The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy began after twelve editorial cartoon]s, 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'. Further examples of the cartoons were soon reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries, further deepening the controversy.
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, all together), including setting fire to the Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, storming European businesses and desecrating the Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and German flags in Gaza. 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.
Some critics of the cartoons described them as Islamophobic or racist, and argued that they are blasphemous to people of the Muslim faith, are intended to humiliate a Danish minority, or are a manifestation of ignorance about the history of Western imperialism.
Supporters have said that the cartoons illustrated an important issue in a period of Islamic terrorism and that their publication is a legitimate exercise of the right of free speech, explicitly tied to the issue of self-censorship. They claim that Muslims were not targeted in a discriminatory way since unflattering cartoons about other religions (or their leaders) are frequently printed. They question whether some of the riots were spontaneous outpourings as they took place where no spontaneous demonstrations are allowed, and whether the images of Muhammad per se are offensive to Muslims, as thousands of illustrations of Muhammad have appeared in books by and for Muslims.
- 1 Descriptions of the drawings
- 2 Timeline
- 2.1 Debate about self-censorship
- 2.2 Publication of the cartoons
- 2.3 Danish Prime Minister's meeting refusal
- 2.4 Judicial investigation of Jyllands-Posten
- 2.5 Danish Imams tour the Middle East
- 2.6 Jyllands-Posten response
- 2.7 Reprinting in other newspapers
- 2.8 Economic and social consequences
- 2.9 Further police investigations (2006 - 2007)
- 2.10 Anniversary flare-up (September 2006)
- 2.11 February 2008 death threat and resultant reprinting
- 2.12 Danish troops in Afghanistan threatened
- 2.13 Yale University Press self-censorship
- 2.14 January 2010 Westergaard incident
- 3 Opinions and issues
- 3.1 Danish journalistic tradition
- 3.2 Muslim tradition
- 3.3 Associating Islam with terrorism
- 3.4 Islamism and accusations of xenophobia
- 3.5 Allegations of "agendas"
- 3.6 Alleged political correctness
- 4 Comparable references
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Descriptions of the drawings
Some of the cartoons can be difficult to understand fully for those who do not know certain Danish language metaphors or are not aware of individuals of note to the Danish public. Furthermore, certain cartoons have captions written in Danish, and one is written in Persian.
Debate about self-censorship
On 17 September 2005, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran an article under the headline "Dyb angst for kritik af islam" ("Profound anxiety about criticism of Islam"). The article in Politiken was the basis of a Ritzau telegram from the day before written by journalist Troels Pedersen. The article by Ritzau discussed the difficulty encountered by the writer Kåre Bluitgen, who was initially unable to find an illustrator prepared to work with Bluitgen on his children's book Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv (English: The Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad ISBN 87-638-0049-7). Three artists declined Bluitgen's proposal before one agreed to assist anonymously. According to Bluitgen:
One [artist declined], with reference to the murder in Amsterdam of the film director Theo van Gogh, while another [declined, citing the attack on] the lecturer at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute in Copenhagen.
The refusal of the first three artists to participate was seen as evidence of self-censorship and led to much debate in Denmark, with other examples for similar reasons soon emerging. Comedian Frank Hvam declared that he would (hypothetically) dare to urinate on the Bible on television, but not on the Qur'an.
Publication of the cartoons
On 30 September 2005, the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten ("The Jutland Post") published an article entitled "Muhammeds ansigt" ("The face of Muhammad"). The article consisted of twelve cartoons (of which only some depicted Muhammad) and an explanatory text, in which Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor, commented:
The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him. [...]
After the invitation from Jyllands-Posten to about forty different artists to give their interpretation of Muhammad, twelve caricaturists chose to respond with a drawing each. Many also commented on the surrounding self-censorship debate. Three of these twelve cartoons were illustrated by Jyllands-Posten's own staff, including the "bomb in turban" and "niqabs" cartoons.
On 19 February, Rose explained his intent further 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.
