South Park Episode 201, "Cartoon Wars"

Before Charlie Hebdo: The Cartoon Wars

Why is it that cartoons, more than any other expressive form, have incited the wrath of religious backlash?

Invariably dismissed as trivial, silly, and insignificant, the cartoon has provoked more skirmishes in the culture wars of recent decades than any other comedic form. As such, the expression “cartoon wars” has become more than just the title of two episodes of South Park; it signifies the terrain upon which humorists and religion have recently waged their most dramatic pitched battles. As in so many wars, provocation has begotten reaction in a perpetual cyclical continuum whose most recent rounds occurred with the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and the recent shootings in Texas. In the process, calls for apologies and/or censorship from various religious and political authorities have drawn more attention to the offending drawings, making iconic images out of seemingly innocuous fare. “Repressing images gives them too much power”, opines the Nobel Prize-winning cartoonist, Art Spiegelman (“Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage”. Harper’s. June 2006. p.43). He sees the cartoons themselves as largely irrelevant, more a symptom of latent tensions than the cause of them.

Yet, it has been cartoons, not essays, songs, or photographs, that have incited the wrath of fundamentalist Muslims (and others) in recent years. Indeed, real incidents of atrocity against Muslims, including torture and bombings, have sparked less public outrage than have certain cartoons printed in such obscure newspapers as Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and France’s Charlie Hebdo. Reactions to the 12 cartoons published in the former in September 2005 left over 100 dead; 800 injured; buildings burned; Danish goods boycotted; new calls for speech limits at the UN and EU; cartoonists in hiding with price tags on their heads; and millions offended, some drawn (ever closer) to joining the jihadi movements in wait.

In the decade interim between the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo publications, other less publicized cartoon skirmishes have also taken place. In 2008, Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot was arrested—then found not guilty—for anti-religious cartoons he had posted on his website. In August, 2011, masked gunmen beat Ali Farzat, a Syrian cartoonist, and broke his arm and two fingers of his drawing hand. His “offense” had been to draw a cartoon of President Bashar al-Assad hitching a ride out of town with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi just before the latter’s deposition from power. Two years later, Alexa van Sickle, in her article, “Political Cartoons: A Dying Art?” (Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. October 8, 2013) reported that the Egyptian military had been cracking down on the publication of cartoons critical of their nation’s regime, fearful of their potential effect in inspiring opposition groups. Such authoritarian reactions are nothing new, adds van Sickle, who cites Napoleon and Hitler as precedents of prior despots similarly outraged by cartoons that demeaned them personally (p.176).

The first blast of the contemporary cartoon wars took place on 30 September 2005, the day Jyllands-Posten published 12 drawings by 12 cartoonists responding to the culture editor’s prompt to “Draw Mohammad as you see him.” The deeper roots of this saga, however, began earlier.

In his book, The Cartoons that Shook the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Danish journalist Jytte Klausen brings a close-to-home perspective to the publication of the cartoons, as well as to the newspaper that published them and the nation from which they emanated. For him, the impetus came as much from internal as external forces. Although self-identifying as “liberal” for decades, Jyllands-Posten, an independent newspaper from the middle class Jutland peninsula region, is conservative by Danish standards. A publication renowned for its Muslim baiting and bashing, most readers initially regarded the cartoons as more of the same, not only for the paper but for a nation traditionally suspicious of immigrants, particularly those resistant to assimilating into the national culture.

Klausen suggests that Jyllands-Posten was more immediately inspired to solicit the cartoons by a series of well-reported incidents in which artists and critics had been intimidated into self-censorship by threats and violence emanating from extremist Islamic factions. In 2004, a lecturer had been attacked in Copenhagen after reading The Koran to non-Muslims. In the same year, the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, a Danish filmmaker who had made a documentary film critical of radical Islam, further stoked the fires of anxiety, leading to an increasing unwillingness amongst artists to do anything that might spark similar violent retribution. On 16 September 2005, Ritzan (the Danish news service) published an article about how writer Kåre Bluitgen was having difficulty finding an illustrator for his children’s book, The Qur’an and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad. Apparently, all potential candidates had refused the assignment out of fear of reprisals.

Outraged by these developments, Flemming Rose, the Culture editor for Jyllands-Posten, proposed a test case to gauge the levels of fear, hoping, he claimed, to contribute to ongoing debates surrounding artistic self-censorship on matters of Islam. Rose then sent letters to 42 members of Denmark’s Union of Newspaper Illustrators, asking if they would be willing to draw and submit drawings of Mohammad. A fee of $160 was offered. Of the 15 that responded, three turned down the offer while 12 accepted and submitted their work. All were published—as promised—without editorial interference.

Whether or not this project constituted a “test” study is debatable, and how one reads the results likewise, for the 30 non-participants invited may have refused for sensitivity reasons rather than due to self-censorship, or perhaps because of the paltry remuneration offered. Still, the process went ahead, the 12 cartoons published under the headline, “The Face of Mohammad”, alongside an essay by Rose explaining the purpose of the feature: to highlight the need to fight for freedom of speech and against (self-)censorship. Yes, the cartoons mocked Islam, admitted Rose, but its followers had no right to claim a special status exempt from criticism. As such, they deserved the same (dis)respect accorded any religious group. By treating Islam this way, Rose stated his hope that Muslims would feel that they were being treated on an equal footing to other Danish citizens and that they would feel included in all future cultural debates.

