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On Jyllands-Posten's 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad

By Matthias Wivel

Images have power. A power to which we have been the witnesses since Jyllands-Posten published its 12 controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The strong reactions aroused by the drawings around the World and the diplomatic crisis in which they have landed not only Denmark, but large parts of Europe, remind us of the unruly power images exert over us. Additionally, the situation has reminded us how a large part of this power is the result of the consciously or unconsciously irresponsible interpretations of their content that invariably follow when images court controversy. Attempts at controlling or even negating the image - a practice that is most likely as old as image-making itself - continue to be the cause of its most destructive potential. Iconoclasm is far from history, even in the West.

The cartoon controversy is a textbook example of the irresponsible use of images. The peasant country Denmark's biggest newspaper, the countrywide provincial daily Jyllands-Posten, sees in the rather dubious publicity stunt of a Danish author the chance to orchestrate an even bigger and more obtuse one, pandering to their conservative readers at the expense of an already marginalized Muslim minority. And after the prime minister, well founded in terms of principle but as a logical extension of his callous immigration policies, and despite voiced international concern, nonchalantly downplays the matter and refuses to engage in dialogue, a group of Danish imams with their eyes on the prize organize a lobbying tour of the Middle East. Their conveniently procured addition of several hateful images that have nothing to do with Jyllands-Posten, as well as their creative handling of the truth, have the expected result; Egypt eyes the opportunity to act the region's most ardent defender of Islam and distributes the cartoons all over the Muslim world. The rest is the painful history of the now.

But even after six months have passed, trade boycotts worth billions have been put into place, several embassies have been burnt to the ground, and dozens have died, it still appears as if only very few people have actually made an effort to fully engage the ostensible reason for this uproar - the twelve cartoons. In the West as well as in the Muslim world, only a fraction of the people that have reacted to them in one way or the other seems to have glanced at them more than superficially, and in the parts of the world that have seen the most violent reactions, it is obvious that most people have not even seen them.

It is of course the reactions rather than what the drawings actually show that really matter - it is due to them that polarization between the Muslim world and the West is drastically increasing these months. The cartoons have become useful pawns in a dubious, destructive and highly complex political and ideological game of power they at worst can only be seen as small, rather innocuous symptoms of. It is, however, interesting and possibly rather disturbingly symptomatic of our approach to images that they came to play such an important role.

The cartoons are one and all, in and of themselves, blasphemous to the large majority of Muslims around the world who take their religion's interdict against graven images seriously, and are therefore also insulting. It is sobering to note how they have united the Muslim world in a way that not even the - one would think - much more serious events in Afghanistan and Iraq have, transcending religious, cultural, linguistic, and political differences. The Prophet is most sacred to Muslims and the Koran forbids the depiction of him. It is an absolute rule, and to break it is one of the most serious breaches of Islam's moral code, Shari'a. And while certain Muslim societies, as several commentators have pointed out, actually have depicted the Prophet in earlier times, it does not change the fact that the interdict against graven images is observed all over the Muslim world today. No matter how the cartoonists had decided approach it, the editors' commission that they draw the Prophet was in itself a fundamental transgression to a sizeable part of the World's population.

This of course is not the whole truth. As is well known, form and content are rather difficult to separate, and it is hard to analyze the reactions to the cartoons without considering the way they treat their subject matter, since they offer up provocative discourse and are not merely abstract "this is the Prophet Mohammad"-concepts. It is further hard to imagine the reactions not being even fiercer had the cartoons been as radically hateful as the images the Danish imams distributed on their tour, and the imams seem to have been aware of this - why else would they have spiced up their material with considerably more transgressive images, if the Jyllands-Posten cartoons themselves were sufficiently insulting?

While it is the distinct impression of this observer that the cartoons only to a very limited extent have been judged on what they actually show and generally have been seen as completely homogenous - the many death threats advanced against 'the Mohammad cartoonist' around the world makes this lamentably obvious - it still seems clear that the content of at least a few of them has provided the framework according to which the reactions have been shaped. If all the cartoons had been as innocuous as Claus Seidel's full figure portrait of the Prophet in the desert with his donkey, a drawing which could easily have appeared in a benign easy-to-read picture book for children, or Peder Bundgaard's straightforward statement merging the stylized portrait of the Prophet with the star and crescent-symbol of Islam, or Poul Erik Poulsen's rendition of the Prophet with a crescent-shaped halo, it - at least to this observer - seems highly unlikely that there would have been any reaction at all.