In October 2005, the Danish daily Politiken polled thirty-one of the forty-three members of the Danish cartoonist association. Twenty-three said they would be willing to draw Muhammad. One had doubts, one would not be willing because of fear of possible reprisals and six cartoonists would not be willing because they respected the Muslim ban on depicting Muhammad.
Danish Prime Minister's meeting refusal
Having received petitions from Danish imams, eleven ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries asked for a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on 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". In a letter, the ambassadors mentioned not only the issue of the Muhammad cartoons, but also a recent indictment against Radio Holger, and statements by MP Louise Frevert and the Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen. It concluded:
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.
The government answered the ambassadors' request for a meeting with Rasmussen with a letter only: "The freedom of expression has a wide scope and the Danish government has no means of influencing the press. However, Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of blasphemous or discriminatory nature. The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases."
The ambassadors maintained that they had never asked for Jyllands-Posten to be prosecuted; possibly, the non-technical phrase of the letter, "to take NN to task under law", meant something like "to hold NN responsible within the limits of the law". Rasmussen replied: "Even a non-judicial intervention against Jyllands-Posten would be impossible within our system".
The Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aboul Gheit, wrote several letters to the Prime Minister of Denmark and to the United Nations Secretary-General explaining that they did not want the Prime Minister to prosecute Jyllands-Posten; they only wanted "an official Danish statement underlining the need for and the obligation of respecting all religions and desisting from offending their devotees to prevent an escalation which would have serious and far-reaching consequences". Subsequently, the Egyptian government played a leading role in defusing the issue in the Middle East.
The refusal to meet the ambassadors has been criticized by the Danish political opposition, twenty-two Danish ex-ambassadors, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen.
Judicial investigation of Jyllands-Posten
On 27 October 2005, a number of Muslim organizations filed a complaint with the Danish police claiming that Jyllands-Posten had committed an offence under section 140 and 266b of the Danish Criminal Code.
- Section 140 of the Criminal Code, known as the blasphemy law, prohibits disturbing public order by publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark. Only one case has ever resulted in a sentence, a 1938 case involving an anti-Semitic group. The most recent case was in 1971 when a program director of Danmarks Radio was charged, but found not guilty.
- Section 266b criminalises insult, threat or degradation of natural persons, by publicly and with malice attacking their race, color of skin, national or ethnical roots, faith or sexual orientation.
On 6 January 2006, the Regional Public Prosecutor in Viborg discontinued the investigation as he found no basis for concluding that the cartoons constituted a criminal offence. His reason is based on his finding that the article concerns a subject of public interest and, further, on Danish case law which extends editorial freedom to journalists when it comes to a subject of public interest. He stated that, in assessing what constitutes an offence, the right to freedom of speech must be taken into consideration. He stated that the right to freedom of speech must be exercised with the necessary respect for other human rights, including the right to protection against discrimination, insult and degradation, but no apparent violation of the law had occurred. In a new hearing, the Director of Public Prosecutors in Denmark agreed.
Danish Imams tour the Middle East
Two imams who had been granted sanctuary in Denmark, dissatisfied with the reaction of the Danish Government and Jyllands-Posten, created a forty-three-page document entitled "Dossier about championing the prophet Muhammad peace be upon him." This consisted of several letters from Muslim organisations explaining their case including allegations of the mistreatment of Danish Muslims, citing the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (including the false claim that said publication was a government-run newspaper) and also supplementing the following causes of "pain and torment" for the authors:
- Pictures from another Danish newspaper, Weekendavisen, which they called "even more offending" (than the original twelve cartoons);
- Hate-mail pictures and letters that the dossier's authors alleged were sent to Muslims in Denmark, said to be indicative of the rejection of Muslims by the Danish;
- A televised interview discussing Islam with Dutch member of parliament and Islam critic Hirsi Ali, who had received the Freedom Prize "for her work to further freedom of speech and the rights of women" from the Danish Liberal Party represented by Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Appended to the dossier were multiple clippings from Jyllands-Posten, multiple clippings from Weekendavisen, some clippings from Arabic-language papers and three additional images which also had no connection with Denmark. The imams claimed that the three additional images were sent anonymously by mail to Muslims who were participating in an online debate on Jyllands-Posten, and were apparently included to illustrate the perceived atmosphere of Islamophobia in which they lived. On 1 February BBC World incorrectly reported that one of them had been published in Jyllands-Posten. This image was later found to be a wire-service photo of a contestant at a French pig-squealing contest in the Trie-sur-Baise's annual festival. One of the other two additional images (a photo) portrayed a Muslim being mounted by a dog while praying, and the other (a cartoon) portrayed Muhammad as a demonic paedophile. Equipped with the dossier, the two imams circulated it throughout the Muslim world, presenting their case to many influential religious and political leaders, asking for support.
