Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In response to self-censorship in Europe by those fearing reprisal for expressing an opinion on Islam, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon feature depicting artists’ conceptions of the Prophet Muhammad. Critics declared that the cartoons constituted hate speech and were insulting to Muslims. While scandalized by the publication, many Westerners were scandalized by the violence of the protests as well.

Summary of Event

Political cartoons have a long history in Western culture, and by the early twenty-first century, almost any aspect of Western culture had become fair game for cartoonists’ visual wit. Even Roman Catholic popes, patriarchs, and Jesus Christ were no longer considered sacrosanct. The first decade of the twenty-first century also marked an intensification of conflicts between Western secularism and radical Islamic fundamentalism, particularly after the September September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. [kw]Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests, Danish Newspaper’s Prophet (Sept. 30, 2005) [kw]Cartoons Stir Violent Protests, Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad (Sept. 30, 2005) Rose, Flemming Bluitgen, Kåre Selbekk, Vebjørn Muhammad, Prophet Jyllands-Posten[Jyllands Posten] Cartoons;of Prophet Muhammad[Prophet Muhammad] Islam Denmark Rose, Flemming Bluitgen, Kåre Selbekk, Vebjørn Muhammad, Prophet Jyllands-Posten[Jyllands Posten] Cartoons;of Prophet Muhammad[Prophet Muhammad] Islam Denmark [g]Europe;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [g]Denmark;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [c]Religion;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [c]Violence;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [c]Popular culture;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [c]Colonialism and imperialism;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] [c]Public morals;Sept. 30, 2005: Danish Newspaper’s Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Stir Violent Protests[03530] Rasmussen, Anders Fogh

Demonstrators march to the Danish embassy in London in February, 2006, months after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published political cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

On one hand, U.S. president George W. Bush and other Western leaders were careful to avoid any statement related to the global war on terrorism that sounded like an attack on Islam rather than on the terrorists themselves. Western leaders frequently spoke positively about Islam as a religion. By contrast, Islamic fundamentalist leaders such as Osama bin Laden had openly referred to the Islamic struggle as one against not merely Western governments but Western secularism in general, which the fundamentalists condemn as decadent and immoral.

Islamic fundamentalist leaders have a history of reacting to any criticism of Islam or its prophet, Muhammad, in a manner considered to be inappropriately defensive and thin-skinned by Western standards. To leaders such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa (Islamic religious pronouncement) of death against Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie for his blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses (1988), any reference to Muhammad that was not 100 percent reverential was an insult to Islam. To dare suggest that Muhammad might be imperfect or that Islam has flaws is blasphemous, and any person who does suggest these things should be destroyed.

The potential for violence and even death deeply affected writers and artists, especially those who were Muslim or who were raised in Muslim countries. Many writers and artists felt it necessary to self-censor whenever touching on subjects related to Islam, Muslims, or the Middle East, largely as a result of fear that they too might become targets of the wrath of a radical cleric or clerics. Some people, however, took the chance to voice their opinions, knowing that criticism of Islam was problematic and controversial.

In Denmark on September 17, 2005, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Jutland post), concerned about self-censorship among intellectuals, artists, writers, and the media on the topic of Islam, published an article examining the work of writer Kåre Bluitgen and his inability to find an illustrator for his children’s book Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv (2006; the Qur՚ān and the life of the Prophet Muhammad) because of fears of reprisal. On September 30, the Jyllands-Posten decided to take concrete action against that fear by publishing twelve political cartoons, commissioned by cultural editor Flemming Rose, on Muhammad and Islam. The one-page feature, “Muhammeds ansigt” (the face of Muhammad), included a cartoon that showed the prophet with a bomb in his turban and another that showed him with a crescent hanging over his turban, which could be seen either as a partial halo or a pair of devil’s horns. Other cartoons even mocked the anticipated response to the cartoons.

The text that accompanied the cartoon feature, written by Rose, highlighted an unwillingness by some Muslims to accept the concept of freedom of speech and, in particular, the idea that one must be willing to accept the speech rights of others, even if that person’s speech is offensive. The text also explained that the cartoon feature was a form of integration, that by publishing the cartoons, Muslims were being accepted into Danish society rather than treated as perpetual strangers.

