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Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy
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The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy began after twelve editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. Danish Muslim organisations organised protests. As the controversy has grown, some or all of the cartoons have been reprinted in newspapers in more than 20 other countries.[1]

The publication of the cartoons has led to significant unrest around the world, particularly in Islamic countries.

The drawings, including a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb inside or under his turban, accompanied by an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, commissioned twelve cartoonists for the project and published the cartoons to highlight the difficulty experienced by Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen in finding artists to illustrate his children's book about Muhammad. Cartoonists previously approached by Bluitgen were reportedly unwilling to work with him for fear of violent attacks by extremist Muslims.

Although Jyllands-Posten maintains that the drawings were an exercise in free speech, some contend that regardless of faith, the depiction of Muhammad as a terrorist is culturally offensive and blasphemous. However, others view the cartoons as a form of non-violent protest in response to the violent threats and intimidation experienced by those who publicly criticise Islam.

Several death threats have been made against those responsible for the cartoons, reportedly resulting in the cartoonists going into hiding. Reaction from the international community was also swift; the foreign ministries of eleven Islamic countries demanded action from the Danish government, and Libya eventually closed its embassy in Denmark in protest after the government refused to censure the newspaper or apologise. The Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, "The government refuses to apologize because the government does not control the media or a newspaper outlet; that would be in violation of the freedom of speech".

A large consumer boycott was organised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Middle East countries. The foreign ministers of seventeen Islamic countries renewed calls for the Danish government to punish those responsible for the cartoons, and to ensure that such cartoons are not published again. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark.[2] Numerous protests against the cartoons have taken place, some of them violent. On 4 February, the buildings containing the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set ablaze, although no one was hurt. In Beirut the Danish General Consulate was set on fire,[3] resulting in the death of one protestor whose body was later found inside the complex.[4] Deaths have also been reported in riots in Afghanistan.[5]

The events

Main article: Timeline of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy

Debate about self-censorship

On September 17, 2005, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran an article under the headline "Dyb angst for kritik af islam"[6] ("Deep fear of criticism of Islam"). The article discussed the difficulty encountered by the writer Kåre Bluitgen, who was initially unable to find an illustrator who was prepared to work with Bluitgen on his children's book Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv ("The Qur'an and the prophet Muhammad's life"). Three artists declined Bluitgen's proposal before an artist agreed to assist anonymously. According to Bluitgen:

One [artist declined], with reference to the murder in Amsterdam of the film director Theo van Gogh, while another [declined, citing the attack on] the lecturer at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute in Copenhagen[6].

In October 2004, a lecturer at the Niebuhr institute at the University of Copenhagen was assaulted by five assailants who opposed the lecturer's reading of the Qur'an to non-Muslims during a lecture[7].

The refusal of the first three artists to participate was seen as evidence of self-censorship and led to much debate in Denmark, with other examples for similar reasons soon emerging. The comedian Frank Hvam declared that he did not dare satirise the Qur'an on television, while the translators of an essay collection critical of Islam also wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about violent reaction.

Publication of the drawings

On September 30, 2005, the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten ("The Jutland Post") published an article titled "Muhammeds ansigt"[8] ("The face of Muhammad"). The article consisted of 12 cartoons (of which only some depicted Muhammad) and an explanatory text, in which Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor, commented:

The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always equally 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 less important in this 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. [...] [9]

After an invitation from Jyllands-Posten to around forty different artists to give their interpretation on how Muhammad may have looked, twelve caricaturists chose to respond with a drawing each. Some of these twelve drawings portray Muhammad in different fashions; many also comment on the surrounding self-censorship debate. In the clockwise direction of their position in the page layout:

  • The Islamic star and crescent partially symbolizing the face of Muhammad; his right eye is the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face.
  • Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb. This drawing is considered the most controversial of the twelve.
  • Muhammad standing in a gentle pose with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon. The middle part of the crescent is obscured, revealing only the edges which resemble horns.
  • An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women "Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!". In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke"
  • Muhammad as a simple wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background.
  • A nervous caricaturist, shakily drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.
  • Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: "Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde" (loosely, "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander". South Jutland as reference would, for a Dane, connote the feeling of something like the middle of nowhere).
  • An Arab-looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into "The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A", implying that this is a second-generation immigrant to Denmark rather than the founder of Islam. On his shirt is written "Fremtiden" (the future).
  • Another drawing shows Muhammad prepared for battle, with a short sabre in one hand and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in niqaabs, having only their wide open eyes visible.
  • Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with "Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!" ("Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!"), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.
  • Another shows journalist Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping into it, with the inscription "Publicity stunt". In his hand is a child's stick drawing of Muhammad. The proverb "an orange in the turban" is a Danish expression meaning "a stroke of luck": here, the added publicity for the book.

And in the centre:

  • A police line-up of seven people wearing turbans, with the witness saying: "Hm... jeg kan ikke lige genkende ham" ("Hm... I can't really recognise him"). Not all people in the line-up are immediately identifiable. They are: (1) A generic Hippie, (2) politician Pia Kjærsgaard, (3) possibly Jesus, (4) possibly Buddha, (5) possibly Muhammad, (6) a generic Indian Guru, and (7) journalist Kåre Bluitgen, carrying a sign saying: "Kåres PR, ring og få et tilbud" ("Kåre's public relations, call and get an offer").

Police investigation of Jyllands-Posten

A number of Muslim organizations submitted complaints to the Danish police claiming that Jyllands-Posten had committed an offence under section 140 and 266b of the Danish Criminal Code. [10]

Section 140 of the Criminal Code prohibits any person from publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark. Section 266b criminalises the dissemination of statements or other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their religion. Danish police began their investigation of these complaints on 27 October 2005. [10]

On 6 January 2006, the Regional Public Prosecutor in Viborg decided to discontinue the investigation as he found no basis for concluding that the cartoons constituted a criminal offence. He stated that, in assessing what constitutes an offence, the right to freedom of speech must be taken into consideration. That while 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, no apparent violation of the law had occurred. [10]

Jyllands-Posten response

Jyllands-Posten published two open letters on its website, both in Danish and Arabic versions, and the second letter also in an English version.[11][12] The second letter was dated 30 January, and includes the following explanation and apology:

In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.

Danish Muslim clerics tour the Middle East

Unsatisfied with the reaction of the Danish Government and Jyllands-Posten and feeling provoked additionally in particular by a televised interview with Dutch member of parliament and Islam critic Hirsi Ali, who was received by Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and by the situation of Muslims in Denmark in general, which they perceived as racist and condescending, a group of Danish Muslim clerics from several organisations set out for a tour of the Middle East to present their case and ask for support.[13]

For this purpose a 43-page dossier was created.[14]. It consists of several letters from Muslim organisations explaining their case, multiple clippings from Jylland Posten, multiple clippings from Weekend Avisen[2], and some additional images that, according to the dossier's authors, have been sent to Muslims in Denmark, and were indicative of the rejection of Muslims by the Danish[15].

Among the leadership of the group were Imam Ahmad Abu Laban of the Islamisk Trossamfund and Akhmad Akkari, spokesman of the Danish-based European Committee for Prophet Honouring.[16] Danish Sheik Rais Huleyhel was named head of the delegation and signed the petition letters. Among the people the group claims to have met on their visit to Egypt were: The General Secretary of the Arab League Amr Moussa, the Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and the Sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar university Mohammed Sayed Tantawi and the Egyptian foreign office.

Reprinting in other newspapers

Further information: List of newspapers that reprinted Jylland-Posten's Muhammad cartoons

In 2005, the Muhammad cartoons controversy received only minor media attention outside of Denmark. January 2006 saw some of the pictures reprinted first in Scandinavia, then in major newspapers of Denmark's southern neighbors Germany, Belgium and France. Very soon after, as protests grew, there were re-publications around the globe, but mostly in continental Europe.