The dossier contained such statements as the following:
- We urge you [recipient of the letter or dossier] to — on the behalf of thousands of believing Muslims; to give us the opportunity of having a constructive contact with the press and particularly with the relevant decision makers, not briefly, but with a scientific methodology and a planned and long-term programme seeking to make views approach each other and remove misunderstandings between the two parties involved. Since we do not wish for Muslims to be accused of being backward and narrow, likewise we do not wish for Danes to be accused of ideological arrogance either. When this relationship is back on its track, the result will bring satisfaction, an underpinning of security and the stable relations, and a flourishing Denmark for all that live here.
- The faithful in their religion (Muslims) suffer under a number of circumstances, first and foremost the lack of official recognition of the Islamic faith. This has led to a lot of problems, especially the lack of right to build mosques [...]
- Even though they [the Danes] belong to the Christian faith, the secularizations have overcome them, and if you say that they are all infidels, then you are not wrong.
- We [Muslims] do not need lessons in democracy, but it is actually us, who through our deeds and speeches educate the whole world in democracy.
- This [Europe's] dictatorial way of using democracy is completely unacceptable.
The inclusion in the dossier of the cartoons from Weekendavisen was possibly a misunderstanding, as these were more likely intended as parodies of the pompousness of Jyllands-Posten's cartoons than as comments on Muhammad in their own right. They consist of reproductions of works such as the Mona Lisa (caption: For centuries, a previously unknown society has known that this is a painting of the Prophet, and guarded this secret. The back page's anonymous artist is doing everything he can to reveal this secret in his contribution. He has since then been forced to go underground, fearing for the wrath of a crazy albino imam). This is a parody of the Da Vinci Code.
At a 6 December 2005 summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, with many heads of state in attendance, the dossier was handed around on the sidelines first, and eventually an official communiqué was issued, demanding that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark.
In response to protests from Muslim groups, Jyllands-Posten published two open letters on its website, each of them in a Danish and an Arabic version. The second letter, dated 30 January 2006, 21:31 Danish time (Danish version) and 21:44 (English version), also has an English version:
(…) Serious misunderstandings in respect of some drawings of the Prophet Mohammed have led to much anger (…) Please allow me to correct these misunderstandings. On 30 September last year, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten published 12 different cartoonists’ idea of what the Prophet Mohammed might have looked like. (…) In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.
On 26 February 2006, the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard 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.
Reprinting in other newspapers
In 2005, the Muhammad cartoons controversy received only minor media attention outside of Denmark. Six of the cartoons were first reprinted by the Egyptian newspaper El Fagr on 17 October 2005, along with an article strongly denouncing them, but publication did not provoke any condemnations or other reactions from religious or government authorities. Between October 2005 and the end of January 2006, examples of the cartoons were reprinted in major European newspapers from the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium and France. Very soon after, as protests grew, there were further re-publications around the globe, but primarily in continental Europe.
Notable for a lack of republication of the cartoons were most major newspapers in Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom, where editorials covered the story without including them. Several newspapers were closed and editors fired or arrested for their decision or intention to re-publish the cartoons, including the permenant shutting down of Sarawak Tribune, a 60 year old Malaysian newspaper. In Wales, Tom Wellingham, a student newspaper editor at Cardiff University, was suspended after publishing the caricature in Gair Rhydd, the Students' Union paper.
