The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy began after twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad, were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. The newspaper announced that this publication was an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship.
Danish Muslim organizations, who objected to the depictions, responded by holding public protests attempting to raise awareness of Jyllands-Posten's publication. The controversy deepened when further examples of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries.
This led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds (resulting in more than 100 deaths, altogether), including setting fire to the Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, storming European buildings, and desecrating the Danish, Norwegian and German flags in Gaza City. While a number of Muslim leaders called for protesters to remain peaceful, other Muslim leaders across the globe, including Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas, issued death threats. Various groups, primarily in the Western world, responded by endorsing the Danish policies, including "Buy Danish" campaigns and other displays of support. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark's worst international crisis since World War II.
The debate surrounding this controversy is oriented around a number of questions. Were these 12 cartoons Xenophic, Islamophobic, or racists in intent? Were they blasphemous to people of the Muslim faith and intended to humiliate and harm a Danish minority? If so, does this make them illegal in Danish law and elsewhere in the world? Were the cartoons an appropriate exercise in free speech? Are such exercises worth it even if they are costly to trust between groups and in terms of lives? What is the value of free speech? Have these cartoons stimulated an important and valuable debate and dialogue about the relationship between Islam and the West, and particularly Muslim minorities living in the West? Has it increased understanding and tolerance, or has it decreased it? Is criticism of the cartoons based on a double standard? Are similarly denigrating cartoons made about the Christian, Jewish, and other faiths, making it unfair for Muslims to complain? Should Muslims or any group be offered distinct and unique protections under the law that help combat the specific vulnerabilities of a group.
The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were legal. On October 27, 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, relating to blasphemy and degrading insults. On 6 January 2006, however, the Regional Public Prosecutor in Viborg discontinued the investigation as he found no basis for concluding that the cartoons constituted a criminal offense. 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. The Director of Public Prosecutors in Denmark agreed.
The cartoons violated Danish blasphemy and degradation laws. On October 27, 2005, a number of Muslim organizations filed a complaint with the Danish police claiming that Jyllands-Posten had committed an offense under section 140 and 266b of the Danish Criminal Code.
Section 140 of the Criminal Code, known as the blasphemy laws prohibits disturbing public order by publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark.
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.
The "bomb in turban" cartoon was aimed at extremists, not Islam generally. On February 26, the cartoonist who had drawn the "bomb in turban" picture, the most controversial of the twelve, explained: There are interpretations of it [the drawing] that are incorrect. The general impression among Muslims is that it is about Islam as a whole. It is not. It is about certain fundamentalist aspects, that of course are not shared by everyone. But the fuel for the terrorists’ acts stem from interpretations of Islam. [...] if parts of a religion develop in a totalitarian and aggressive direction, then I think you have to protest. We did so under the other 'isms.
The Muslim world has presented an image of itself that is partly to blame for the Muhammad cartoons. In Iraq, the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, decried the drawings but did not call for protests. Al-Sistani suggested that militant Muslims were partly to blame for distorting Islam's image. In the United Arab Emirates, the periodical Al-Ittihad published an opinion piece which argued that, "The world has come to believe that Islam is what is practiced by Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and others who have presented a distorted image of Islam. We must be honest with ourselves and admit that we are the reason for these drawings."
The "Bomb in Turban" addresses parts of Islam that inspire terrorism There are elements of Islam and the Quran that do inspire violent acts and that are used by terrorists as fuel for their acts. The "Bomb in Turban" cartoon was meant by its author as a representation of the elements of Islam and the Quran that act in this way to inspire terrorism. While this is not meant to indict Islam in general. Rather, it is simply meant to highlight the parts of the Quran and Islam that do give fuel to terrorists.
The Danish cartoons only unveiled an inevitable clash of civilizations. The Danish cartoons did not create a clash and conflict. Rather, they simply unveiled a deep seated and inevitable clash of civilizations that would have been brought to the surface regardless of whether the Danish cartoons had been published.
Cartoonists were helping integrate Muslims into Dutch culture of religious satire by bashing Islam. On February 19, Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor, commented in the Washington Post. "The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims."
The Muhammad cartoons have stimulated an international xenophobic, free speech competition. Hamshahri, Iran's largest newspaper announced that it would hold an "international cartoon contest about the Holocaust" in reaction to the images. The paper's graphics editor said, "The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let's see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons".
