TCJ ARCHIVE

Cartoons of Mass Destruction: The Whole Story Behind the Danish 12

In 2006, 12 Danish cartoonists controversially drew pictures of Muhammad at the urging of Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish weekly Jyllands-Posten. This news story from The Comics Journal #275 (April 2006) offers a multitude of perspectives — from cartoonists, Danes, Muslims, Danish Muslims — and is being rerun to help supply context for the Charles Hebdo killings.

Michael Dean and R.C. Harvey, with the assistance of Eric Millikin and Houria Kerdioui

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It’s not often that the Journal contemplates covering a lead story that has been pervasively covered in the mainstream press, but the Muslim backlash to editorial cartoons published in the Danish press has become not only the biggest comics-related news story since the last issue of the Journal, but possibly the biggest comics-related news story ever.

As a result, the Journal is in the rare position of reporting on events that can scarcely have escaped the attention of anyone on the planet. Readers are accustomed to finding the comics field covered in greater depth by the Journal than by other sources of comics news, especially mainstream media, but for once, we had to ask ourselves what the Journal, lacking a Middle Eastern or European bureau, could add to a story that seemed to have been pursued around the world from every conceivable angle.

Via television, newspapers, magazines, radio and the Internet, the publication of the cartoons and the wrath of offended Muslims were reported, the economies, cultural attitudes and immigration policies of Denmark, France and Europe in general were explored, the religious doctrine and history of Islam were explained and debated, Danes were profiled, Muslims were analyzed, and opinions were expressed, ranging from the need for calm and patience to the need for righteous execution and dismemberment. It was a story that could not help but perpetuate itself. Since the event was essentially a figment of the media to begin with, born in the pages of a newspaper, its very coverage — each new fair-use publication of the cartoons — engendered new stories, like aftershocks that spread and then rebounded upon themselves. The cartoons were so charged with power that most papers reported on them without reproducing them. But even that omission became news of a sort, evidence of a betrayal of free speech by those reticent papers and their host countries.

Ultimately, the story was like an out-of-control fire that only reached its limits when it was brought up against an even larger fire as extremist Muslim factions turned their rage on other Muslims in Iraq in a series of violent sectarian attacks. The cartoons were finally displaced from headlines by events that threatened to explode into a civil war in Iraq.

By that time, it seems safe to say that literally thousands of stories had appeared in the various media about those 12 Danish editorial cartoons and their repercussions. By and large, though, these stories tended to focus on updates of the latest riot or the latest public statement by a world figure, and when there was no news to cover, then a particular piece of tangential turf was staked out: How has Muhammad been depicted through the ages? What are Danish attitudes toward Arab immigrants? What does the local Imam think about it all?

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Coverage in the Middle East seemed to see the Danish cartoons as Western provocation, an insult on top of a history of injuries to the nation of Islam, and debate centered on whether to defend Muslim pride by violent or nonviolent means. In the West, there was disagreement over whether publication of the cartoons was an appropriate use or an inappropriate abuse of the principle of free speech, but, in its simplest formulation the conflict, as represented in the West, boiled down to one of free speech (however misguided) versus violence and religious censorship.

In considering what the Journal could add to such a massive media response, we realized that the one thing the Journal had that the other reports lacked was time and the perspective that comes with time. Whether simply updating events or focusing on some related angle, coverage of the Danish cartoons has been on the fly: a few paragraphs here, a few more there. As much as we each have been bombarded by the Danish cartoons story, we have inevitably been exposed to it in fragments. What the Journal has tried to do is assemble an overview and synthesis of the events of the story, as well as the many ways of looking at what it all means. Now that events directly related to the cartoons seem to have wound down, we can chart the arc of events that led up to and followed publication of the cartoons. We have also searched far and wide to collect in one place a range of voices interpreting and commenting from various perspectives on the cartoons and their aftermath. Finally, we have considered what these events have to tell us about the power of cartooning to capture and convey convictions and ideas, whether benign or dangerous. Twelve pictures — 12,000 words.

***

Though the story exploded in the media and in the streets early this year, it actually originated back in September when Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish weekly Jyllands-Posten, concluded that publishers were self-censoring themselves by observing Muslim religious taboos as to what can be shown and what cannot. Specifically, the matter was brought to Rose’s attention by the dilemma of publishers who were having a hard time finding illustrators willing and able to represent the prophet Muhammad in print. Muslim prohibitions against idolatry have been interpreted by some to forbid the rendering of any image meant to represent the prophet. Rose issued a challenge to 40 artists in Denmark to draw a cartoon featuring Muhammad. A total of 12 of them responded with a mix of lighthearted sketches and satirical comment.

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In the Feb. 13 Time, Rose explained: “In mid-September, a Danish author went on the record as saying he had problems finding illustrators for a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The [eventual] illustrator insisted on anonymity,” Rose continued, giving the reasons for the illustrator’s trepidation: “Translators of a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali Dutch politician who has been critical of Islam, also insisted on anonymity. Then the Tate Britain in London removed an installation called ‘God Is Great,’ which shows the Talmud, the Quran and the Bible embedded in a piece of glass.” He might also have mentioned the 1989 death threat against writer Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses. His Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed, the former, fatally; and his Norwegian publisher shot. And then there was the murder a year or so ago of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, killed by an Islamic fundamentalist for harshly criticizing fundamentalism.

“To me,” Rose went on, “all those spoke to the problems of self-censorship and freedom of speech, and that’s why I wrote to 40 Danish cartoonists asking them to depict Muhammad as they see him. Some of the cartoons turned out to be caricatures because this is just in the Danish tradition. We make fun of the Queen, we make fun of politicians, we make fun of more or less everything. Of course, we didn’t expect this kind of [violent worldwide] reaction, but I am sorry if some Muslims feel insulted. This was not directed at Muslims. I wanted to put this issue of self-censorship on the agenda and have a debate about it.”

Believing that self-censorship is as inhibiting to free speech as official censorship, Rose wanted “to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues.” The debate Rose hoped to start would, clearly, involve protesting the climate of intimidation that he saw surrounding Islamic concerns. In picturing Islam’s revered prophet, the 12 cartoonists who responded to Rose’s call couldn’t have done a better job of inflaming the Muslim population if that had been their intent. The traditions of Islam prohibit artistic representations of any of the prophets — whether Muhammad, Jesus, Moses or Abraham. In some of the strictest branches of Islam, not even the human form can be depicted.

Since the aim is to prevent idolatry, however, it would seem to be a prohibition directed specifically at good Muslims. Christians, for example, have had no compunction about representing Jesus in a multitude of forms and Muslims have never seen that as an offense in need of violent correction (though Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was banned in most of the Middle East because of the same prohibition against idolatry). Moreover, Islamic tradition on the matter is not as ironclad as some who have cited it as a reason for protesting the cartoons would have us believe. Muhammad has appeared through the centuries in hundreds of paintings, drawings and other imagery both in the West and in Islamic countries without a word of complaint in the Muslim world. Images of Muhammad and other sacred persons similar to Orthodox Christian icons are commonplace in Shi’ite communities, particularly in Iran.