Notable by their absence were re-publications from major newspapers in the USA[17] and the United Kingdom[18], where editorials covered the story, but almost unanimously took a stance against re-publication of the Mohammad cartoons.

Several editors were fired for their decision, or even their intention,[19] [20] to re-publish the cartoons, most prominently the chief editor of France Soir, Jacques Lefranc.

Three of the cartoons were reprinted in the Jordanian weekly newspaper al-Shihan[21]. The editor, Momani, was fired, and the publisher withdrew the newspaper from circulation. Momani issued a public apology, was arrested and charged with insulting religion.[22] Several of the cartoons were reprinted in the Jordanian newspaper al-Mehwar. The editor Hisham Khalidi was also arrested and charged with insulting religion. Both charges were dropped two days later.[23]

Al-Hurreya newspaper in Yemen was closed down after publishing some images. Owner/Editor Abdul-Karim Sabra was arrested. [24]

In Malaysia, Lester Melanyi, an editor of the Sarawak Tribune resigned from his post for allowing the reprinting of a cartoon. The chief editor was summoned to the Internal Security Ministry.[25]

In South Africa, a Muslim organization obtained an interdict from the Johannesburg High Court against several South African newspapers, preventing them from publishing the cartoons.[26]

International reactions

Main article: International reactions to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy

What started with the problem of a Danish author trying to find an illustrator for his forthcoming book about Islam has become an international crisis. It has led to violence, arrests, international tensions, and a renewed debate about the scope of free speech and the place of Muslims in the West, and the West in Muslim countries. Many governments, organizations and individuals worldwide have issued statements, trying to define their stance.

Conflicting traditions

Danish journalistic tradition

Freedom of speech in Denmark was obtained in a new constitution with democracy in 1849 and parliamentarism in 1901 together with other liberties, including freedom of religion. These freedoms have been defended vigorously ever since. Freedom of speech was abandoned temporarily only during the German occupation of Denmark during World War II.

Section 77 of the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1953) reads: “Any person shall be at liberty to publish his ideas in print, in writing, and in speech, subject to his being held responsible in a court of law. Censorship and other preventive measures shall never again be introduced.”[27]

Under international law, freedom of expression in Denmark is also protected by among others the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Section 140 of the Danish Penal Code prohibits blasphemy. However, this law has not been enforced since 1938.[28] Section 266b of the Danish Penal Code prohibits expressions that threaten, deride or degrade on the grounds of race, colour, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation. The Danish public prosecutor determined that the Muhammad cartoons did not constitute blasphemy under Danish law.[10]

Jesus and other religious figures are often portrayed in Denmark in ways that many other societies would consider illegal blasphemy. In 1984 the artist Jens Jørgen Thorsen was commissioned by a local art club to paint the wall of a railway station. The work displayed a naked Jesus with an erect penis.[29] In 1992 Thorsen directed the film Jesus vender tilbage which showed Jesus as sexually active and involved with a terrorist group.[30][31] While Thorsen’s work provoked much public debate and his painting was removed from the public building, he was not charged with any legal offence.

In 2003, Jyllands-Posten refused a cartoon of the resurrection of Jesus[32][33], because it would "provoke an outcry"[34]. Later, the paper said the cartoon was uncommissioned[35].

Danish newspapers are privately owned and independent from the government. There are no restrictions on the political viewpoints that may be published. There are frequent caricatures of Queen Margrethe II.[36]

Islamic tradition

Main article: Aniconism

The Qur'an, Islam's holiest book, condemns idolatry, but has no direct condemnations of pictorial art. Direct prohibitions of pictorial art, or any depiction of sacred figures, are found in some hadith, or recorded oral traditions.

