In the past year, two protagonists of the cartoon controversies of the naughts passed away. The Dane Kurt Westergaard, who drew the infamous image of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, died in July from long-standing illness, while the Swedish artist Lars Vilks (1946–2021), who among other things drew the face of the Prophet on the body of a dog, was killed in a car accident on 3 October, along with two police officers assigned to protect him against attacks. Written shortly after Westergaard’s death, the following article focuses in part on his career and work, but also engages the more fundamental issues of multiculturalism, blasphemy, and free expression to which the two artists contributed.
* * *
They did not get him. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist behind the most consequential editorial cartoon ever—that of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban—died quietly on 14 July after several years of illness. It could have been otherwise. As the man behind the most notorious of the twelve history-making cartoons published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, he was on several jihadi hit lists and lived most of the last decade and half of his life under round-the-clock police protection.
No less than three plots against his life were recorded by Danish intelligence services. The most dramatic happened on New Year’s day 2010 when a Somali man pleading allegiance to the East African terrorist organization al-Shabaab tried to force his way into Westergaard’s home wielding an axe and a butcher knife. The cartoonist escaped by leaping into a bespoke panic room and calling the police. His five-year old granddaughter was left in the living area, but the assailant was apprehended before he could cause any physical harm.
Westergaard’s death provides an apposite occasion to examine his career and especially the cartoon that came to define it: the ‘Bomb in the Turban’—an image that has attained almost totemic power through the events it helped set in motion (see TCJ’s coverage from 2006 here). A trail of blood has been left in the wake of its publication: the dozens of people killed during the worldwide protests, riots, church- and embassy-burnings that followed in 2006; the eight people killed and the many more wounded in the 2008 bombing of the Danish embassy in Islamabad; the 12 people gunned down by Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in and around the offices of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo in 2015; and French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded in the street by a Chechen jihadist in 2020 for having shown cartoons of the Prophet in a class on freedom of speech.
Westergaard’s cartoon continues to arouse feelings of such intensity that it is hard to fathom that we are, in Robert Crumb’s oft-repeated words, only looking at lines on paper. Most major media outlets will not publish it, even when there are sound journalistic reasons for doing so, mostly over concern for their staff. Indeed, no major Danish media reproduced the Bomb in the Turban after Westergaard’s death. And whether out of conscience, concern, fear, or a combination, the vast majority of cartoonists and artists today would refrain from drawing the Prophet.
Arguably, this state of affairs has left a void for the cartoon to be appropriated and exploited by ideologues across the spectrum, notably of course by jihadists and Islamists as well as right-wing populists and extremists, but far beyond those groupings it has come to stand for the marginalization if not oppression of Muslims in and by the West while simultaneously fueling anti-immigration sentiment and anti-Muslim bigotry. It has also become a particularly potent symbol of the challenges to freedom of expression faced today even in democratic, liberal societies.
Westergaard was born in 1935 and grew up in a village in the comparatively remote countryside region of Himmerland. He had vivid memories of the German occupation of Denmark and the internment in his hometown of Russian POWs. The severe influence in his community of the Pietist-Lutheran church of Inner Mission helped instill in him a strong skepticism of religion. He trained and worked for several decades as a schoolteacher, notably as the principal of a special needs school, before switching careers to become a cartoonist at Jyllands-Posten in 1983.
He was thus a veteran at the paper when editor Flemming Rose asked him to draw the likeness of the Prophet for a feature on critical and satirical treatments of Islam. This was prompted by international reports of self-censorship and reluctance among artists, comedians, writers, and curators to engage the topic for fear of violent reprisal. The most notorious precedents were those of author Salman Rushdie, who had been living under a fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989, which offered a bounty for his murder for the “blasphemous” content of his novel The Satanic Verses (1988), and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had been murdered by a jihadist in the streets of Amsterdam in 2004 because of a short film on the abuse of women in Muslim contexts.