In any case, idolatry can scarcely be an issue in the case of the Danish cartoons, which are far from idolizing their subject. It is in fact the very irreverence of the images that clearly accounts for much of the anger expressed by Muslims. From a certain perspective not entirely unfamiliar even in our own country, comics and cartoons have traditionally been considered comical and instruments of ridicule. Anything “cartooned” is therefore belittled, diminished, which, in the case of the prophet, is a highly blasphemous act. Beyond the generic defamation that being the subject of a cartoon might entail, some of the cartoons carried a satirical bite. Some of them played off the violence lately committed in the name of Islam. One shows Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with its fuse smoldering. In another, Muhammad stands on a cloud in Heaven, saying to newly arriving, freshly deceased suicide bombers, “Stop! Stop! We have run out of virgins!” In one, the cartoonist depicts himself at a drawing board, furtively drawing Muhammad. (One location where all 12 cartoons can be found.) Unflattering portrayals, no question, but hardly the first time unflattering pictures of the prophet have appeared in the West. As one blogger calling him—or herself Soj pointed out, such derogatory images have appeared in venues ranging from Dante’s Inferno to South Park without provoking “rioting, storming of embassies or CNN coverage.”Cartoon-6

 

Nor was there much outrage expressed initially to the Danish cartoons. At first, apparently the only objections to the cartoons came from the Danish Muslim community shortly after the publication of the 12 cartoons on Sept. 30. A peaceful demonstration involving 3,500 Muslims took place Oct. 14 in Copenhagen. The protesters, reacting to what they saw as a xenophobic, if not racist, expression of discomfort with the Muslim population in Denmark and a public equation of the Muslim religion with acts of terrorism, demanded an apology. The paper rebuffed the demand. Three days later in Egypt, the Cairo weekly newspaper Al Fagr published the cartoons, and three Egyptian magazines did the same — all to little effect, apparently. It wasn’t until Oct. 20 that an official objection surfaced, when the ambassadors in Denmark from 11 Muslim nations signed a letter of protest sent on that date to the Danish prime minister. The ambassadors requested a meeting, which Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen rejected, saying, “I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media — and I don’t want that kind of tool.”

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The newspaper initially refused to apologize, citing its longstanding policies: “We must quietly point out here that the drawings illustrated an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world. Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure — unconditionally!” Editor Carsten Juste added: “We live in a democracy. That’s why we can use all the journalistic methods we want to. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn’t set any barriers on that sort of expression. This doesn’t mean that we wish to insult any Muslims.” But, he concluded, “if we apologize, we go against the freedom of speech that generations before us have struggled to win.” At about the same time as the ambassadorial protest, an Islamic group called Holy Brigades in Northern Europe threatened terrorist retaliation.

The prime minister, while resolutely defending the independence of the Danish press, explained to the Muslim ambassadors that they were not without recourse. “Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of a blasphemous or discriminatory nature,” he wrote. “The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases.”

The embassies evidently applied to the courts on Nov. 1. A spokesman for the group said: “We have based our action on the article that the drawings were published alongside, and the intention of the article. We believe that it was the newspaper’s intention to mock and ridicule.”

By then, the Danish cartoonists were in hiding, having received death threats, and the Danish prime minister had introduced a bill to stiffen penalties for those convicted of threatening and harassing people who, in the exercise of their legal rights, make statements about such topics as religion.

On Nov. 19, a group of Danish Muslims announced an expedition to bring the cartoons to the attention of Muslims in the Middle East. The unofficial delegation made several trips to the Middle East in December to circulate a 43-page dossier on “Danish racism and Islamophobia.” They met with scholars, Arab League officials and senior clerics in Cairo and Beirut. The dossier contained the original 12 cartoons. But at least three other images had been added. Muhammad is seemingly depicted in one with a pig’s snout; in another, as a pedophile demon. A third cartoon showed a dog raping a praying Muslim. It was later revealed that the image with the pig’s snout was actually taken from a photo of a costumed participant in a pig-squealing contest at a French festival and had nothing to do with Muslims or Muhammad. Some pointed to this misrepresentation as evidence of a cynical conspiracy to foment outrage in the Muslim community. But it might also have been an honest mistake, since the additional images were included in the dossier because they had allegedly been sent to Muslims who had complained publicly about the original 12 in Jyllands-Posten. British Daily Telegraph correspondent Dennis Rennie interviewed the group’s 31-year-old leader, Ahmed Akkari, who denied that the inclusion of these extra cartoons was intended to exacerbate Muslim ire against the Danish newspaper: He maintained that the extra images were always expressly identified as not being among the cartoons the paper published. In the dossier, he said, they were separated from the original dozen by pages of letters and other contents and simply included as examples of racist images that were circulated in Denmark, thereby supplying “insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims.” Akkari said his hope was that the religious leaders to whom he showed the dossier would combine to bring international pressure to bear on the Danish government to apologize for the blasphemy committed in one of the nation’s newspapers.

The strategy was highly effective, at least in the Middle East. Following a regular Dec. 9 summit meeting in Mecca, the leaders of 57 Muslim nations issued a closing communiqué expressing “concern at rising hatred against Islam and Muslims and condemned the recent incident of desecration of the image of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in the media of certain countries” as well as “using the freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religion.” In Egypt where, ironically, the government had cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the weeks leading up to the national elections, the foreign minister branded the Danish cartoons a scandal and launched a multinational effort to prevent recurrence of such insults to Islam. In Iraq, a Shi’ite newspaper demanded an apology from Jyllands-Posten. In Pakistan, fundamentalists reportedly offered a reward of 500,000 rupees ($8,333) to anyone who killed the cartoonists.

The summit, according to Hassan M. Fattah writing in the New York Times, was “a turning point.” Anger at the images became more public, and in Middle East countries, government-controlled press coverage “virtually approved demonstrations that ended with Danish embassies in flames.” What was initially a popular “visceral reaction” provided the avenue to another objective: It gave autocratic Muslim governments a popular movement to sympathize with and to join in, hoping to “outflank a growing challenge from Islamic opposition movements.”

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In the first weeks of January, 2.5 million Muslims made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. It was an ideal venue for the rumbles of discontent over the cartoons to spread. By mid-January, Muslim anger had turned to fury and erupted, widespread and vicious. Protesters in the Arab streets were calling for beheadings and attracting the attention of television news cameras.

In response to the protests, a small Norwegian evangelical magazine called Magazinet reprinted the cartoons Jan. 10. Meanwhile in Denmark, a Jan. 11 poll of 1,047 readers by Jyllands-Posten showed 57 percent in support of the original cartoon publication and 31 percent opposed.

On January 26, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark, and Libya followed suit Jan. 29. According to Fattah, “Saudi clerics began sounding the call for a boycott, and within a day, most Danish products were pulled off supermarket shelves.” Fattah quoted a Cairo political scientist, who said: “The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists.” The fundamental Islamists were gaining in power because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and “the sense that Muslims were under siege.” Out of dissatisfaction with the status quo, Muslims who participated in elections were voting for Islamists and the established governments, by adopting an Islamist posture on the Danish Dozen, undoubtedly hoped to undercut the strenght of fundamentalist opposition.

