 billion Muslims is abhorrent. Who can speak for such numbers. This squawk is a menace and a blackmail.

Then there's the casual calls that they the cartoonists were provocateurs and the authors of their own atrocity. There's the intolerable statements from Muslims and pusillanimous liberals that this week's Charlie Hebdo front cover (which I'll self-censor and let you see by clicking here) will cause more problems.

At 12 minutes past 8 on Wednesday January 14 2015 on Radio 4 an unnamed Muslim man said to Sima Kotecha, "deep down most Muslims probably agreed with it" and that "nobody will be mourning their deaths"

And here comes the refrains of islamophobia and racism. Both of which are non-starters, and I'll let Christopher Hitchens and Keenan Malik deal with both these non-sequiturs.

Islam is not a people but a belief system and those beliefs, like others which seek to hold influence, must be held to account, satirised and tested to destruction.

Let me reiterate this. Unfettered speech and the rich patrimony of wild cartooning passed down from our progenitors is a sacred and special thing. As holy as any religion. The call for censorship and a de facto blasphemy law is both profane and a desecration of the values and many millions more call unalterable. On that point we will not move but will call upon the hard won right to draw and lampoon whoever we like.

Muslims and the religious have sincerely held, cherish beliefs. So do we cartoonists. There's no debate. The sooner people realise that the powerful and belief systems get drawn, the quicker we put an end to the cleavage that is causing this rolling conflict.