A consumer boycott was organised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (led by MP Waleed AlـTabtabaie), and other Middle East countries. For weeks, numerous demonstrations and other protests against the cartoons took place worldwide. Rumours spread via SMS and word-of-mouth. On 4 February 2006, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set ablaze, although with no injuries. In Beirut, the Danish Embassy was set on fire, leaving one protester dead. The Danish embassy in Tehran was also torched. Altogether, at least 139 people were killed in protests, most due to police firing on the crowds, mainly in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Several death threats and reward offers for killing those responsible for the cartoons were made, resulting in the cartoonists going into hiding. Four ministers have resigned amidst the controversy, among them Roberto Calderoli and Laila Freivalds. In India, Haji Yaqoob Qureishi, a minister in the Uttar Pradesh state government, announced in February 2006 a cash reward of Rs 51 crore (roughly about US$11 million) for anyone who beheads "the Danish cartoonist" who caricatured Muhammad. Subsequently, a case was filed against Haji Yaqoob Qureishi in the Lucknow district court in Uttar Pradesh and demands were made for his dismissal by eminent Muslim scholars in New Delhi. Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State of the United States accused Iran and Syria of organizing many of the recent protests in Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
On 9 September 2006, the BBC News reported that the Muslim boycott of Danish goods had reduced Denmark's total exports by 15.5% between February and June. This was attributed to a decline in Middle East exports by approximately 50%. "The cost to Danish businesses was around 134 million euros ($170m), when compared with the same period last year, the statistics showed." However, the Guardian newspaper in the UK also reported, "While Danish milk products were dumped in the Middle East, fervent rightwing Americans started buying Bang & Olufsen stereos and Lego. In the first quarter of this year Denmark’s exports to the US soared 17%."
Further police investigations (2006 - 2007)
- The French/Algerian journalist Mohammed Sifaoui secretly filmed Ahmed Akkari, spokesman for the group of Danish Imams that toured the Middle East, in conversation with Sheikh Raed Hlayhel (head of the 2nd delegation), speculating that if MP Naser Khader ever became a minister, that two men would show up and have him and his ministry bombed. Ahmad Abu Laban was also filmed talking about a man who wants "to wreak absolute havoc" and "wants to join the fray and turn it into a Martyr operation right now." Akkari initially denied the remarks, then argued he was only joking. Both men were investigated, but no charges were brought.
- Police in Berlin overwhelmed Amer Cheema, a student from Pakistan, as he entered the office building of Die Welt newspaper, armed with a large knife. Cheema admitted to trying to kill editor Roger Köppel for reprinting the Muhammad cartoons in the newspaper. On 3 May 2006, Cheema committed suicide in his prison cell. Cheema's family and Pakistani media claim he was tortured to death. 30,000 people attended Cheema's funeral near Lahore.
- Two suitcase bombs were discovered in trains near the German cities of Dortmund and Koblenz, undetonated due to an assembly error. Video footage from Cologne train station, where the bombs were put on the trains, led to the arrest of two Lebanese students in Germany, Youssef el-Hajdib and Jihad Hamad, and subsequently of three suspected co-conspirators in Lebanon. On 1 September 2006, Jörg Ziercke, head of the Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Police), reports that the suspects saw the Muhammad cartoons as an "assault by the West on Islam" and the "initial spark" for the attack, originally planned to coincide with the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany. One of the suspects, Youssef el-Hajdib, was arrested heading to Denmark. Police found the phone number of Abu Bashar, the leader of the Danish Imams' first cartoon-related delegation to the Middle East, in Hadjib's pockets. Abu Bashar denies knowing al-Hajdib.
- A protest demonstration in London on 3 February 2006 resulted in four young British Muslim men being sentenced to four to six years prison each for attempting to incite murder and terrorism.