The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were damaging to inter-faith harmony. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 12 October 2005, in order to discuss what they perceived as an "on-going smearing campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims" - "We deplore these statements and publications and urge Your Excellency’s government to take all those responsible to task under law of the land in the interest of inter-faith harmony, better integration and Denmark's overall relations with the Muslim world."
The "Bomb in Turban" cartoon wrongly associated Islam with terrorism One of the most famous Danish cartoon depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The obvious implication of this cartoon was that Islam somehow inherently fosters terrorism. This is offensive, insulting, and degrading. "It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims."
The Jylands-Posten cartoons created an international impression of Denmark as Xenophobic. Whether or not one believes that the cartoons were appropriate, the truth is that it stimulated an international impression of the Danish people as a xenophobic and potentially hateful. Or, at least, is has created an impression of the Danish people as the instigators of the international upheaval that resulted from the publishing of these cartoons; upheaval in which nearly 100 people died. Regardless of the justifications, that Denmark and its people are seen as the instigators of this all reflects poorly on them. The Denmark based 'Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network' said "the cartoons among others things identified Islam with terrorism, (this) can only increase the xenophobia and racism that these populations are already victims of in Europe. Furthermore, this kind of image contributes to discrediting entire countries and their populations."
The Quran does not explicitly prohibit images of Muhammad. It prohibts idolatry, but not explicitly visual representations of Muhammad. It reads, "Behold! he said to his father and his people, 'What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?' They said, 'We found our fathers worshipping them.' He said, 'Indeed ye have been in manifest error - ye and your fathers.' sura 21, 52-54)." Muhammad is criticizing Muslims for worshiping an image. But, he does not explicitly criticize the image itself. It should noted that the Dutch cartoons that were created were images that were made outside of the context of worship, and could not be misconstrued as engendering idolatry.
Many Muslim groups tolerate images of Muhammad. Iranian Shi'a scholars, accept respectful depictions, and use illustrations of Muhammad in books and architectural decoration, as have Sunnis at various points in the past.
Images of Muhammad are forbidden because they lead to idolatry. Many parts of the Muslim community reject images of Muhammad on the basis that they can lead to idolatry. This is where the worship of an image outweighs the worship of God himself. In the Muslim faith, the individual's relationship with God and with his principles is more important than worshiping an image of Muhammad.
Even if images of Muhammad are acceptable, hateful images are not. While it can be argued that it is OK and acceptable to show images of Muhammad, denegrating images of Muhammad are obviously not acceptable to the Muslim faith. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were hateful and insulting, and so are by no means tolerable within the Muslim faith.
Publishing images of Muhammad helps combat self-censorship. Self-censorship is a major concern, particularly in relation to coverage of Islam, where journalists avoid coverage of a particular subject area because it is seen as too contentious and potentially risky for them, their careers, and even their lives. The Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were published explicitly to combat this problem. It read, "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."
Argument: Jyllands-Posten cartoons have led to the curtailment of free speech. Free speech in countries around the world has been curtailed since the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy broke. Newspapers and governments have increasingly constrained the ability of journalists to publish images of Muhammad in any form (even very mild forms). This is an unfortunate step backwards for free speech.
Argument: Religious people must be tolerant of criticism in a modern democracy. In a modern democracy, religious faiths must be open to criticism. The state cannot and should not protect faiths from criticisms, even harsh ones, assuming that these criticisms do not go so far as to incite violence (hate crimes). To cry out against the publishing of images depicting Muhammad is to be intolerant of religious criticism.
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 you 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. [...]"
The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons stimulate debate and understanding. Some Muslims, mainly in Europe, have supported the re-publication of these cartoon images so that individual Muslims can make up their own minds and welcomed the debate on the issues that that cartoons have raised. This debate raises important and valuable questions about what is appropriate and what is not in a Western democracy today. It raises positive questions about how we can, as Muslims and people of other faiths, get along at a higher level.
No exercise in free speech that results in deaths can be justified. It is reported that in the international violent protests that resulted from the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, that more than 100 people died. Regardless of whether the violent protests were justified, it is clear that they were a reaction to and result of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.
The cartoons were an exercise in hate, rather than free, speech. Louay M. Safi, scholar and Muslim American leaders argued that the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were an exercise in hate, rather than free, speech. Dr. Safi accused Jyllands-Poten editors of hidding behind free speech to promote anti Muslim feelings and demonize the small but growoing Danish Muslim community. He distinguished between free speech that aims at engaging an important issue, and hate speech whose goal is to marginalize and intimate, and argued that Jyllands-Posten was evidently guilty of the latter.
