The Danish Prophet Muhammad Cartoons

Twelve cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad were originally published in the conservative Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. The events that followed have been widely documented. This chapter examines what has not been unpacked, the detail of the incongruous and rhetorical structure of the cartoons and the effect this had on the debates and reactions that followed. I argue that the incongruity of the cartoons encourages tension and debate in a linguistic frame that does not allow for a clear outcome or ‘winner’. Thus the cartoons have a semantic structure and develop multiple contexts that have much in common with Ali G.

It is necessary to add an early caveat - some contextual definition of the terms ‘cartoon’ and ‘satire’ - as both are used in a strictly descriptive rather than normative sense. The term ‘cartoon’ is employed while not assuming that the Prophet Muhammad cartoons are humorous to all, or anyone. Rather, I use ‘cartoon’ to describe the images because they were broadly created with the use of structural incongruity, drawn by an artist, and appeared as political artwork in a newspaper that regularly publishes such drawings. Of course, many cartoons that appear in daily newspapers are not funny to all, are offensive to their subject and rely heavily on ridicule as a trope. Furthermore, and as is discussed later, my use of ‘satire’ is descriptive. It signifies a broad category of political humour and lampooning, rather than a ‘noble art’ that highlights wrongdoing or shows ‘truth to power’. Although not usually acknowledged in such debates, satire is entwined with partisan outlooks and is often an ambiguous art form.

The events that followed the publication of the cartoons included a series of protests from Danish Muslims, subsequent reprinting of the cartoons in over 50 countries and the escalation of protest, with violent protest occurring in some Muslim countries (Butler 2006). The cartoons were published with an article by the Jyllands-Posten culture editor Flemming Rose, which discussed freedom of speech and self-censorship, and explained how the Danish writer Kare Bluitgen had difficulty finding an illustrator to draw Muhammad for a children’s book. The article also reported ‘that a local comedian said he didn’t dare make fun of the Koran’ (Whittam Smith 2006). The controversy was escalated by a delegation of Danish imams touring the Middle East to lobby governments. This impacted on Denmark with the closure of a number of Arab embassies and a consumer boycott of Danish products in the Middle East.

Reaction also included government-organised rioting in some Muslim countries, which resulted in a number of deaths (Butler 2006). The Organisation of the Islamic Conference and Arab League requested that the UN enact sanctions against Denmark and introduce blasphemy laws. The Danish lobbyists had presented a dossier in the Middle East titled ‘Dossier about Championing the Prophet Muhammad Peace be Upon Him’ (Hansen 2006a: 9), which included the 12 cartoons and, it was reported, ‘three additional cartoons of unknown origin: one shows Mohamed with a pig’s snout, one shows the Prophet as a dangerous paedophile and the third shows a Muslim at prayer being buggered by a dog’ (Lawson 2006). It was later revealed that the image containing the pig’s snout was in fact a contestant at a French, not Danish, pig-squealing contest and had nothing to do with insulting Islam (Hansen 2006a: 9). The dossier also included ‘pictures from another Danish newspaper, anti-Muslim hate mail, a televised interview with Dutch member of parliament Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who received the Freedom Prize from the Danish Liberal Party’ (Hansen 2006a: 9), and is a regular critic of misogynistic uses of Islam. In February 2008, the cartoons were reprinted by several Danish newspapers, including Jyllands-Posten, in response to the arrest of three people accused of plotting to murder Kurt Westergaard, who penned the bomb/turban cartoon (Olsen 2008).

The 12 cartoons are all very different and only the most rigid of readings could argue they are equally offensive, blasphemous, racist or Islamophobic. So, for example, one of the cartoons simply shows Muhammad with a stick, walking through a desert. This is perhaps the only one that does not contain an incongruity. Another is benign towards all versions of Islam that understand irony. As Hansen explains, ‘One was a subtle attack on the paper itself: in it, Muhammed is not the Prophet but rather a young boy, a second generation migrant. He points to the chalkboard script: “The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs”’ (Hansen 2006a: 8). Similarly, one depicts Kare Bluitgen in a turban, holding a stick figure of Muhammad, as an orange inscribed with ‘publicity stunt’ falls into the turban. As a report explained, ‘The proverb “an orange in the turban” is a Danish expression meaning “stroke of luck”: here, the added publicity for the book’ (Anon. 2006). Bleich (2006: 17) also comments on the diversity of the cartoons and states: ‘it is not true that the cartoons universally contribute to Muslims’ ethno-racial outsider status’. It is, therefore, fairly implausible to argue that three of the 12 cartoons are offensive or racist. They are, however, not all equally benign.

Berger claims that ‘it is much easier to ridicule someone, to make allusions about someone’s transgressions and crimes, and to express contempt and loathing for someone visually by using caricature than it is in prose’ (Berger 1995a 144). The two cartoons generally considered most offensive draw on this potential and on the semantic alienation possible in humour. The first shows a sketch of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The second shows Muhammad with his eyes blacked out and holding a sword. Two women stand behind him wearing burkhas that only allow their eyes to be seen.

It is an important point, and one omitted from most commentaries, that a satirical cartoon is necessarily constructed with an incongruity or with a contrast, and that this incongruity encourages a number of ambiguous readings. In the first of the offensive cartoons, the image of Muhammad is juxtaposed with the image of a terrorist bomb and creates an incongruity because bombs are not worn in turbans. The second offensive cartoon plays on the prohibition of depicting Muhammad by showing him with his identity obscured. The mark of the censor on Muhammad’s face becomes the focus of the incongruity, in contrast to the women behind him who have everything but their eyes obscured. This forms a visual opposition or incongruity that mocks both the prohibition of depicting Muhammad and the concept of women wearing burkhas. These incongruities lead to various reactions because they do not create a literal or denotative meaning. They set up chains of connotation and create the ‘liquidity’ of the images (for a commensurate account of the contextual ambiguity of cartoons, see Muller et al. 2009, and Ridanpaa 2009).

We have seen that liquidity is an appropriate term for discursive meaning that is ambiguous. Zygmunt Bauman argues the ‘“Liquid modern” is a society in which the conditions under which its members act change faster than it takes the ways of acting to consolidate into habits and routines’ (Bauman 2005: 1). Such liquidity is characteristic of postmodernity, with its increase in the occurrence and experience of ambivalence.

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