If one examines the cartoons from a non-absolutist perspective, it is clear that they are a rather heterogenous group of images, that only by ignoring their content can be seen as exclusively critical or insulting of Islam, and only by interpretative manhandling can be seen as decidedly hateful. As mentioned, three of them are completely innocuous, but there are of course also more inflammatory ones, a few of which deliver moronic and unquestionably insulting "jokes" whose satirical properties are at best grossly simplifying and clichéd. An example is Jens Julius' crude drawing of a group of suicide bombers arriving at the gates of Heaven where they are turned away - by the Prophet? - because Heaven "has run out of virgins." Another is Erik Abild Sørensen's ineptly scratched, veiled figures with star- and crescent symbols for heads, accompanied by the verse: "Prophet, daft and dumb/ Keeping women under his thumb!" Despite its attempt at delivering a realistic perspective, Cartoonist veteran Franz Füchsel's drawing of a group of turban-wearing, scimitar-wielding Arab stereotypes with murder on their mind, and an imam calming them down, "Easy, friends, when it comes down to it, this is just a drawing made by an infidel from South Jutland...", can also be regarded as belonging to this group.

While the promise made by Muslim extremists that martyrs will be awarded 72 virgins in Heaven is patently absurd, while women are in fact oppressed in some Muslim societies, and while it is frankly surprising that a drawing by a South Jutlander can arouse such anger, these cartoons do not add anything useful to the debate and seem content to merely ridicule and simplify complex problems. They lack the sophisticated or insightful point that would perhaps otherwise have legitimated their aggressiveness, and it is hard to see them as anything but thoughtlessly generalizing and generally wanting of good ideas. Lackluster satire, quite simply.

The best examples of successful satire among the drawings are unfortunately, but perhaps also expectedly, the two most problematic and basically insulting ones. One is Rasmus Sand Høyer's image of another scimitar-wielding Arab stereotype with a black bar obscuring his eyes, indicating that he must be the Prophet. He is flanked by two women clad in black burkahs, whose eyes can be seen through the rectangular slit in their garment at the same level as the black bar. A rather clever visual idea is thus used to address the oppression of women in some Muslim societies - an oppression which in the West somewhat misguidedly has become symbolized by the burkah - by linking it to the interdict against images. The woman regarded as an image to be iconoclastically covered for her not to exert her unruly influence on her surroundings.

The problem here is that the drawing (much like Abild Sørensen's) directly links the Prophet - who is depicted as a barbarian stereotype - with the kind of oppression it criticizes and thereby indicates that Islam as a religion is in itself oppressive towards women and therefore barbaric. A brutal generalization in the same vein as the efforts of some Western scholars to explain the oppression and violence committed in the name of Islam by attributing them to perceived inherent qualities of the religion itself. The cartoon thus adds to a strongly problematic discourse, but at the same time has a point, since women in some Muslim societies are in fact treated as second-class citizens with justification provided by local interpretations of Shari'a.

The same problem applies to the unquestionably most controversial and most frequently reproduced of all the cartoons, the one cartoon that has come to define the discourse of all of them in the minds of a worldwide public, often because it is the only one of them (if any) they have seen, and because it treads the most sensitive ground of all in this context - fundamentalist Islamic violence. This, of course, is the one by Kurt Westergaard showing the Prophet wearing a live bomb in lieu of a turban. By thus linking the messenger of God directly with violence, it is guilty of a generalization that can easily be understood as a fundamental criticism of Islam, much like the just mentioned, proliferating academic attempts to prove the inherent violence of Islam. An absurd reduction of something as polysemic, varied and organically evolving as a World religion.

Westergaard himself has emphasized that this is not the intention, and that what he aims at are Muslims committing acts of violence in the name of God and the Prophet Mohammad. The brand of Islamic violence so prevalent these years, and which in the West has quickly risen to occupy the post of Prime Bogeyman. This is where the cartoon finds justification - it is a fact that some Muslims justify their acts of violence by referring to God's plan, and that this kind of justification, like any kind of justification based on absolutist thinking, is highly problematic should be self-evident. The cartoon therefore achieves two interrelated things: it treats the absurdity of committing acts of violence in the name of the Prophet, while at the same time commenting on how this violence has affected the reception of Islam in the West, where many lamentably tend to equate Islam with violence of the type we have dubbed "terrorism."