The earliest objections to the cartoon feature, which came from Danish Muslims, were reasoned and peaceful, even after Vebjørn Selbekk, editor of another Danish newspaper, reprinted them in January, 2006. Critics were concerned that the cartoons unfairly stigmatized a Danish minority and placed into danger those Muslims who deplored the terrorism committed by a few coreligionists and those Muslims who wanted only to integrate peacefully into Danish society. They also suggested that the cartoons had imperialist overtones reminiscent of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when European great powers carved out colonial empires in the Middle East and ruled with little sensitivity to the cultures and traditions of local peoples.

The response to the cartoons turned violent, however, as some were reprinted in newspapers around the world. First, the reactions came in the form of public protest. In Gaza, demonstrators desecrated not only the flag of Denmark but also those of Norway, the Netherlands, and Germany. As more and more demonstrations around the world—namely in the Middle East—turned violent, hundreds of protestors were killed by police. The flames of anger were further fanned by two Danish imams who assembled a dossier of other images they considered offensive to Islam, including doctored photographs of a Muslim being mounted by a dog while praying (dogs are considered unclean animals by most Muslims). Another example in the dossier referred to a contest in France in which participants put on rubber pig snouts and squealed like hogs while wearing turbans and other garments that suggested the participants were Muslim.

The responses to the cartoons then turned official, as Muslim leaders issued death threats against the cartoonists and even offered rewards for their murder. These threats were considered sufficiently serious that the artists went into hiding. In February, 2008, three people were arrested by Danish police for conspiring to murder cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose work depicted the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Boycotts against Danish goods were answered with calls to buy Danish products as a way of showing support for free speech. Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, refused to issue a public apology, insisting that he would not compromise Denmark’s commitment to freedom of speech.

In January of 2006, the controversy had become so severe that the Jyllands-Posten published an open letter to its readers. In the letter, the editorial staff explained that the cartoons had been presented soberly as a form of political and social commentary, and that they were not intended to insult or offend. The artist who had drawn the cartoon of Muhammad wearing a turban with a bomb explained that his intent was not to attack Islam but to protest that small segment of Muslims who, by committing terrorist attacks in the name of their religion, bring disrepute upon Islam as a whole. The open letter, which Jyllands-Posten put on its Web site to make it available worldwide, failed in its intent. Many considered the letter nothing more than arrogant and self-justifying.

Impact

The cartoon feature reinforced perceptions already held by many. Muslims consider the cartoons further evidence that Western secular culture has no respect for the sacred, specifically the sacred in Islam, while Westerners believe the ensuing riots and protests prove that Islam is antithetical to free speech. The scandal nevertheless impacted Western reporting on Islam and representations of the sacred.

In late 2006, on the first anniversary of the publication of the controversial cartoons, related controversy erupted when a Video evidence videotape of members of a right-wing political youth group showed group members drawing pictures that insulted Muslims. The artists in the group had to go into hiding because they were threatened with death.

In November of 2007, a British primary school teacher in Sudan was arrested and tried for having insulted Islam by allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of a class project. Although the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy was not specifically cited in coverage of the Sudan case, the coverage included the same themes of cultural misunderstanding, Muslim outrage, and international political pressure. The issue was further complicated because Muslims do not consider the name Muhammad too sacred for ordinary use, as long as the name is used for a person. Muhammad is believed to be a particularly lucky name (unlike many Christians who believe that the name Jesus is too sacred to be given to any child). Using the name Muhammad for a toy or animal is considered offensive. Denmark Rose, Flemming Bluitgen, Kåre Selbekk, Vebjørn Muhammad, Prophet Jyllands-Posten[Jyllands Posten] Cartoons;of Prophet Muhammad[Prophet Muhammad] Islam

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armour, Rollin S. Islam, Christianity, and the West: A Troubled History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. A Catholic perspective on the volatile history between Islam and Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Lynn Schofield. Religion, Media, and the Marketplace. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Places the cartoon scandal within the larger context of the conflict between faith, the media, and secular market forces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Majid, Anouar. A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. A moderate Muslim’s critique of the position within Islam that any criticism is blasphemy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muhammad, Tariq Ghazi. The Cartoons Cry. New York: AuthorHouse, 2007. Balances the public’s offense at the cartoons with a consideration of how the cartoons might have revealed the fragility of Islamic civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Flemming. “Why I Published Those Cartoons.” The Washington Post, February 19, 2006. The cultural editor for Jyllands-Posten discusses in this telling opinion article the reasons why he commissioned the cartoons and why the paper published them.

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