***

Whether or not Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or Saudi rulers exploited outrage in the Arab streets for their own purposes, it’s clear that the protests had quickly moved beyond spontaneous demonstrations of popular opinion, and the culture war was perilously close to becoming a real war. In Beirut on Sunday, Feb. 5, Rory McCarthy of the Guardian reported, “heavily-laden coaches and mini-vans” drove down to the seaside Corniche and disembarked their passengers, “young, often bearded men who wore headbands and carried identical flags with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic such as, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet’ and ‘O Nation of Muhammad, Wake Up!’ There were soon as many as 20,000 of them filling the streets.” The crowd grew restive, then fierce, and before the day was over, they marched on the Danish embassy and set it ablaze. “Then,” McCarthy continued, “in the afternoon, as suddenly as it had all begun, it ended. The leaders of the mob turned to the angry young men beside them and told them it was time to leave. Obediently, the crowd thinned out and began walking back to the buses.”

Perhaps shaken by the magnitude of the backlash, Jyllands-Posten editors met with a moderate Muslim group in mid-January seeking a way to make peace. The Jan. 22 Brussels Journal quoted Muslim spokesperson Ahmed Akkari as saying, “ We want Jyllands-Posten to show respect for the Muslims. This can happen with an apology, but it can also happen in some other way. We will leave it to Jyllands-Posten to come up with some ideas.”

Editor Carsten Juste said, “It was a good and constructive meeting. We agreed that we need to find a solution.” On Jan. 30, gunmen briefly surrounded the Gaza office of the European Union demanding an apology. On the same day, Jyllands-Posten apologized on its website for any offense given to Muslims but stopped short of disavowing its decision to print the cartoons in the first place.

For most Muslims, it was too little, too late. In any case, round two was already heating up, as newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland expressed solidarity with Jyllands-Posten by reprinting the cartoons Feb. 1. The large Danish-Swedish dairy company Aria Foods told the BBC Feb. 2 that its sales in the Middle East had dropped to zero due to boycotts. Norway closed its mission to the West Bank Feb. 2 in response to threats from two militant groups. The Brussels Journal reported that Norway Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre issued an apology for publication of the cartoons by Magazinet in a statement that was e-mailed to Norwegian embassies.

Three of the cartoons were reprinted in Jordanian independent tabloid al-Shihan, along with an editorial by Jihad Momani, saying, “Muslims of the world be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?”

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Frank Streicher facetiously summed up events as of Feb. 2 for the Canadian website Halifax Live: “Furiously worded diplomatic letters start to arrive in Copenhagen, ambassadors are withdrawn by the boatload, Havarti is declared persona non grata in Saudi Arabia, and half the Middle East is occupied trying to find Danish flags to burn. In the end, all three of them get torched.”

There was a fresh outbreak of demonstrations in several European cities Feb. 3, most notably in London, where some 300 Muslim protesters marched from holy-day prayers at a central city mosque to the Danish embassy, where they burnt the Danish flag, threw eggs at the embassy building and held up signs reading “Exterminate those who insult Islam.” On the same day, according to a Reuters report by Per Bech Thomsen, Copenhagen Imam Abu Laban was more conciliatory in a speech to 1,000 Muslim worshipers, accepting the newspaper’s apology and promising that “25 million Muslims in this continent will never hijack Europe and Western civilization.”

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On Feb. 8, three people were killed during protests in Afghanistan, bringing the cartoon-related death toll there to 11. That same day, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo ran all 12 Danish cartoons and added several of its own, after a legal attempt by French Muslim organizations to block publication was rejected by a Paris court. The cover showed a mortified Muhammad saying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”

By Feb. 9, newspapers in 16 countries had supported the cause of free speech by running the Muhammad cartoons. The Parisian daily France Soir not only reprinted the Danish cartoons, it added one of its own depicting Muhammad beside Christian, Jewish and Buddhist holy figures, with the Christian god saying, “Don’t worry, Muhammad, we’ve all been caricatured here.” France Soir Managing Editor Jacques Lefranc was fired immediately by the paper’s owner, an Egyptian-born Catholic, but the staff stood by the paper’s position, running a front-page editorial the next day defending the right to free speech. Eric Fauveau, director general of France Soir’s publishing group Presse Alliance, was appointed to take over as interim managing editor, but he refused the appointment and resigned his position at Press Alliance, calling Lefranc’s dismissal “inopportune,” according to the BBC. Le Monde, the influential French daily, ran an editorial asserting that French law permitted religions to be “freely analyzed, criticized and even subjected to ridicule.”

Fairly soon, most papers that reprinted the cartoons enjoyed another benefit: increased sales. The circulation of France Soir, in financial straits and up for sale, increased by 40 percent on the day it published the cartoons, prompting some critics to speculate that publication of the cartoons had been a cynical stunt to increase the paper’s selling price. The Associated Press’s Jamey Keaten quoted the ironic remarks of Fouad Alaoui, the vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, who said: “Here’s some advice to those newspapers today facing ruin, bankruptcy or collapse: All you need to do is insult Muslims and Islam, and sales will get hot as blazes.”

Quoted in Le Monde Feb. 9, Jacques Chirac said, “I condemn all the obvious provocations that could dangerously arouse the passions,” and stressed the importance of safeguarding the security of French citizens abroad.

As of the beginning of February, only The New York Sun had reprinted the cartoons in the U.S. The Inquirer in Philadelphia decided to publish the most inflammatory image on Feb. 4. Editor Amanda Bennett said good journalism required them to publish, because, as the controversy persisted, people needed to know what the fuss was all about. She compared it to decisions in the past to publish photographs of the bodies of burned Americans hung from a bridge in Iraq and to the 1989 photograph of an artwork by Andres Serrano showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. “You run it because there’s a news reason to run it,” Bennett said. The day after the cartoon’s publication, a dozen Muslim protesters peacefully picketed the newspaper offices.

That same day, the entire editorial staff of the alternative weekly New York Press resigned over the publishers’ decision not to run the cartoons. In Texas, the Austin American-Statesman eventually ran one of the images. And so did the Daily Press in Victorville, Calif., and the Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyo., where the Muslim population is minuscule. Among television networks, ABC and Fox each showed one cartoon; NBC and CBS declined.

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In Algeria, according to the Feb. 13 Algiers La Tribune, the newspapers Essafir and Panorama and the Moroccan newspaper Le Journal Hebdomaire ran the cartoons. The editors were arrested Feb. 13 and the newspapers suspended. Journalists were also prosecuted for publishing the cartoons in Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Indonesia.

Egypt’s Mubarak and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued warnings and condemnations of the cartoons, but in the West, most European heads of state declined to weigh in on the subject. Not so, the U.S. A Feb. 3 Reuters report by Saul Hudson ran on the ABC News website under the headline “US backs Muslims in cartoon dispute” and quoted State Department spokesperson Kurtis Cooper as saying, “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” The following week, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice more or less reversed that position and blamed Iran and Syria for fomenting violent reactions among Muslims, saying, “Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes.”

Western businesses in Pakistan were literally in flames, as a series of violent protests tore through the country’s major cities in mid February. On Feb. 14, two people died and fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut were set on fire. Police detained 125 people, according to a report on Ireland Online. In Islamabad on the same day, police repelled a mob of 1,000 students with tear gas and water cannons after they invaded a residential enclave for embassy personnel. A total of 142 students who refused to disperse were arrested. Violence continued in Peshawar the next day, as 6,000 demonstrators took over a busy intersection, chanting, “Death to Denmark!” and burning Danish flags. Police broke them up with batons and tear gas. At the same time, 2,000 protesters gathered in the nearby town of Tank and set fire to music and video shops. One policeman was injured by gunfire, according to Ireland Online.