So, while the drawing generalizes strongly, it points towards a serious set of problems related to certain Muslims while simultaneously exhibiting a strongly problematic mode of thinking in the West. Several commentators have, rightly, asked the question whether the videotaped executions of kidnapped Westerners and bombings of subway trains which the cartoon amongst other things refers to are not considerably more insulting to the Prophet than a mere drawing. But this is of course a question that can equally well be applied to the ideals we use in defending it: is the rampant hypocrisy with which Western countries, amongst them Denmark, in the name of "Democracy" and "Freedom," sanctions, bombs and invades Muslim countries at their will and whim not as detrimental to perception of selfsame ideals around the World? The abuse of, and lust for, power exists everywhere and hinders deeper understanding of, and respect for, both the words of the Prophet in much of the West, and our secularized values in large parts of the Muslim world.

The strength of this cartoon is that it encompasses and comments on these problems while clearly striking a nerve. It is provocative, even transgressive, but at the same time it points to serious problems in both the Muslim world and the West. It has always been the prerogative of the political cartoonist to provoke, and even transgress, in conveying his or her message, and this cartoon is as such a good example of successful political satire. That it achieves this in a way that can easily be seen as an attack on Islam in itself is, however, strongly problematical and has proved to be unnecessarily damaging. Its strength - the clearly formulated, strong statement - is therefore simultaneously its weakness, but at the end of the day it does what a political cartoon is supposed to do: it condenses quintessential aspects of its object of criticism and hits it hard. It is unreasonable to expect a political cartoon to elegantly avoid engaging its subject matter in the name of political correctness; a political cartoonist's task is not necessarily to present a nuanced and complex picture of reality, and to expect "sensitivity" and "restraint" of a political cartoonist is anathema to his or her metier.

It is therefore unreasonable to criticize the cartoonists for anything but lack of talent. What compromises them, however, is the context in which they drew the cartoons. Jyllands-Posten commissioned them from the cartoonists, and even though the editors are clearly ignorant of Islam, it is quite obvious that they were aware of the blasphemous nature of the commission, and consequently that they were consciously creating a provocation.

That several of the cartoonists were also aware of this is in fact evidenced by three of the published cartoons. Annette Carlsen shows us a police line-up consisting of turban-wearing holy men, from which the witness naturally enough cannot point out the Prophet, and where author Kåre Bluitgen, whose still uncorroborated claims of self-censorship in connection with his attempts to find illustrators for his book on the Prophet was the pretext for the commission of the cartoons, appears at the far left. He carries a sign saying "Kåre's publicity service, Phone me for an offer!" Bob Katzelson's drawing, showing an orange falling into the turban of a sardonically smiling Bluitgen holding a drawing of a bearded stick figure with a turban, is of the same kind [an orange dropping into one's turban is a Danish saying denoting something advantageous fortuitously being done for you]. Lars Refn's cartoon, however, is the cleverest of this group and actually posits itself on the side of the Muslims the newspaper insulted with their commission. It shows the schoolboy Muhammed, 7 th grade at Valby School [Valby is a neighbourhood of Copenhagen with a substantial Muslim population], wearing a football jersey of the team FREM ['forward'] with the word "TIDEN" ['the time'] added below ['frem' + 'tiden' = 'fremtiden,' which means 'the future']. On the chalkboard behind him, he has written "Jyllands-Posten's editors are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs" in Farsi.

The criticism of Jyllands-Posten and Bluitgen made by these drawings, has almost uniformly been ignored by the critics of the cartoons, which is perhaps understandable given the considerably more insulting nature of some of the others, but nevertheless symptomatic of the way images are not given more than superficial attention, and are self-servingly appropriated by many people. One could raise the objection that these meta-critical cartoons merely represent a half-hearted justification of the provocation of the printing of the cartoons on the part of the editors, but they nevertheless remain an important subversive part of it.