Views regarding pictorial representation within the Muslim community have varied from group to group, and from time to time. Shi'a Muslims have been generally tolerant of pictorial representation of human figures, Sunni Muslims less so. However, the Sunni Ottomans, the last dynasty to claim the caliphate, were not only tolerant but even patrons of the miniaturists' art. Many Ottoman miniatures depict Muhammad; they usually show Muhammad's face covered with a veil or as a featureless void emanating light (depicted as flames). Pictorial surveys of Islamic religious art can be found on the internet. [37][38][39] Note that the last site also contains some extremely and intentionally offensive modern depictions of Muhammad.

Most contemporary Muslims believe that ordinary portraits and photos, films and illustrations, are permissible. Only some Salafi and Islamist interpretations of Sunni Islam still condemn pictorial representations of any kind. Offensive satirical pictures are a somewhat different case — disrespect to Islam or to Muhammad is still widely considered blasphemous or sacrilegious.

According to the BBC "It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists, and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims."[40]


Main article: Opinions on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy

Rumours and misinformation

Burning the Qur'an

On February 4 2006 rumours that Danes would burn the Qur'an circulated in the Arab world[41]. The probable source of the rumor is an SMS spread by Danish right wing extremists, which indeed told people to buy and burn the Qu'ran at a demonstration on February 4 in central Copenhagen[42]. This did not take place.[43] Approximately 40 right wingers did demonstrate in Hillerød instead. Neither Qur'ans nor other sacred items were burned.[44].

Additional images

A Muslim religious organisation in Denmark, Islamisk Trossamfund, played a large part in bringing attention to the cartoons to Muslims of the Middle East during a recent tour. According to some sources they also added three additional images to the group and claimed that they had been published in Jyllands-Posten as well[45] [46]. These three images are all considerably more obscene than the published cartoons, and none of them had previously been published by Jyllands-Posten or any other mainstream media outlet. On February 1 BBC World aired a story showing one of these three images, and incorrectly claimed that it had been published in Jyllands-Posten. [47]

Akhmad Akkari, spokesman of the Danish-based European Committee for Prophet Honouring[48] which co-organised the tour, claimed to be unaware of the origin of the three pictures and said that they had been sent by unknown persons to Muslims in Denmark. Arkkari explained the use of the three drawings as providing "insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims." However, when Akkari was asked if the Muslims who had received these pictures could be interviewed, Akkari refused to reveal their identities.[49]

One of the pictures shows a contestant in the French Pig-Squealing Contest[3][4].

Membership of Islamisk Trossamfund

The organisation claimed to represent 21 Danish Muslim organisations, with 200,000 members. However, its actual membership is believed to be fewer than 15,000, [50] and about 500 to 1,000 people attend their Friday prayer gathering.[51]

Statements by Imam Ahmad Abu Laban

Despite informing Danish media that he would try to stop the boycotts, the leader of the organisation, Imam Ahmad Abu Laban, went on to state during an interview with Al Jazeera that "If the Muslim countries decide to boycott and if the Muslim citizens feel it's their duty to defend the prophet, then it is something we can be happy about".[52]. In a press release dated February 2, 2006, Abu Laban said that during the interview he was referring to Muslim respect for Muhammad, not the boycotts. [53]. According to Abu Laban, the cartoon controversy has helped his mosque to vastly increase its membership: "I thank the (Danish) government very much for its stubbornness."[54] Ahmad Abu Laban has previously been declared officially unwelcome in several Arab states.

In response to Danish Muslims who criticised Denmark in Arab territories, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, "I am speechless that those people, whom we have given the right to live in Denmark and where they freely have chosen to stay, are now touring Arab countries and inciting antipathy towards Denmark and the Danish people"[55].

Comparable incidents

Main article: Freedom of speech versus blasphemy

Believers from a multitude of faiths have called for boycott, arrest, censorship or even murder of critics, artists and commentators whose works they considered blasphemous. Some have been jailed, censored or shot, others walked free.

These incidents have seen frequent mention in connection with the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy:






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