Moslems Protest Danish Cartoons

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Moslems Protest Danish Cartoons


By: Akhtar Soomro

Date: February 3, 2006

Source: © Akhtar Soomro/epa/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Akhtar Soomro is a freelance photographer based in Karachi, Pakistan, who has contributed photographs to the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the European Pressphoto Agency.


On September 30, 2005, a newspaper in Denmark, the Jyllands-Posten, published a dozen editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad (570–632), the founder of Islam. The editor of the paper said that he did so after having a conversation with a Danish comedian who did not dare to make jokes about the Qur'an (the sacred book of Islam) and with an author of children's books who said that prospective illustrators for his book on Muhammad were afraid to work on the subject except anonymously because of the possibility of fundamentalist Moslem retaliation. To establish that the principle of free speech applied even to this sensitive subject, the editor of Jyllands-Posten invited several cartoonists to submit editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad. The results ranged from a mild depiction of the prophet leading a donkey to a caricature showing him with a fizzing bomb for a turban. Another image showed him with a black bar across his eyes, flanked by two veiled women. The Moslem religion forbids the visual depiction of Muhammad.

At first there was little reaction. Then, in October, three of the twelve artists received death threats. This was reported in the Danish press, spreading awareness of the controversy. Islamic diplomats complained to the Danish government about the publication of the cartoons. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated that the issue was one of freedom of the press and that it would be inappropriate for the government to comment.

A delegation of conservative Danish imams (Moslem religious leaders) traveled to Egypt and Saudi Arabia with copies of the cartoons from Jyllands-Posten as well as several more drastic cartoons that had not been printed in the paper. They showed the cartoons to government officials and other religious leaders. A Norwegian magazine published several of the cartoons on January 10, 2006. Libya and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark. A boycott of Danish goods was begun in some Moslem countries. The Danish Prime Minister and the editor of Jyllands-Posten issued apologies for offending Moslem sensibilities.

Other European publications, angered by these apologies and convinced that they represented a failure to defend free speech, printed the cartoons to demonstrate their freedom to do so. The German magazine Die Welt (The World) put the image of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban on its cover. Demonstrations occurred in Indonesia, Lebanon, and Syria. On February 4, demonstrators in Syria stormed the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus, the capital of Syria, and set them on fire. No embassy workers were in the buildings at the time.

On February 6, at least four anti-cartoon protestors were killed in Afghanistan. A teenager was killed in a demonstration in Somalia, and a crowd attempted to set fire to the Austrian embassy in Teheran, the capital of Iran. Protestors in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, burned a Danish flag in front of the Danish embassy and chanted "Death to Denmark" and "Death to America." Over the next several weeks, protests continued, often leading to deaths by trampling or other accidents. The cartoonist who had drawn the most offensive images, Kurt Westergaard, went into hiding after a reward was announced for his death. Rioting in Nigeria killed sixteen protestors on February 18.



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Slowly, the furor faded. By May 2006, protests had become infrequent. However, the anti-cartoon rioting had claimed approximately 140 lives.

The rioting and diplomatic arguments caused by the Danish editorial cartoons of Muhammad arose from deep-seated beliefs held by liberal Europeans, European Moslems, and Moslems living in majority-Moslem countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Europeans often saw their freedom of speech as at stake: Moslems saw blasphemy against the most holy figure of their religion. In Western democracies, blasphemy is usually considered protected speech, at least since the mid-twentieth century; although there are occasional protests against art that is perceived as being irreverent, such as Andres Sorrano's controversial photograph Piss Christ (1989), which showed a crucifix submerged in urine, there is little doubt about the legality of such expressions. An exception is Denmark, where the Muhammad cartoon crisis began; on March 30, 2006, a group of Danish Muslims began legal proceedings against Jyllands-Posten under a Danish law forbidding blasphemy.

Not all critics of the Muhammad cartoons were devout Muslims. Some Westerners who defended the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish the cartoons also argued that the general Western response to Muslim rage was inadequate because it ignored the deeper sources of that rage, namely, centuries of colonization by Western imperial powers. Others argued that Western newspapers that were willing to print the Muhammad cartoons consistently refused to print the most graphic images of civilian injuries arising from the Iraq war. Some defenders of the publication of the cartoons argued that Moslem anger at the appearance of the cartoons reflects an inherent intolerance within the Moslem religion.



Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon, 2004.


Gall, Carlotta. "Protests Over Cartoons of Muhammad Turn Deadly." The New York Times. February 6, 2006.

Web sites "UN to Investigate Jyllands-Posten 'Racism.'" December 10, 2005. <http://blog.newspaper> (accessed May 18, 2006).

National Commission on Terrorism. "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism." January 1, 2004. < (verified link)> (accessed April 15, 2006).

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Moslems Protest Danish Cartoons

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