And their criticism is fully justified. It seems clear that Jyllands-Posten' s editors were acting in full accord with the general, negative discourse Muslims are subjected to in Denmark, and that the cartoons as mentioned were published in order to pander to an increasingly islamophobic public opinion, while at the same time striking a blow in the battle against the political correctness of the leftist establishment in Denmark, which the Danish right wing increasingly perceives itself to be fighting. That the victims of all this were the usual scapegoats, our Muslim minorities, probably seemed only natural and a rather safe proposition, because these people do not have a particularly strong voice in public discourse. That the editors had not taken into account the increasingly globalized society in which we all find ourselves is obvious, and further demonstrates the irresponsibility of their actions. One can only hope that the controversy, once the smoke has cleared, will prompt us Danes to reconsider the role we play on the scene of World politics. Seeing the Danish flag being burned comes as somewhat of a shock to most of us, used as we are to regarding ourselves as a rather innocuous and peace-loving people, but is probably only natural at a time when we are actively participating in acts of war against two Muslim countries and politically tend to want to play with the big boys.

The fact that the cartoons were commissioned were published as part of a dubious publicity stunt compromises them considerably, but it does not negate the statements they make. These statements are, as explained, not all equally insightful and in several cases seriously insulting, but this does not mean that they are uniformly islamophobic, and several of them happen to also deliver sharp and relevant criticisms of some of the serious problems of today. It seems evident that publishing them was "sophomoric", as former Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Elleman-Jensen described it, but that does not disqualify their critical content, and neither does it negate their existence.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all base their faith on common ground and worship the same God, and all three faiths include interdicts against images in their central holy texts. Through history, their faithful have to different extents created images of their God and holy men and women, and they have often violently disagreed on the right to do so. Iconoclasm is a practice we all share and stems from a wish to control the naturally unruly image. But history shows us that this is futile - human beings have created images since the dawn of time and will continue to do so. To expect people who do not share one's faith to not make images of one's God is absolutist and unreasonable. To threaten them on their life if they happen to do so anyway is unacceptable and despicable - nothing the twelve cartoonists have done merits the constant fear of retaliation they have reportedly and understandably been living under for the last six months, a situation prophetically illustrated by Arne Sørensen's picture of a cartoonist looking nervously over his shoulder while drawing a picture of the Prophet.

While this situation proves that the fascist strain of iconoclasm is very much alive amongst certain people, the cartoon controversy has also shown us how irresponsible the treatment of images is in much broader circles. The at times unconscious, but often surely conscious reduction of the twelve images to one statement - e.g. a serious insult which justifies violent reactions, or expressions of unnegotiable ideals of freedom of speech which justify transgressive abuse of power - is based on the very same impulse that through history has engendered iconoclasm: the wish to control the power of images, if necessary by misrepresenting what they show and reducing them to comfortably fit one's own agenda. And this is seriously worrying.

Images have power and as an imagemaker or -distributor one has to be conscious of this power, as remember to subject one's activity to the same moral standards as the rest of one's actions. The cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad are emblematic of deep conflicts in the international community and cannot be blamed for these. But at the same time, they are condensed manifestations of these conflicts that might be helpful to our understanding and possible solution of them, if we approach them in the right way.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be what is happening at the moment. The controversy has contributed immensely to polarization within a group of cultures that ultimately spring from the same source, and has become regarded as justification for an increased dichotomous outlook vis-à-vis the conflicts of our time. It is now up to the individual to resist this and to look at the cartoons and accept them for what they are: images. By recognizing the incontrovertible existence of the image and by doing it responsibly, we might begin to nurture a flimsy hope of a world where images are not irresponsibly employed in the service of discriminating propaganda, and where a meek cartoon will never be considered a threat against something as beautiful and eternal as God's presence in the life of the individual. A presence which, as the Holy texts wisely note, cannot be justifiably rendered in an image, and of which no image should be regarded as a transgression that brings murder to our minds.



[March 10-15 2006]



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further reading:
Feature: The Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad
Editorial: Words Have Power

Wikipedia: Summary of the controversy
Jyllands-Posten: The Mohammed Affair
See the drawings: Annoy.com
Mohammed Image Archive
On the Propheten and the controversy: Prophet Muhammad
The Danish Foreign Ministry: The Drawings


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