Back in Denmark, polls released Feb. 12 showed most Danes blamed the Danish Muslim organization that had visited the Middle East for the protests. Peter Skaarup, Deputy Leader of the Danish People’s Party called for an investigation of the group and its trip.

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There’s a perverse sort of pleasure in seeing the humble comics form drawing global attention, lowly cartoons awarded such enormous potency. A mid-February editorial cartoon by Jeff Stahler in the Columbia Dispatch showed a throng of people fleeing an angry man who was brandishing a sheet of paper and shouting, “I’ve got a cartoon & I’m not afraid to use it!” But some would say the conflagration the cartoons sparked owes more to the volatility of political and cultural conflicts between the values of the West and those of the Middle East. As the Feb. 2 New York Times quoted Rose as saying: “This is a far bigger story than just the question of 12 cartoons in a small Danish newspaper. This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society — how much does an immigrant have to give up and how much does the receiving culture have to compromise.”

Certainly the Danish 12 have been used to further an array of disparate ends, many of them having nothing to do with either free speech or Muslim dignity. For example, Rose hinted at some of the motives involved when he told The New York Times (Feb. 12), “People are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that is 5,000 miles away.” Though Denmark has had a relatively open immigration policy, it is not immune to the resentment that has been growing among European nations. The Danish People’s Party holds 13 percent of the seats in the Danish Parliament, partly on the strength of its resistance to immigration. A spokesperson for the party told The New York Times, the party was considering sponsoring a bill to freeze Muslim immigration.

Given that environment, the purity of the paper’s invocation of the principle of free speech is questionable. The West, after all, can hardly claim to have been a haven of boundless free expression, and Denmark is no exception. In April 2003, Jyllands-Posten had reportedly refused to publish cartoons about the resurrection of Christ on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny. In this country, Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, spotlighted the essential double standard by wondering whether an anti-Semitic cartoon or one showing the Pope in a compromising sexual position would have been tolerated in Europe the way the cartoons of the prophet were by those who published them. The perhaps comparable example of Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live might be cited as evidence on either side: The act provoked considerable outrage and calls for boycotts among her free-speech-loving Western audience, not to mention threats of violence — but on the other hand, no lives were lost or buildings burned.

Nor can those who waved the banner of Muslim religious tradition in response to the cartoons be considered entirely free of hypocrisy. As previously noted, there’s no reason to suppose that the prohibition against representing the prophets, intended as it was to safeguard against idolatry, should apply to non-Muslims. And there is ample evidence to suggest that it hasn’t been consistently applied even to Muslims. Jonathan Bloom, a historian of Islamic art at Boston College told the Christian Science Monitor Feb. 9, “In Iran in the 14th century and during the time of the Ottoman Empire, manuscripts often contained illustrations of him.”

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Michael Ryan, exhibition director for Ireland’s Chester Beatty Library, was quoted in the Feb. 4 Irish Times as saying, “The Sunni Muslims [who make up 90 percent of the Muslim population] in particular find the idea of an image depicting Muhammad extremely difficult.” But even if it’s allowed that exceptions to the prohibition are limited to certain historical periods or sectarian branches, the fact remains that images of the prophets, especially Jesus, have been commonly rendered and even caricatured in the West without inciting Muslim riots around the world. When a bobble-head Jesus can nod in the back window of a car, a caricatured prophet can’t be taken very seriously as grounds for Jihad.

So why have the Danish images turned out to be so infuriating to Muslims? It may well be that, given post-9/11 tensions and the economic pressures surrounding European immigration issues, the real problem with the cartoons was not so much their violation of Muslim religious taboos as their repeated linkage of the Muslim religion with terrorism. Imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen, a Danish convert to Islam told the Feb. 12 New York Times, “Blockhead right-wing politicians in this country are saying Islam is a terrorist religion, that our prophet is a con man, that we take their jobs and steal their women.”

The Feb. 9 Christian Science Monitor quoted Hartford Seminary Islamic Studies Professor Ingrid Mattson as saying, “These are racist depictions. They are deliberately offensive and are aimed at a minority that is already feeling marginalized.”

Pedersen told The New York Times that only five percent of Muslims in Denmark — immigrants from countries like Turkey Pakistan, Iran and Somalia — describe themselves as religious. He added, ominously, “Stigmatization of Muslims in this country risks turning the cliché of the radical Muslim into a reality.” But of course, the flip side is that real Muslims play into that stigmatization when they allow themselves to be turned into the cliché of the raging, dismemberment-threatening religious zealot. Apparently conscious of the potentially vicious circle, Muslims in Denmark have shown a strong preference for peaceable demonstration and compromise.

Rabiah Ahmed, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, told the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 9), “We are concerned that people are not responding the way the prophet Muhammad would want. He was the kind of person who would turn the other cheek if someone slapped him. He preached love and tolerance.”

Love and tolerance, however, were not what spread through the Middle East in the wake of the Dec. 9 summit meeting. The Danish cartoons, especially when combined with the deliberately vicious racism of the cartoons added to the folder by the Danish Muslims in their mission to the Middle East, could not help but stir up already existing resentments over the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if the aim of Jyllands-Posten was to show that fear of radical Muslim violence was restricting free expression in the West, then the angry Middle Eastern mobs and murderous vows have made that point far better than the 12 cartoons ever could have. Instead of being cowed by the violence, the Western press drew a line in the sand, and the public image of Muslims in Western countries has never been worse.

For the most extreme of Muslim zealots, those whose goal is not peaceful coexistence but a glorious Armageddon between the forces of Islam and the forces of Satan, the cartoons were an ideal tool for escalating hostilities. While that segment of the Muslim world may be a small minority, those Muslims in the Middle East who look to their religion for a restoration of political power and cultural dignity are a growing majority — a trend underscored by recent electoral results throughout the area. It was therefore in the political interest of even the most secular of Middle Eastern states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to publicly join in the condemnation of the cartoons.

The 12 cartoons were therefore used:

  • by the cartoonists themselves to express their particular points, as well as display their skills and bravery;
  • by free-speech advocates to rally the world to that cause;
  • by anti-immigration forces in Denmark and Europe, as well as garden-variety racists, to exacerbate resentment of foreigners;
  • by faltering print publications to increase revenue;
  • by politicians to score political points;
  • by Muslim extremists as an incitement to Jihad;
  • by Middle Eastern leaders as an inspiration for alliance with popular Islamic power bases;
  • by Muslims around the world as a target for their anger at being pushed around by the West for too long;
  • and even by some as an occasion for dialogue.

As for the U.S., its indecision about how best to exploit the crisis was evidenced by its initial impulse to win a few Muslim hearts and minds by condemning the cartoons followed by its subsequent seizure of the opportunity to point its finger at Iran and Syria (but not at Egypt and Saudi Arabia).

And somebody somewhere undoubtedly used the cartoons to get laid.

