These are trying times for a cartoonist. And this morning, no-one understands that better than Michael Leunig who became unwittingly embroiled in the mutating Danish cartoon controversy overnight.

Newspapers were quick to report that “renowned Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig has submitted the first entry in a controversial contest for cartoons of the Holocaust launched in Iran today.” It’s about “a show of solidarity with the Muslim world,” and an exercise in free speech, Leunig was quoted as saying.

The story was picked up around the world in papers from the SMH to Islamonline and Le Monde. (Tim Blair, who’s been critical of Leunig in the past is doing an evolving round-up of “international Michael Leunig mania”.)

But Leunig had no hand in submitting his 2002 cartoon, even though he recently admitted his sympathy for the Muslim cause in The Agecalling the original Prophet Muhammad cartoons “taunts, probably deliberate, to an aggrieved and traumatised spiritual community who feel at the mercy of the West’s contempt, ignorance and ruthless military might.”

Leunig’s original cartoon – not a fake as the SMH was suggesting this morning – used Auschwitz as a way to comment on the direction of Israeli policy, “the aggressive Sharon policy” he told Melbourne’s ABC Radio today. The cartoon, which was anti-war “if it was anything” caused a ruckus at the time when Age editor Michael Gawenda “refused to publish it, which upset me”.

This time, it’s the subject of a “fraud and a hoax emanating we believe from Australia,” he told the program. “I’ve been set up horribly, maliciously.” And The Age is also “extremely concerned” given that its name pops up alongside Leunig’s in relation to the cartoon.

Still, Leunig is “not entirely surprised.” I’m at the “end of a long run of troubles about my anti-war cartoons,” he says, claiming that the latest hoax is just an extension of the “twisted bitter” hate mail he receives. “Who knows where we’ll be in three years or five years unless we wake up to the drift of human nature at the moment, you know, I think it’s terribly serious…”

After Leunig complained, Irancartoons.com, the website hosting the competition organised by Iran’s biggest selling newspaper Hamshahri, pulled the cartoon from its site.

Leunig must be feeling the prescience of his cartoon, Nocturnal Domestic Scene:

Little Sally (what a pet!)
Surfing on the internet:
A system recently invented
To get in touch with the demented.

Dear old Grandma (what a darling)
Screeching like a drunken starling,
Demonstrates a safer venture,
Surfing on your own dementia.

Peter Fray

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