- On 2 October 2007 during the ongoing trial of four terror suspects arrested in Denmark, known as the Vollsmose case, one of the accused testified that Jyllands-Posten culture editor Flemming Rose was the target of a terror bombing the group had planned. According to the suspect, they were considering sending a remote-controlled car packed with explosives into the private residence of the editor. Threats were also allegedly made towards Danish MP Naser Khader, who defended the publication of the cartoons.
Anniversary flare-up (September 2006)
One year after the publication of the original cartoons, a video surfaced showing members of the Danish People's Party's youth wing engaged in a contest of drawing pictures that insult Muhammad. Publicity surrounding the contest led to renewed tension between the Islamic world and Denmark, with the OIC and many countries weighing in. The Danish government condemned the youths, and those who were depicted in the video went into hiding after receiving death threats.
Two weeks into this episode, a Danish artists' group, "Defending Denmark", claimed responsibility for the video and said it had infiltrated the Danish People's Party Youth for 18 months claiming "to document (their) extreme right wing associations".
A few days later, a new episode surfaced when a member of the Social-liberal youth movement stated that members of the movement had also drawn pictures of Muhammad during a weekend meeting. Unlike the Danish People's Party Youth's drawings, this episode was not condoned by the youth movement, but was done by individuals.
February 2008 death threat and resultant reprinting
On 12 February 2008, Danish police arrested three men (two Tunisians and one Danish national originally from Morocco) suspected of planning to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the Bomb in the Turban cartoon. Shortly afterwards, the Dane was released without charge; the two Tunisians were not charged either, but expelled to Tunisia. Despite this, Westergaard has since been under police protection. He has said he is angry that a "perfectly normal everyday activity [drawing political cartoons] which I used to do by the thousand was abused to set off such madness."
The next day, 13 February 2008, Jyllands-Posten, and many other Danish newspapers including Politiken and Berlingske Tidende, reprinted Westergaard's Bomb in the Turban cartoon, as a statement of commitment to freedom of speech. The liberal newspaper Politiken had been critical of the original publication of the cartoons, but reprinted this one now as a gesture of solidarity in the face of a specific threat.
In Denmark, some public disturbances with burnt-out cars and a school set ablaze have followed these events, but the police are unsure if it is directly related to the cartoons controversy or the fact that the two Tunisians were subsequently sentenced to deportation without a trial. Other sources claim the riots in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, which started before the arrests, were wholly unrelated to the cartoons controversy, and were rather set off by police harassment of ethnic minorities in areas of Copenhagen. Some disturbances had occurred already in the days preceding the arrests. Peaceful demonstrations were held in Copenhagen after Friday prayers, with the flags of Hizb ut-Tahrir prominent.
On 19 February 2008, "Egypt banned editions of four foreign newspapers including the New York-based Wall Street Journal and Britain's The Observer for reprinting the controversial Danish cartoons criticizing the Prophet Muhammad". The events culminated on 2 June 2008 with an attempt to blow up the Danish embassy in Pakistan.
Danish troops in Afghanistan threatened
In October 2008, Ekstra Bladet published excerpts from an interview with Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi  saying Danish troops in Oruzgan Province are a "primary target" of the Taliban because of the cartoon issue, adding the Danes would be forced to leave Afghanistan.
Yale University Press self-censorship
In August, 2009, officials at Yale University Press decided to expunge reproductions of the cartoons along with all other images of Muhammad from a scholarly book entitled The Cartoons that Shook the World, by professor Jytte Klausen. News of the decision sparked criticism from some prominent Yale alumni as well as from the American Association of University Professors. Yale defended its rationale by saying it feared inciting violence if the images were published. Flemming Rose, the cultural editor who commissioned the cartoons, has described Yale's action as "[giving] in to intimidation... not even intimidation but an imagined intimidation".
The images of Muhammad censored by Yale were published in the 2009 book Muhammad: The "Banned" Images.