According to Westergaard, the cartoon was just another job delivered on short order, the way you must as an editorial cartoonist. Depending how you look at it, it was a lucky punch or an exceptionally unfortunate one: his career thitherto had consisted of stiffly rendered and rather pedestrian political satire and kitschy ink and watercolor illustration. No one would have expected a cartoon of such simplicity and assertiveness from him. It was clearly an inspired moment, motivated by strong sentiment.
Westergaard came from a modernist, left-leaning and liberal school of thought locally described as ‘cultural radicalism’ that preaches tolerance and pluralism and is highly skeptical of any form of authority, whether the state, organized religion or anything else. In the '60s and '70s, however, this movement became increasingly dominated by Marxist and communist ideas, which never appealed to him.
Jyllands-Posten, for its part, represents a conservative, at times reactionary point of view founded in provincial communities, much like the one Westergaard grew up in, set in opposition to more urbanized parts of the country. At the time of its publication of the twelve cartoons, the paper was strongly critical of immigration, particularly from Muslim-majority countries, and thus part of an increasingly severe discourse on the subject advanced politically by the far-right Danish People’s Party. The latter was not in government but acted as a crucial constituent of the center-right coalition of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, which had taken the unprecedented step of joining the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The publication of the feature on the Prophet Muhammad was thus par for the course at Jyllands-Posten, part and parcel of its tough stance on immigration and the cultural integration of Muslims in Denmark. Several of the cartoonists were critical of this agenda and satirized it in their contributions - one depicted not the Prophet but a seventh-grader named Muhammad who has written on a blackboard in Farsi “the editorial team at Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs”. Two others satirized the promotional windfall the feature was for Kåre Bluitgen, the author whose publicly professed inability to find an illustrator for a children’s book on the Prophet had helped inspire Rose to commission the cartoons. In fact, at most only seven of the twelve cartoons can be said to portray the Prophet and, of those, only four or perhaps five do so critically (see my 2006 analysis here).
Of these, it was Westergaard’s that seared its way into the public consciousness and came to represent them all. The reasons why are apparent: in contrast to most of the others, it does not rely on local context but is rather a simple image that packs a polemic punch.
We see a man of dark complexion with a black beard and what may or may not be an angry look in his eyes. His turban is superimposed by a cartoon-style bomb with a lit fuse. Nothing explicitly states that this is an image of the Prophet, but we may infer it from the title of the feature, “The Face of Muhammad”, and from the fact that the Muslim declaration of faith, the Shahadah, is written in Arabic calligraphy on the bomb: “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
Based on Muhammad’s words as related in a number of hadith, the vast majority of practicing Muslims avoid depicting God or the Prophet. However, Islamic law on idolatry and image-making was invoked much less in the published reactions to the cartoons from Muslims and Muslim authorities than was the perception that they were disrespectful. Regarding the Bomb in the Turban, the element that has caused the most offense is the link it establishes between the Prophet—and therefore Islam—and violence. Westergaard emphasized again and again that he never meant to implicate all Muslims, merely point to the obvious fact that violence is being committed and rationalized in the name of the Prophet, but the drawing clearly remains open to accusations of bigotry, which no doubt is at the root of its notoriety.
An attenuating factor here is the fact that Westergaard tapped into the Orientalist stereotype of the angry Muslim - a trope with a centuries-long lineage in Western art and one that attained wide currency during the era of modernization and Empire in the 19th century. Islam and the ‘Orient’ were exoticized with spectacular images of bazaars, oases, harems and slave markets, and Muslims were associated blatantly with the baser passions of sex and violence. Images of turban-clad, scimitar-wielding Arabs threatening lily-white and often scantily clad European women and the like found an enthusiastic audience on both sides of the Atlantic and this pernicious stereotype persists to this day. The Bomb in the Turban thus trades in fraught imagery and may be seen as xenophobic, and—in the expanded meaning of the word’s common usage today—racist.