The Danish cartoons may clarify the limitations of one attribute of comics: the ability, ascribed to them by historians like Coulton Waugh, to communicate transparently and clearly across cultural and linguistic barriers. When the same cartoons can be used as symbols of both Muslim intolerance and intolerance of Muslims, it’s evident that they are as manipulable and subject to interpretation as any text. But ambiguous or not, there’s no denying what a powerful tool they have demonstrated themselves to be, even if much of that power rests in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps the best example of how cartoons can be a vessel for projected interests was in the cartoons contributed by Halifax Live, a website that claimed to be the only Canadian news source to run cartoons of Muhammad: Complaining it couldn’t afford the $12.05 syndication fee charged by the Danes, Halifax Live, ran its own cartoons consisting of blank white panels with captions like, “Mohammed loses his toque on Agricola Street during a blizzard,” and “The Prophet looking for 40 virgins in Halifax (during the same blizzard).”

A more personalized take on the Danish 12 by R. C. Harvey is available to subscribers to his website at RCHarvey.com. tcj

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Danes on the Danish Dozen

“What no one could have foreseen was the extent to which globalization has changed the way these things work.”

It’s not always easy to talk about free speech. One Danish scholar was worried that he could inflame the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad controversy, saying “I do not want to provoke people, on either side. There’s been enough of that.” One Danish cartoonist sought to minimize his professional ties with the artists out of fear that it might endanger other artists that they work with. One Danish-American worried that if the Journal published his name it could lead to reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists.

The closer the Journal got to the 12 cartoonists, all of whom are reportedly in hiding and under the protection of the PET (the Danish Secret Service), the more quiet people became. “I wouldn’t give [any of the 12 cartoonists’ contact information] to anybody, not even The Comics Journal,” said one Dane. “If those guys need anything right now, it’s to be out of the limelight.”

However, in late February a group of Danish-Americans, Danish artists and Danish scholars put their fears aside and talked to the Journal about the Muhammad cartoons, the political situation in Denmark, and where the world goes from here. They chose their words carefully.

Henrik Nielsen, a 41-year-old Danish-American computer programmer originally from Løkken, Denmark, hesitated before allowing the Journal to publish his name. After a moment’s thought, he relented, “I guess it’s OK. ‘Henrik Nielsen’ has to be only about the second most common name in Denmark.”

While Nielsen’s worry that Islamic terrorists might track him down based on his comments to a comics magazine may seem unusual, the type of violent anti-Dane protests that he has seen lately have been similarly unprecedented. “When you hear about the burning of your flag and huge protests around your embassy it opens your eyes to what Americans must feel to see that happen to their symbols,” Nielsen said. “It makes you scared because some people react violently because you express your opinion. I don’t think it’s something Denmark has ever seen. I’ve never been afraid to travel around the world with a [Danish] flag on my knapsack or whatever. But I’ve heard of a Danish colleague who claimed he was Finnish when he was traveling through Egypt.”

Nielsen worries about what the controversy has done to Denmark’s image. “As a Dane you always thought of yourself as friendly and humorous because you can laugh at anything, even yourself,” he explained. “You know the European soccer hooligans? The Danes were called the ‘roligans.’ ‘Rolig’ is Danish for ‘calm.’ We were like the ambassadors of fun and good will and suddenly you’re portrayed as demons and you’re hated and your flag is burned.”

Matthias Wivel, a Danish art historian conducting his PhD research at the University of Cambridge and also co-editor of the Danish journal of comics criticism, Rackham (www.rackham.dk), is similarly concerned about the damage to Denmark’s reputation.

“It’s been almost surreal,” Wivel told the Journal. “Most Danes are used to being a rather innocuous, well-liked people wherever we travel, and we also usually perceive ourselves as very open to the rest of the world. We are, for example, one of the countries that provides the most foreign aid per capita in the world. That anybody would want to burn our flag or our embassies is thus hard to grasp — until one starts thinking about it, which is what I think this situation has belatedly prompted.”

Wivel was not impressed with the cartoons. “With the exception of three or four of them, I think they are rather inferior cartoons,” he said. “The take on Islamism is pretty hackneyed, the jokes are largely quite stupid, and most of them are badly and uninspiringly drawn.”

“I think Jyllands-Posten were inconsiderate and boorish in publishing these cartoons as a single, unified, insulting statement, but am not sure the cartoonists themselves can be accused of anything else than trying their best to exercise their métier within the often rather limited scope of their talent.”

Wivel saw the cartoons as an attempt to inflame the anti-immigration sentiments simmering in Danish politics. “It should be stressed here that the decision by Jyllands-Posten to publish these cartoons more than likely was motivated by the political climate of Denmark, where Muslims are constantly the object of negative discourse, where immigration laws have developed to become the most draconian of the [European Union] and where there’s a lot of popular support for the kind of hard-line thinking that has prompted this development. It was an asinine, cheap shot at an already marginalized minority. Preaching to the choir, in other words. What no one could have foreseen was the extent to which globalization has changed the way these things work.”

Paw Mathiasen, owner of the major Danish comics publisher Fahrenheit (http://www.forlaget-fahrenheit.dk/) also believes that Jyllands-Posten was unnecessarily provocative. “They offended Danish Muslims — and later the rest of the Muslim world — in printing these cartoons,” he said. “In my opinion the newspapers are of course free to publish these cartoons, but for me it’s difficult to see the point in doing it that way. I also suspect the Danish newspaper for having a hidden agenda. It’s a notorious right-wing paper which for many years has been very critical to immigration from the Third, and especially the Muslim, World.”

While Wivel and Mathiasen agree with each other on the possible political motivations of Jyllands-Posten, not all of Denmark sees things the same way. “The population of Denmark are divided on this topic,” said Mathiasen. “The Danish PEN organization are divided, politicians who on other subjects share the same view are divided, comic-fans are divided and discuss it a lot on Danish message boards. Everybody is divided. Unfortunately the big winners in a crisis like this are political radicals among Danes and religious fundamentalists among Muslims.”

Per Jauert, associate professor in the Department of Information and Media Studies at the University of Aarhus, also sees right-wing politicians gaining from the controversy. “It’s obvious now what has happened over the last four or five weeks now has really given strength to the Dansk Folkeparti, the extreme right-wing party,” Jauert told the Journal. “I just saw a poll this morning telling that they had around 30 percent, a third, of the voters behind them now, meaning that they have grown around eight to 10 percent over the last five to six weeks.”

The Dansk Folkeparti, or Danish People’s Party, is currently the third largest party in Denmark’s multiple-party political system, behind the right-of-center Liberal Party of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the more leftist Social Democrats. While the far right makes gains, Jauert sees the controversy as a potential liability for Prime Minister Rasmussen.

“The Prime Minister likes to be seen as a tough guy and as a great statesman and he’s been now attacked for the way he handled the situation,” said Jauert. “There’s a growing awareness that if our Prime Minister had taken a meeting from 11 Islamic countries in October then he could have performed damage control without giving anything away or having to sell out of the principles of freedom of expression. On the one hand you have our prime minister who is very much in line with Jyllands-Posten; they are kind of fundamentalists in the way they look upon freedom of expression,” said Jauert. “And on the other hand you have one former foreign minister, Liberal foreign minister, [Uffe Ellemann-Jensen] who is in a huge, very tense opposition to his own party and to the present prime minister because he says that, ‘OK, you have a right to freedom of expression, but you have to use it carefully.’ And with that he’s in line with a lot of Social Democrats and people to the left, and intellectuals of different kinds saying that it’s OK to make cartoons and to be provocative, but it’s not OK to [direct them] at minorities. If you have to use cartoons and you have to be provocative, you should aim against the ones in power.”