Freedom of expression should not be excercised through deliberately insulting means. Freedom of expression is a good thing. It is good to express it. But, a newspaper should not express it through deliberately insulting means, such as through images of Muhammad with a bomb as his turbine. By comparison, simply publishing the image of Muhammad could pass as a mild and appropriate exercise in freedom of expression.
Muslims have the right to protest the publishing of images of Muhammad. While it may be legal and within the bound of free speech for a newspaper to publish images of Muhammad, it is also legal and within the bounds of free speech for Muslims to protest the publishing of these images. Just as journalists have a right to criticize the Islamic faith, so do Muslims have the right to criticize journalists. The protests that followed the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, it should be noted, did not call for government intervention, but simply criticized the motivations behind these cartoons. This is an acceptable protest, and should be respected.
Protesters of the publishing of images of Muhammad desire tolerance and respect. Protests against the publishing of Images of Muhammad focus largely on the negative and intolerant messages that are behind these images. They focus on attempting to increase tolerance.
Western cartoonists should not be held to a double standard Daniel Pipes argues that the pattern of events surrounding the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons shows Muslim hypocrisy and supremacism: "...will Westerners accede to a double standard by which Muslims are free to insult Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, while Muhammad, Islam and Muslims enjoy immunity from insults? Muslims routinely publish cartoons far more offensive than the Danish ones... .... .... The deeper issue here, however, is not Muslim hypocrisy but Islamic supremacism."
Argument: Muslims should not be given exceptional rights and protections All citizens of all faiths should be held to the same standards and should be equally protected under the law. If Muslims are given special treatment with the government protecting Islam from criticism in a greater way than other faiths are protected, than an arbitrary system has been established that diminishes the freedom of those that receive the short stick.
A tolerant double standard is being applied to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. If images had been published in the Middle East of Jesus with a bomb on his head, it would be seen as xenophobic. And, yet, images of Muhammad with a bomb on his head that are published in Denmark are seen as expressions of free speech. Mohammed al-Shaibani wrote in Kuwait's Al-Qabas daily on January 30 2006 - "In [the West] it is considered freedom of speech if they insult Islam and Muslims. But such freedom becomes racism and a breach of human rights and anti-Semitism if Arabs and Muslims criticize their religion and religious laws."
In addition, a number of Muslim commentators, including Ehsan Ahrari of the Asia Times, have pointed at laws in Germany, France, Austria and seven other countries in Europe which explicitly regard the denial of the Holocaust as a crime, free speech considerations notwithstanding. They maintain that offensive imagery regarding the Jewish religion and the Jewish people is largely prohibited in the media in post-Holocaust Europe. The media in general practices self-restraint in this matter; nonetheless, Muslims allege that a different set of standards seem to apply for the Islamic faith.
Because the cartoons were legal, they did not require a government response. The government is not required to intervene in a journalistic action that is deemed legal by Danish courts. While the Danish government can be criticized for not taking diplomatic steps to reduce tensions, it cannot be criticized for not censoring Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, as there were not court orders that would have made such a maneuver appropriate.
The Danish government should not be held responsible for the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. The opinion of the Muslim Danish community is illustrative in this regard. While generally offended by the cartoons, most members of the Danish Muslim community actually condemned the violence that the drawings have sparked off in the Middle East, arguing that the state of Denmark is not to be held responsible for the drawings published by Jyllands-Posten.
Hateful and harmful representations of Muhammad are illegal and should be censored. While it may be legal to publish images of Muhammad that are respectful, it is not legal in Denmark to publish hateful and denigrating images of Muhammad. The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were hateful and denigrating, particularly the image depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his Turban. The images can be seen, therefore, as illegal and warranting of government censorship.
Denmark's prime minister inappropriately avoided meeting with Denmark's Islamic ambassadors in October 2005. On December 20, 2005 twenty-two former Danish ambassadors sent an open letter to the prime-minister criticising his decision not to open a dialogue with the international representatives. Clearly, there was frustration with the prime minister's decision to avoid dialogue on the controversy. Indeed, dialogue would have been an appropriate step to diffuse tensions, reduce long-term relational damage, and actually save lives.