This is where things get complicated, however. The cartoon idiom relies on the simplification of form, and notably physiognomy, while the genres of humor and satire to which it has always been wedded are similarly dependent on the distillation of character traits and the accentuation of conflict—that is, on a certain level of stereotyping—for their ability to elicit laughter and make their points with clarity and efficacy. The satirical cartoon turbocharges this dynamic, relying at a fundamental level on causing offense against its target. It therefore inevitably risks affront beyond it. The impact of even the subtlest satire is almost invariably blunt.
Regardless of their motivations, it is indisputable that Jyllands-Posten proved a point with the feature. The reactions to it demonstrated that when writers, comedians and illustrators in Denmark were censoring themselves regarding Islam, their concerns were grounded in dangerous reality. And Westergaard’s cartoon captured with frightening accuracy the ethos of those extremists who would murder over drawings. They hit a nerve.
The most commonly advanced Western counterargument to this is that satire should speak truth to power, that it should ‘punch up’ rather than down. Jyllands-Posten and Westergaard have routinely been accused of violating this ideal, and if we look solely at the Muslim minority population of Denmark—already vilified in political and social discourse—such criticism has validity. What the cartoon crisis reminded us of, however, is that such publication today is never merely local and that power relations change in a globalized context.
Furthermore, the ‘punching-up’ argument is less credible in the face of extremists ready to suppress violently ideas they disagree with, especially when they are backed by recognized religious and political authorities. Infamously, as was the case with the fatwa against Rushdie, similar measures resurfaced in the wake of the Muhammed cartoons in 2006 with rewards offered for the cartoonists’ lives by the Pakistiani imam Maulana Yousaf Qureshi and the Indian politician Haji Yakub Qureshi. Less directly, but no less troubling, was the tacit sanction that same year by authorities in some Muslim-majority countries of violent demonstrations, notably in Tehran and Damascus, which culminated in attacks against and the destruction of several European embassies.
More fundamentally, if one of the major religions of the world, with its over 1.4 billion followers, is not a legitimate target, the very notion of satire is meaningless. And where would the suppression of such criticism leave minorities-within-the minority, such as Muslims opposed to the reigning religious orthodoxy of their particular communities? In connection with publishing the Muhammad cartoons, for instance, newspapers were closed in Jordan, Algeria and Malaysia, with journalists sued and jailed, but the issue is much more fundamental: the curtailment of freedom of expression tends to hurt the weakest disproportionately, and majority-minority distinctions are ever shifting and always dependent on context.
Westergaard, Rose and others have maintained that the cartoon, and the feature in general, were primarily a critique of religion. Viewed in such a framework, the Bomb in the Turban polemicizes aspects of Islam in ways more sophisticated than the surface reading of it as a bigoted image founded entirely in stereotypes.
As a portrait, it depicts Muhammad as the rebel and warrior who achieved the unification of the Arab tribes and the creation of a state in part through violence, as narrated in the maghazi subset of the biographical sirah literature. It also reflects the many passages in the Koran and hadith that proscribe principles and law in the stark language of prohibition, sanction and punishment - the same passages used by some to justify violence. It is unquestionably a one-sided portrait, and it can be accused of partaking in deeply problematic, essentialist discourse seeking to characterize the religion as inherently violent, but it is at the same time founded in truths about the historical figure of Muhammad and his words.
On a deeper level, the cartoon holds up a mirror to the Western viewer. Its obvious use of Orientalist cliché is as much a reflection of Western prejudices as it is a caricature of aspects of Islam. As much a view of the Islam created by Western imperialism and discrimination as it is of the violence perpetrated by Muslims. Simultaneously racist and a portrait of racism. An image of the Prophet and of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Westergaard’s legacy, for better or worse, is this: the most consequential satirical cartoon ever. It demonstrates the power of images to move, enrage and inspire, but also their fundamental unruliness. No one could have predicted the volatile exposure of political and cultural fault lines occasioned by the Jyllands-Posten feature, and the pathologies of the widely varied and often-contradictory interpretations of the cartoons remind us both of the fundamental ambiguity of images and our enduring urge to control them. Westergaard has now left the rest of us to worry about that.