The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy began after twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad, were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. The newspaper announced that this publication was an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship.
Danish Muslim organizations, who objected to the depictions, responded by holding public protests attempting to raise awareness of Jyllands-Posten’s publication. The controversy deepened when further examples of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries.
This led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds (resulting in more than 100 deaths, altogether), including setting fire to the Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, storming European buildings, and desecrating the Danish, Norwegian and German flags in Gaza City. While a number of Muslim leaders called for protesters to remain peaceful, other Muslim leaders across the globe, including Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas, issued death threats. Various groups, primarily in the Western world, responded by endorsing the Danish policies, including “Buy Danish” campaigns and other displays of support. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark’s worst international crisis since World War II.
The debate surrounding this controversy is oriented around a number of questions. Were these 12 cartoons Xenophic, Islamophobic, or racists in intent? Were they blasphemous to people of the Muslim faith and intended to humiliate and harm a Danish minority? If so, does this make them illegal in Danish law and elsewhere in the world? Were the cartoons an appropriate exercise in free speech? Are such exercises worth it even if they are costly to trust between groups and in terms of lives? What is the value of free speech? Have these cartoons stimulated an important and valuable debate and dialogue about the relationship between Islam and the West, and particularly Muslim minorities living in the West? Has it increased understanding and tolerance, or has it decreased it? Is criticism of the cartoons based on a double standard? Are similarly denigrating cartoons made about the Christian, Jewish, and other faiths, making it unfair for Muslims to complain? Should Muslims or any group be offered distinct and unique protections under the law that help combat the specific vulnerabilities of a group.
See Wikipedia: Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy for more background.
On February 26, the cartoonist who had drawn the “bomb in turban” picture, the most controversial of the twelve, explained: There are interpretations of it [the drawing] that are incorrect. The general impression among Muslims is that it is about Islam as a whole. It is not. It is about certain fundamentalist aspects, that of course are not shared by everyone. But the fuel for the terrorists’ acts stem from interpretations of Islam. […] if parts of a religion develop in a totalitarian and aggressive direction, then I think you have to protest. We did so under the other ‘isms.
In Iraq, the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, decried the drawings but did not call for protests. Al-Sistani suggested that militant Muslims were partly to blame for distorting Islam’s image. In the United Arab Emirates, the periodical Al-Ittihad published an opinion piece which argued that, “The world has come to believe that Islam is what is practiced by Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and others who have presented a distorted image of Islam. We must be honest with ourselves and admit that we are the reason for these drawings.”
There are elements of Islam and the Quran that do inspire violent acts and that are used by terrorists as fuel for their acts. The “Bomb in Turban” cartoon was meant by its author as a representation of the elements of Islam and the Quran that act in this way to inspire terrorism. While this is not meant to indict Islam in general. Rather, it is simply meant to highlight the parts of the Quran and Islam that do give fuel to terrorists.
The Danish cartoons did not create a clash and conflict. Rather, they simply unveiled a deep seated and inevitable clash of civilizations that would have been brought to the surface regardless of whether the Danish cartoons had been published.
On February 19, Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, commented in the Washington Post. “The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.”
Hamshahri, Iran’s largest newspaper announced that it would hold an “international cartoon contest about the Holocaust” in reaction to the images. The paper’s graphics editor said, “The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons”.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 12 October 2005, in order to discuss what they perceived as an “on-going smearing campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims” – “We deplore these statements and publications and urge Your Excellency’s government to take all those responsible to task under law of the land in the interest of inter-faith harmony, better integration and Denmark’s overall relations with the Muslim world.”
One of the most famous Danish cartoon depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The obvious implication of this cartoon was that Islam somehow inherently fosters terrorism. This is offensive, insulting, and degrading. “It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims.”
Whether or not one believes that the cartoons were appropriate, the truth is that it stimulated an international impression of the Danish people as a xenophobic and potentially hateful. Or, at least, is has created an impression of the Danish people as the instigators of the international upheaval that resulted from the publishing of these cartoons; upheaval in which nearly 100 people died. Regardless of the justifications, that Denmark and its people are seen as the instigators of this all reflects poorly on them. The Denmark based ‘Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network’ said “the cartoons among others things identified Islam with terrorism, (this) can only increase the xenophobia and racism that these populations are already victims of in Europe. Furthermore, this kind of image contributes to discrediting entire countries and their populations.”
It prohibts idolatry, but not explicitly visual representations of Muhammad. It reads, “Behold! he said to his father and his people, ‘What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?’ They said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘Indeed ye have been in manifest error – ye and your fathers.’ sura 21, 52-54).” Muhammad is criticizing Muslims for worshiping an image. But, he does not explicitly criticize the image itself. It should noted that the Dutch cartoons that were created were images that were made outside of the context of worship, and could not be misconstrued as engendering idolatry.
Iranian Shi’a scholars, accept respectful depictions, and use illustrations of Muhammad in books and architectural decoration, as have Sunnis at various points in the past.
Many parts of the Muslim community reject images of Muhammad on the basis that they can lead to idolatry. This is where the worship of an image outweighs the worship of God himself. In the Muslim faith, the individual’s relationship with God and with his principles is more important than worshiping an image of Muhammad.
While it can be argued that it is OK and acceptable to show images of Muhammad, denegrating images of Muhammad are obviously not acceptable to the Muslim faith. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were hateful and insulting, and so are by no means tolerable within the Muslim faith.