Scribblings Resurrection

Danish cartoon controversy

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Much has been written about last October’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, the Jutland Post, and the response to it which has blown up in the past week or so. I find the episode both perplexing and disturbing. I’ve resisted writing about it until now because I haven’t been sure if I’d be able to say what I wish without including copies of at least some of the cartoons. I’m nowhere near a good enough writer to express myself entirely through words. I have to show the drawings so that you’ll know what I’m jabbering on about. I apologise if the very appearance of some of the images on this page causes you offence — they are intended for illustrative purposes only. I can only promise that I have not included any which I feel might offend a reasonable person.1 I’m trying to be reasonable myself and hope I haven’t made a total hash of it.

Cartoon image of the Prophet leading a donkey with the sun rising or setting in the background

As I understand it many Muslims object to any attempt to portray the face of the Prophet. I am unable to work out whether these people find such an image to be insulting, blasphemous or simply misguided. Is the image here offensive? It is one of the images published in the newspaper. It does not appear to me to be either poking fun at or insulting Islam. It is a simple picture of a man leading a laden donkey while the sun rises or sets in the background. You only know it is a drawing of the Prophet because the artist says it is. There is no Islamic context at all. The artist, presumably, does not intend it to be a true likeness of the Prophet although he or she may possibly have drawn upon some of the descriptions of him dating from his time on this planet. If it didn’t purport to be a drawing of the Prophet it could offend no one except members of the Donkey Liberation Front. If you are offended by this image then it would seem to me that you may have a somewhat unbalanced sense of proportion. As a non-Muslim, who finds Islam admirable in some ways, I have no problem in publishing the drawing and do not believe that anyone will be adversely affected by viewing it unless they have difficulty seeing a wood when they’re amongst its trees.

Not all of the cartoons are so benign. That I can see. I can see that if I were a Muslim I might well find the depiction of the Prophet with a bomb in his turban to be deeply offensive to my beliefs. I think I’d probably feel that, to differing extents, about eight of the 12 drawings. If I were a Western Muslim, living in a country where I were part of a sometimes persecuted minority, I’d probably also feel threatened. Not all of the pictures present entirely harmless impressions of the Prophet or of Islam. They might suggest that some people may feel me to be a threat and attack me or other people like me.

I also understand that there is a strand of Islamic thought which believes that a true liberation of the human race cannot happen until there is a world-wide Islamic state. If I thought my fellow Muslims were under attack I might well feel anger and even rage. I do not, however, think I’d be driven so crazed as to attack innocent people and burn down buildings.

Cartoon image of the cartoonist holding a stick-man picture of the Prophet. In the artist's turban is a badge reading 'PR STUNT'

Of course, the newspaper itself is nowhere near totally blameless in this. So far as I can tell, the newspaper has a reputation as a right-wing rag with a history of supporting fascism. How true this is I wouldn’t know (I don’t speak Danish) but, whatever the truth, to go about deliberately offending huge numbers of people, seems completely out of order if not entirely out to lunch. What can they possibly hope to gain?

There are clear indications in the drawings themselves that at least part of the reason for the exercise was to draw attention to the Jutland Post. Amongst the pictures is one of K�re Bluitgen, its artist, himself wearing a turban bearing a badge on which is written PR STUNT. I’ll bet the controversy hasn’t adversely affected the sales of the children’s books he writes but then who knows whether that was his intention?

Printing something controversial might well be a great moneyspinner for the paper’s owners who may not give a damn about who they offend. This week it’s the Muslims, next week it’s the Catholics. Bet you that the week after it isn’t going to be the Danish majority.2

Image of a probably Muslim schoolboy pointing at a blackboard

Another of the drawings shows a schoolboy pointing to a blackboard on which is written, apparently in Persian, Jylland-Posten’s journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs or so I’m told. If this is true then what does it mean? Again, I have no idea. The purpose of it may be to indicate that the artist has rumbled what the newspaper is up to. The message might be in Persian because it looks like Arabic to most Danes. Most Danes, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, will not be able to understand it because they cannot read Persian — is it a well hidden ‘gotcha’? Or could it be that it’s intended as some kind of veiled warning to Denmark’s Muslim population? Could it be that the artist is trying to goad non-Muslim Danes into believing that the country is being taken over by alien beings with horns on their heads?3 I’m none the wiser even after paying attention to the debate raging around us.

In short, I’m almost completely baffled by all this. I don’t understand the newspaper’s stance and I don’t understand the response from some Muslims. There does seem to be a genuine debate going on here but it’s being drowned out by those on all sides who have no real interest in listening to each other. Those who are protesting and counter-protesting most loudly appear to be conducting a dialogue of the deaf.

Some pages about the controversy

  • Wikipedia article which explains the back-story, explores Muslim reaction to the publication of the drawings and looks at the history behind the problems relating to images of the Prophet. Of course, you never can tell with Wikipedia.
  • BBC Questions and Answers — the point of view of the British establishment when it’s attempting to be understanding.
  • The Guardian on the origin of the row

1 By reasonable person I do not mean one who would knife you or me in a back alley simply because of our genotypes or our beliefs. If you’re someone who cannot tolerate my beliefs being different from yours then probably I would not define you as a reasonable person. I try not to believe in absolute truths.

2 I’m not meaning to imply that the Danes are any more xenophobic than anyone else — merely that some Danes may be and may assume they’re speaking for the unprovable (almost by definition) ‘Silent Majority’.

3 Another of the drawings depicts the Prophet with the crescent moon behind his head. It looked like horns to me at first which, I guess, is the intention.

Posted 8 February 2006, 20:33 GMT