Jauert also sees a positive: moderate Muslims joining the political process to make sure their voices aren’t lost during the controversy. “One of the more encouraging things that has happened recently is the establishing of a new association for moderate, more critical Muslims in Denmark wanting to integrate into the Danish society and be part of the Danish society, respecting the fundamental democratic rights in our society,” said Jauert.

Jauert found the cartoons to be relatively harmless, as long as they remained within a Danish context. “The general opinion [is that] they are considered harmless, well, compared to normal Danish standards,” he said. “There was humor in them also. The one who maybe went over the edge was the one with Muhammad with a bomb on his head … Most people considered them quite harmless but these were meant for a Danish audience and now the Danes have just to consider that you’re living in a globalized society and what you say here can have consequences in other continents as well.”

Frank Madsen, creator of the Kurt Dunder comics series and chairman of The Danish Guild of Professional Comics Writers and Artists (www.dansketegneserieskabere.dk), also saw little that was shocking about the cartoons, especially when compared to other Danish arts controversies. “Fifteen years ago a Danish artist [Jens Jørgen Thorsen] under much media coverage painted Jesus with a huge dick on the wall of a train station,” said Madsen. “And in the mid 1970s, a Danish comic book depicted the Dead Sea Scrolls as toilet paper and Jesus as a hippie. A few politicians protested, but most Danes did not make a great fuss about it, because we take pride in our sense of humor and do not like the mix of politics and religion.”

Madsen sees the Muhammad cartoons as part of Denmark’s long history of rebellious political cartooning. “There is a long healthy tradition in our country for cartoons to ridicule authorities, including religious ones,” said Madsen. “That stems from the mid 19th century, in the oppressive years just before democracy was introduced in our country, where cartoons were an effective way of undermining the king’s rule. Even today, the prime minister is drawn as a primitive caveman with a huge club in Politiken, the leading liberal newspaper, and the leader of his supporting party is portrayed as an angry, old harp lying in a pool of mud. No one takes offense, not even the prime minister. It is a part of the game.”

It was within this tradition of subversive political cartoons that some artists tried to subvert Jyllands-Posten’s project. “I know several of the cartoonists personally, and they are kind, tolerant people,” Madsen told the Journal. “One cartoon showed not the prophet Muhammad, but a dark-haired schoolboy, whose name was Muhammad and a blackboard behind him with a text written in Arabic: ‘The editors of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.’ Ironically, this cartoonist was one of the first to be forced underground by death threats, probably by someone who had not read the text or had not [caught] the irony and support of Muslims that the cartoonist tried to express.”

No matter their individual motivations or the content of their cartoons, all of the cartoonist’s lives have changed dramatically since the controversy erupted. “The Danish equivalent to the Secret Service has told the 12 to keep a very a low profile,” explained Madsen. “They are under heavy surveillance and have regular talks with the police about the security situation. I think it is a long and wearing situation for all of them.”

Danish-American cartoonist Henrik Rehr, who moved from Copenhagen to New York 12 years ago, also feels sympathy for the cartoonists. “I happen to know some of the cartoonists personally, so it’s hard for me not to feel terrible for them being in a situation where their lives are threatened,” Rehr told the Journal. “The controversy may have started with the cartoons, but they were only the spark that ignited a powder keg just waiting to explode. I suspect that most of the people protesting never saw the actual cartoons.”

Rehr’s own religious beliefs, or lack thereof, also influence his take on the cartoons: “I’m a hardcore atheist, so I think it would be fair to say that I’m not particularly sensitive to insults to any kind of deity or prophet. That said, the cartoons are not exactly incendiary, most of them are quite tame. Seen in the context of where they were published, Jyllands-Posten is a right-wing newspaper, the question is not so much the actual cartoons, but whether they were a test of free speech or a deliberate provocation of a minority. A bit of both, methinks.”

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Rehr sees the controversy as the product of years of friction between Denmark’s Muslim minority and far-right political elements. An extremely right-wing political party, Dansk Folkeparti, with a semi-racist platform, has steadily grown stronger, especially after 9/11, influenced the immigration policies and in my view pretty much poisoned the waters. I really think that a majority of Danish Muslims feel looked-down upon and regarded as second class citizens by too many Danes.”

— Eric Millikin

Muslims on the Danish Dozen

“This is not about free speech.”

Samer Kurdi (a Jordanian painter living in Seattle, who also works in the “tech sector”): What made me angry wasn’t so much that the cartoons depicted the prophet, or that they portrayed him (and by extension all Muslims) as a terrorist. The point of contention for me was the pretense that the republication of these cartoons was somehow a defense of free speech. You can say and publish many things that would offend or hurt many different groups, but a real demonstration of freedom of expression can only make sense in defiance of those who can shut your newspapers down; i.e. your own government.

As a Muslim, I felt that the constant republication of these cartoons was just about rubbing it in; the message: “We will insult Muslims not just in fringe journals but in ‘respectable’ mainstream media as well”. Publishing these cartoons suddenly became every second-rate newspaper’s cheap ticket to being relevant, the blue pill that was supposed to place them on the front lines of the battle for free speech. Why not? We live in an age where wars and battles have apparently become fashionable and Muslims the fashionable enemy. In the eyes of many Muslims, however, this was merely cheap posturing at our expense, and very few people in the west were prepared to call these journals and newspapers on it.

This is not about free speech. The real question is why insulting Muslims has become such a cheap proposition.

Hinde Dhiba (works in the Recruiting Department of a French Corporation based in Paris): I’ve seen the cartoons (some people didn’t want to see them), and it’s not a big deal, but it’s all about symbols. These cartoons use the Prophet, which represents a whole religion, a whole ideology. It’s not like drawing a random man. It’s true that there is freedom of speech, but freedom stops where respect for the other starts.

I condemn the fact that some people — who called themselves Muslims — take vengeance on innocent Danish people. It’s like doing the same thing as those who stigmatize Muslims. Reactions of some Muslims have been extreme with violence, but reaction of politics and media has been extreme, too, using more subtleties through media, cartoons. They never talk about the good aspects of the religion, there is a lot of positive about Islam, there is Sufism for example, and so on … but they always talk only about the worst. So Islam in France has a bad image, there is an anti-Islam feeling. There is a fear of Islam in France, where it’s the second religion, and in Europe.

It’s tiresome. Everybody asks us about this. Once again we have to explain and justify ourselves. It’s about time to understand that there are many, many Muslims. There is one Islam but there are many human beings with different levels of understanding and different ways of practicing.

Hafid Bouazzaoui (aeronautics technician, Eastern France): These cartoons really wounded Muslims, who were already overwhelmed by the majority of the media which see in each practicing person a potential terrorist. These drawings did nothing but add to the uneasiness and the lack of understanding that Muslims in Europe and in the rest of the world were already feeling.

After the legitimate reactions of protest in the world, they started to talk about freedom of speech. For my part, I would say that there is persecution of a group of people (Muslims), victims, on the one hand, of the extremists who terrorize the public, and, on the other hand, of the journalists (and cartoonists) who built their business on this same fear, and forget their first duty, which is above all to inform.