January 2010 Westergaard incident
On 1 January 2010, Danish police shot and wounded a man at the home of Kurt Westergaard in Aarhus. Westergaard drew the best known of the cartoons, which depicted the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The man was described as a 28-year-old Somali linked to the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia. He reportedly shouted in broken English that he wanted to kill Westergaard, who alerted police after locking himself into a panic room in the house, which was a specially fortified bathroom. Police said that the man was "armed with an axe and a knife in either hand", and broke down the entrance door of the house with the axe. The man attempted unsuccessfully to break down the door of the panic room while shouting swear words. He was shot in his right leg and left hand after reportedly throwing the axe at a police officer who arrived at the scene.  His five-year-old granddaughter was present in the living room of the house during the incident, but neither Westergaard nor his grandchild was harmed. Bomb disposal experts searched the home in order to ensure that a device had not been planted. The Somali man was carried into court on a stretcher to face two charges of attempted murder, which he denied. He was not named as the result of an injunction in the Danish courts. A spokesman for al-Shabab, Sheikh Ali Muhamud Rage, commented: "We appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet Mohammed and we call upon all Muslims around the world to target the people like him."
Opinions and issues
Danish journalistic tradition
Freedom of speech was guaranteed in law by the Danish Constitution in 1849, as it is today by The Constitutional Act of Denmark of 5 June 1953. It is defended vigorously, although it was suspended during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II. Freedom of expression is also protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Danish newspapers are privately owned and independent from the government, and Danish freedom of expression is quite far-reaching, even by Western European standards. In the past, this has provoked official protests from Germany for Denmark allowing the printing of neo-nazi propaganda, and from Russia for "solidarity with terrorists" following the World Chechen Congress held in Denmark in 1999. The organization Reporters Without Borders ranked Denmark at the top of its Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2005.
Religion is often portrayed in ways that some other societies may consider illegal blasphemy. While Jyllands-Posten has published satirical cartoons depicting Christian figures, it also rejected unsolicited surreal cartoons in 2003 which depicted Jesus, opening them to accusations of a double standard. In February 2006, Jyllands-Posten also refused to publish Holocaust denial cartoons offered by an Iranian newspaper. Six of the less controversial entries were later published by Dagbladet Information, after the editors consulted the main rabbi in Copenhagen, and three cartoons were in fact later reprinted in Jyllands-Posten. After the competition had finished, Jyllands-Posten also reprinted the winning and runner-up cartoons.
Owing to the traditions of aniconism in Islam, the majority of art concerning Muhammad is calligraphic in nature. The Qur'an condemns idolatry, and pictoral forms are seen as ostensibly close to idol worship. These are found in Ahadith [plural of Hadith]: "Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created."
Within Muslim communities, views have varied regarding pictorial representations. Shi'a Islam has been generally tolerant of pictorial representations of human figures, including Muhammad. Contemporary Sunni Islam generally forbids any pictorial representation of Muhammad, but has had periods allowing depictions of Muhammad's face covered with a veil or as a featureless void emanating light. A few contemporary interpretations of Islam, such as some adherents of Wahhabism and Salafism, are entirely aniconistic and condemn pictorial representations of any kind. The Taliban, while in power in Afghanistan, banned television, photographs and images in newspapers and destroyed paintings including frescoes in the vicinity of the Buddhas of Bamyan (which they also destroyed).
Prohibition against insulting Muhammad
In Muslim societies, insulting Muhammad is considered one of the gravest of all crimes. Some interpretations of Sharia, in particular the relatively fringe Salafi (Wahabi) group, state that any insult to Muhammad warrants death.
However, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has denounced calls for the death of the Danish cartoonists. OIC's Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu stated in a press release:
The Secretary General appeals to the Muslims to stay calm and peaceful in the wake of sacrilegious depiction of Prophet Muhammad which has deeply hurt their feelings. He has stated that Islam being the religion of tolerance, mercy and peace teaches them to defend their faith through democratic and legal means.
Associating Islam with terrorism
Many Muslims have explained their anti-cartoon stance as against insulting pictures and not so much as against pictures in general. According to the BBC:
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.