Jamal Rahman (A Seattle-based Muslim Sufi, he is currently co-minister at Interfaith Community Church of Ballard, director of Sacred Psychology School and adjunct faculty at Seattle University. He is the author of The Fragrance of Faith — the Enlightened Heart of Islam, recently published by the Book Foundation.): It does not require too much talent or skill to insult or to mock, to destroy, or to make profane what is sacred. What requires talent or skills is that which creates healing, peace, enrichment, ennoblement. So, to me, these cartoons really are more of an expression of a childish outburst of temper tantrum or rebelliousness. And … that’s OK, but it’s important that we recognize, when we encourage this, that we are exalting, glorifying what appeals to the basest in us to that which is undeveloped in us, to that which is basely egoistic within us. It has no redeeming value, no heart in it; it has no appeal to open up the mind, or the heart.

I’ve read some articles which said that it is very important for freedom of expression, and I believe very much in freedom of expression. But I believe that with it comes a responsibility. This, to me, has no level of responsibility at all. It’s totally unnecessary provocation. I find nothing too much valuable, meaningful in publishing this, and, to harp on it and say how important it is, it is missing the point.

I also think that there is a double standard. For example, I am a Muslim that believes in the security of Israel, who believes in a two-state solution in Israel, but I also noticed for example that in some Western places, if you deny the Holocaust, you are jailed. Like this historian that was given four years in Austria. Where is the freedom of expression there? So, I, as a Muslim, I am wondering if there is a double standard.

On the other hand the reaction of some Muslims, in indulging and engaging in violence is equally childish. It is also the expression of a childish temper tantrum and undeveloped reaction.

The Quran says: “Repel evil with something which is better so the person with whom you have enmity becomes your bosom friend”. Rumi, advising a Muslim who was feeling very insulted because Islam had been criticized, stated, “If Islam is as beautiful and spacious as the sky, if you believe that, then if somebody spits at the sky, it doesn’t make the sky dirty, and in fact the spit comes back to the person, so why are you so touchy, upset, reactive about this?”.

The timing for publishing, and republishing these cartoons is so inappropriate.

In Islam we say, it is one thing to rub salt in a hand, but if you rub salt in a hand that has open wounds, it is a very different feeling. Some Muslims already feel that they are under attack — true or perceived it doesn’t matter — this is how they feel. So when you have these cartoons that are like rubbing salt in a wound, you have a reaction which is very different.

People have done worse things about the Prophet. For example, Franklin Graham has said several times that “Islam is an evil and wicked religion.” Other Christian leaders … have said “Prophet Mohamed was a pedophile, a child molester,” such terrible things but that had not created riots in Muslim countries. These cartoons have, because the time is such that some Muslims are believing that the West is out to not only insult but to destroy Islam. They see it in what they perceive as the occupation of Palestine by Israel, the occupation of land in Iraq, the befriending of monarchs, and tyrants and dictatorships, where the Muslim population is being oppressed.

The West, the countries that support that, don’t care, so they see that the West says something about democracy but does something else. This time people are really fed up. That is why you find all these protests. It’s not only about the cartoons, it’s about something much greater than just a cartoon. They are feeling that their entire being is being destroyed, insulted, being trampled upon by people in the West who are non-caring, who are indifferent with their needs, but who call this freedom of press. They feel very wronged at this time. That’s why the reaction is totally out of proportion. These cartoons are just a spark that has created a fire of a lot of pent-up repressed anger of the past against the West.

Most Muslims I’ve met are upset about the cartoons, but are equally upset by the violence. They feel this is really pandering, catering again to the same feelings of the basest of the undeveloped part within us and Muslims are reacting the same way as those people who claimed to have freedom of expression. I found it a fairly fair expression of what is happening. I’ve met very few who are so angry that they said that the violence is OK. Ninety-nine percent said this violence is totally unacceptable.

Islam has no official organization in Islamic priesthood, and that’s a problem. There are lots of Muslim and imams who have protested and spoken against the violence but unfortunately, the one that shouts the loudest and the craziest are the ones picked up by the press actually. And no matter how much you tell the rest of the press about all those different people saying these things, they don’t listen to them.

There are all kinds of Islam. In so many different cultural areas, just like Christianity and Judaism, but the one picked by the press are only the ones that are the most conservative of the conservative. There are priests or people in Muslim countries who carry the violence, but the vast majority of Muslims are very peace-loving. The truth is that Muslims in the world are the poorest among the people in this world. The most illiterate, the most economically deprived, the most politically deprived. They don’t have time to debate and discuss all those theological subtleties and niceties, and they are too busy just trying to survive. That is not understood in the West, because they don’t have a lot of experience about those countries. All the experience they have is some fighting in Iraq, which is not religious, it’s political. How many Westerners know about real Muslim societies? Not many.

Islam has produced the largest amount of mystics. In this country the most widely read poet is Rumi. All his writing is about the inner meaning of the Quran. There is something very beautiful in Islam, which appeals to people who become very deeply spiritual. There are many, many mystics in Islam that have abounded proliferate in Islam, but most people don’t know that.

I lived in many Muslim countries and it is not true that they don’t have humor. Humor is very big, very much an integral part of Islam, like music is, laughter is, humor is, family is, friendship is. I would say from my experience more than in Western countries. People who are living in the most difficult circumstances, in poverty, have the most beautiful humor.

I feel that if you insult a religion it’s like a hate crime. I, as a Muslim, and most of the Muslims I’ve met, would be equally insulted if the same insult and mocking and making profane were done with Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, Krishna or any other religion. I would feel the same. Basic respect is lacking and it is not being socially or spiritually responsible.”

— compiled by Houria Kerdioui

Danish Muslims on the Danish Dozen

“In Danish we say ‘Nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something.’”

Dr. Tabish Khair, born into a Muslim family in India, is a poet, novelist and associate professor of English at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He elaborated on the situation that Danish Muslims face. “I think there is a feeling that Denmark has been much too anti-immigrant and even anti-Muslim and that it has been getting worse since the present government took charge,” Khair told the Journal. “Major Danish parliamentarians have made statements calling Muslims a ‘cancer’ in Danish society and such, and some very strange laws affecting personal freedoms have been put into place to stop immigration. Denmark is known to be among the two or three most strongly anti-immigration countries of Europe, and currently the most rightist of Nordic lands. Plus, Muslims still do not have a separate graveyard or an official mosque in Denmark, even though they account for about 4 percent of the population.”

Khair believes that some of the shock that Danes felt upon seeing the protests can be traced back to the government’s handling of the situation. “The Danish government largely kept us in ignorance of how the issue was building up elsewhere until it all went out of hand in late January,” explained Khair. “It now appears that various groups in Denmark and international bodies — even, according to Indian newspapers, non-Muslim governments such as the Indian government — had expressed sadness or outrage as early as October and asked the Danish government to take serious steps to resolve the controversy. Instead, the government put the blame on a handful of Copenhagen imams and even now most Danes seem to believe as if these imams are the only reason why the matter went out of hand. Danes are very upset at their flag being burned and embassies attacked; the media discourse appears to have focused a bit less on the fact that the people killed have all been Muslim protesters.”

Khair warns against oversimplifying the controversy. “People are talking across each other or willfully seeing only one side of the story,” said Khair. “Also, on both sides, we have a degree of fetishization: ‘freedom of expression’ as an abstraction and the ‘sacred’ as an abstraction. … Anyone who comes up with facile quips, fighting slogans and needless provocation on either side is being very irresponsible. We can properly discuss the real issues only when we get back to showing some mutual decency.