Why is the insult so deeply felt by some Muslims? Of course, there is the prohibition on images of Muhammad. But one cartoon, showing the Prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, extends the caricature of Muslims as terrorists to Muhammad. In this image, Muslims see a depiction of Islam, its prophet and Muslims in general as terrorists. This will certainly play into a widespread perception among Muslims across the world that many in the West harbour a hostility towards – or fear of – Islam and Muslims.
Islamism and accusations of xenophobia
Fundamentalist Islam has recently been characterized as a problem in Europe, while disillusionment with multiculturalism is on the rise in Denmark. This was further fuelled by Mullah Krekar stating that "the number of Muslims is expanding like mosquitoes." The UNCHR Special Rapporteur, on the other hand, saw xenophobia and racism in Europe as the root of the controversy, particularly singling out Denmark.
Allegations of "agendas"
Agendas in the West
Some commentators see the publications of the cartoons and the riots that took place in response, as part of a coordinated effort to show Muslims and Islam in a bad light, thus influencing public opinion in the West in aid of various political projects, for example to support further military intervention in the Middle East.
The controversy was used to highlight a supposedly irreconcilable rift between Europeans and Islam - as the journalist Andrew Mueller put it: "I am concerned that the ridiculous, disproportionate reaction to some unfunny sketches in an obscure Scandinavian newspaper may confirm that ... Islam and the West are fundamentally irreconcilable" - and many demonstrations in the Middle-East were encouraged by the regimes there for their own purposes. Different groups used this tactic for different purposes, some more explicitly than others: for example anti-immigrant groups, nationalists, feminists, classical liberals and national governments.
Muslim critics have also accused the West, in particular the EU, of double standards in adopting laws that outlaw Holocaust denial. Denmark, along with Britain and Sweden, have particularly libertarian traditions concerning Holocaust denial and pressed for wording in a recent EU legislation that would avoid criminalizing debates about the Holocaust and would ensure that films and plays about the Holocaust would not be censored.
Alleged Zionist agenda
Among others, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed a "Zionist conspiracy" for the row over the cartoons. Palestinian Christian diplomat Afif Safieh, then the Palestine Liberation Organization's envoy to Washington, alleged the Likud party concocted the distribution of Muhammad caricatures worldwide in a bid to create a clash between the West and the Muslim world.
Islamist or Middle East regime agendas
Other commentators see Islamists jockeying for influence both in Europe and the Islamic Umma, who tried (unsuccessfully) to widen the split between the USA and Europe, and simultaneously bridge the split between the Sunnis and the Shia.
Regimes in the Middle East have been accused of taking advantage of the controversy, and adding to it, in order to demonstrate their Islamic credentials, distracting from their failures by setting up an external enemy, and "(using) the cartoons [...] as a way of showing that the expansion of freedom and democracy in their countries would lead inevitably to the denigration of Islam." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a Holocaust Conference, supported by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), to uncover what he called the "myth" used to justify the creation of Israel. Ahmadinejad started voicing doubt about the veracity of the holocaust at the same OIC conference in Mecca that served to spread the Akkari-Laban dossier to leaders of the Muslim world.
Alleged political correctness
Critics of political correctness see the cartoon controversy as a sign that attempts at judicial codification of such concepts as respect, tolerance and offense have backfired on their advocates, "leaving them without a leg to stand on" and in retreat again:
The issue will almost certainly lead to a revisiting of the lamentable laws against "hate speech" in Europe, and with any luck to a debate on whether these laws are more likely to destroy public harmony than encourage it. Muslim activists are finding out why getting into a negative-publicity fight is as inadvisable as wrestling with a pig: You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.
Numerous comparisons have been offered in public discourse comparing earlier controversies over freedom of speech and art with the controversy that surrounded the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Some examples include:
- Snow White and The Madness of Truth (installation, 2004, Sweden)
- Sinéad O'Connor (Saturday Night Live performance, 1992, United States)
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