Like Khair, Cüneyt Pala also straddles both the Danish and the Islamic worlds. Pala, a co-founder of the Danish comics magazine Free Comics (www.freecomics.dk), was born and raised in the Muslim culture of Ankara, Turkey, before moving to Denmark in his early 20s. “My mother is very religious, but she doesn’t mind praying in a church if there aren’t any mosques around,” explained Pala. “My father became more and more religious after he turned 60.”

Pala hopes that these cartoons can help the Western and Islamic worlds understand each other, and tries to maintain his sense of humor during the controversy: “In Danish we say ‘Nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something.’ Although a negative focus on not only Danish cartooning but everything that is Danish caused many people to now know that Denmark exists and it is not, as some thought, the capital of Norway. The same goes for the Western world that learned a little more about Muslims and their prophet. I only hope the anger and pride of the sides will soon fade so that we can use this new knowledge to build a better future.”

— Eric Millikin

Cartoonists on the Danish 12

Garry Trudeau (quoted in the Feb. 7 San Francisco Chronicle):

I may not agree with [an editor’s] reasons for dropping any particular [Doonesbury] strip, in fact, I usually don’t, but I will defend their right and responsibility to delete material that they feel is inappropriate for their readership. It’s not censorship; it’s editing. Just because a society has almost unlimited freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should ever stop thinking about its consequences in the real world.

Ann Telnaes (on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation Feb. 9):

I have a little bit of trouble with people that are talking about, you know, where is the line in editorial cartoons? An editorial cartoon, by its very nature, is very provocative. [T]here are countries that an editorial cartoonist will be arrested for something that he draws just because people don’t like being offended. So, I have a little bit of a problem with saying that there has to be a line where an editorial cartoon will stop, because I think that’s a very slippery slope. … I do quite a few cartoons on Sharia law, because it has to do with women and equality. That’s Islamic law, and is that going to be off limits? I guess I just don’t really understand who’s going to make these lines.

Art Spiegelman (quoted in the March 6 issue of The Nation):

There has to be a right to insult. You can’t always have polite discourse. Where I’ve had to do my soul-searching is articulating how I feel about the anti-Semitic cartoons that keep coming out of government-supported newspapers in Syria and beyond. And, basically, I am insulted. But so what? These visual insults are the symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

Tom Hart (to the Journal):

It’s a bunch of hotheaded oppressed people howling and screaming. It has little to do with the cartoons. … I think few of them are really cartoons — This has bothered me. They are all caricatures, and as such, say very little. A political cartoon, I think, says something. One or two caricatures were dumb and offensive, but there’s a long history of dumb, offensive cartoons. To say these couple went too far is silly.

Joe Kubert (in a press release):

[Political cartoons] are one of the most powerful forms of communication. Censorship would be a mistake. It would give any religious group veto power over the cartoons — or writings, or speeches — of its opponents. … Western leaders need to say clearly that while Muslims may find the cartoons offensive, the violent response to the cartoons is absolutely unacceptable. Establishing the ground rules for how to conduct a civilized debate, not searching for ways to appease the angry mobs, should be our goal. Surely we must strive to live in a world governed by reason and civility rather than one in which cartoonists or their editors must fear for their lives.

Joe Sacco (quoted in the March 6 issue of The Nation):

“I think maybe the idiot cartoonist should feel a need to be a little more self-censoring, when it comes down to it, but a thinking cartoonist weighs what he or she is doing. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about these Danish cartoons. In the end, yes, there is a principle about the freedom of expression that concerns me, but I’m always sorry to have to rush to the defense of idiots.”

Tim Kreider (to the Journal):

My reaction is at least fourfold: 1) Professional jealousy. I’ve been trying to cause a furor every week for years and so far nothing. Now these Danish cartoonists draw some unfunny pictures of Muhammad and the world is calling for their heads. American Christian Fundamentalists must be a bunch of sissies. All they ever do is call for boycotts. 2) Secret delight that cartoons are actually making headline news instead of ineffectually commenting on it for the first time in over a century. 3) Incredulous horror that people are actually getting killed over silly pictures. 4) The exasperated wish that religious fundamentalists would get over it and catch up with the freaking Enlightenment already.

I think their intention was to insult and provoke outrage, in a pretty stupid and obvious and puerile way. … In principle, I don’t object to mocking religious fundamentalists of any faith, who are the stupidest and meanest people on the planet, but going out of your way to insult a people who have already felt themselves insulted, oppressed and impoverished for the last thousand years just seems gratuitous and unsporting. Nonetheless, I am hard-liner on the issue of freedom of speech and support the right of any cartoonist to print spiteful, wrongheaded and mediocre work.

I just wish religious people would get used to being offended. I’m offended by almost everything I see and hear every day. This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society: being constantly offended by other people’s stupid and wrong opinions. … But it’s also only fair to keep in mind that the media only shows us the most fanatical extremes of any group — this is a matter of lazy journalism, sensationalism, ratings. We always see angry chanting flag-burning fanatics as though they represented the whole of Islam, just as the only Christians we ever hear about are fag-bashing Creationist dingbats. My mother provides health care and builds schools in Guatemala with the Methodist church. She doesn’t make headlines.

Lynn Johnston (quoted in the Feb. 20 Atlanta Journal-Constitution):

They’re simply hate literature. … If something is that thoroughly blasphemous, it’s unfair and promoting violence and mistrust. There’s no point in doing it.

Ted Rall (in his Feb. 7 blog at tedrall.com):

[That] the cartoons were offensive to the point that they crossed the line [is] an impossibility as far as I’m concerned, but then I make my living because of freedom of the press.

Bruce Tinsley (on WISH TV Feb. 17):

I wish [the American news media] had been that sensitive and caring back when newspapers and other media outlets did stories that offended Christians.

Daryl Cagle (to the Journal):

The perception of the Danish Muhammad cartoons as “political cartoons” is chilling to real political cartoonists who are suddenly perceived as ticking time-bombs that can explode at any time. Unless we defend our funny little drawings with the same zeal that we see from the victims of our irreverence, we’ll continue to see our freedoms constricted by the loud voices of those we offend.

— compiled by Eric Millikin, R.C. Harvey and Dirk Deppey

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3 Responses to Cartoons of Mass Destruction: The Whole Story Behind the Danish 12

  1. george steinke says:

    I seem to remember a long, spirited thread at the erstwhile TCJ messageboard concerning this little bit of history, with many interesting takes on the issues in question from many intelligent people. I know all the sniping and trolling that eventually became the norm at the board –and eventually became the most-cited reason for letting it slip into oblivion– was also present. But that being said, to not have at the very least archived it for times such as this, when such varied opinions, viewpoints and the debates between them could not have been more relevant or valuable, strikes me as just a cosmic shame. Seriously, how hard could it have been?

  2. steven samuels says:

    “I seem to remember a long, spirited thread at the erstwhile TCJ messageboard concerning this little bit of history,”

    Is this the thread you were referring to?

  3. george steinke says:

    Sorry for the delay –and no, I remember the thread in question to be titled something very basic, like “The Danish Cartoon Controversy”. Maybe Wayback will have it, maybe not, but even if it does, it’s likely to be missing pages. I thank you for the effort, but I’ve tried to use this trick before to recover old TCJ threads, and it never fails to disappoint.

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