Editor-in-Chief Carsten Juste also weighed in with an accompanying editorial in which he called Muslims “sickly oversensitive” to criticism and its clerics “voices” from “a dark and violent middle age” (Klausen p.13). Such blunt candor is common to Danish parlance, according to Klausen, though such rhetoric certainly established a tone different from that envisaged at an earlier staff meeting when the editors had foreseen the feature as an end-of-summer lighthearted piece tucked away on the culture page. Instead, a fuse was lit, the ramifications of which we still witness to this day.

Public reactions to the cartoons (and editorials) were immediate, and despite the paper’s stated intentions, most Muslims felt neither included nor amused by the exercise. Critics were quick to suggest that provocation was more the paper’s purpose than to test theories of self-censorship. They pointed to the incendiary title headline, which purposefully challenged the aniconic beliefs of many Muslims. They also reminded observers that this newspaper—just three years earlier—had rejected cartoons satirizing the resurrection of Jesus because those would “provoke an outcry” among Christians, a far larger constituency of its readership (Peter Gottschalk & Gabriel Greenberg. Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. p.3).

In his defense, Rose argued that these previous submissions had neither been commissioned nor were newsworthy at the time. Moreover, he added, Jyllands-Posten had published cartoons satirizing Christianity in the past, and it was certainly not off-limits for the present or future. Dissenters further argued that if debate rather than provocation had been the real purpose, the editors would have invited artists rather cartoonists to participate, the latter “a breed”, says Spiegelman, “of troublemakers by profession!” (pg.46).

Although early critical objections suggested the rumblings of a potential cultural skirmish, it was not until the cartoon images were observed by some local imams that the controversy escalated in proportion into a global phenomenon. One notable flare came four days after publication when a 17-year-old local resident called the paper threatening to kill the cartoonists; however, he was promptly arrested after his mother called the police. Then the local imams, some of whom Jyllands-Posten reporters had quarreled with previously, requested that the paper publicly apologize to all Muslims. Receiving no satisfaction on that demand, one of the imams gave an interview to the Al Jazeera news network, voicing his complaints. Soon thereafter, death threats descended upon the cartoonists and Jyllands-Posten editors, the streets of Copenhagen played host to a series of demonstrations, and the Danish Prime Minister was pressed to respond to angry letters from the Arab League and other international Muslim organizations.

Amidst the rising tensions, the Organization of Islamic Conference convened a summit meeting in Mecca to discuss the issue and examine the offending cartoons. However, unbeknown to the attendees, the dossier of evidence included not only the 12 cartoons, but three additional ones unrelated to the publication. These included a blurry picture presumed to portray a Muslim as a pig but which had actually come from a French pig-squealing contest; another was garnered from a right-wing US website and portrayed the Prophet Mohammad as a pedophile rapist; the third showed a praying Muslim mounted from behind by a pig. If the original cartoons signaled provocative purposes on the part of Jyllands-Posten, these “fake” additions showed that the Danish imams that had compiled the dossier were just as intent on stoking the fires of conflict.

As protests reached Danish cities and embassies around the world, the United Nations, western governments, and leaders of other faiths attempted to calm the situation by disavowing the cartoons, discouraging their printing, and scolding Jyllands-Posten for its irresponsibility. In response to those responses, anti-theist writers like Salmon Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens vociferously defended the publication, using the incident as a platform for broader declarations on behalf of secular values. “The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species,” declared an exasperated Hitchens. In response to the Bush administration’s condemnation of the cartoons and to others calling for more restraint in their representations of Islam, Hitchens added, “We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt” (“Stand Up for Denmark”. Arguably: Essays By Christopher Hitchens. New York: Twelve, 2011. p.706).

As reactions and retributions lingered in the years after the Jyllands-Posten publication—each one covered and magnified by an eager media machine—the prevailing issues and emotions were also kept alive by some unusual aftermath events. One of these was an “International Holocaust Cartoon Competition” sponsored by the Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, in February 2006. Promising a gold coin to the 12 best, the paper opted for revenge as their means of protest, though how or why Jews or holocaust denial pictures related to the Danish “Faces of Mohammad” is unclear. Moreover, the Iranian media, like many outlets in the Middle East, had been publishing anti-Semitic cartoons for decades so this gesture was hardly unique. Not to be outdone by Hamshahri, though, an immediate response emerged from an Israeli website sponsoring its own “Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoons Contest”. Here, conversely, the irony was not lost.

A different kind of cartoon response took place a few months later when the cartoon sit-com South Park entered the fray, producing a series of episodes aiming to keep the freedom of expression debate alive. In the “Cartoon Wars” episodes, South Park ridiculed the notion that Islamic icons should be exempt from representation by showing Buddha doing lines of coke, a Christian rock band playing homo-erotic songs, and Mohammad… blocked from view. The South Park provocateurs had actually shown a caricature of the Islamic prophet in a prior episode, “Super Best Friends”, in 2001, but that had largely passed without notice. This time, within the vortex of the conflict, Comedy Central ultimately succumbed to fears of ensuing threats by censoring all scenes representing Islamic icons—though notably not those of other faiths.

Amidst this new wave of outrage, responses shifted to the internet and social media where Molly Norris, a Seattle-base artist, set up “(Everybody) Draw Mohammed Day”, a forum where cartoonists could submit their own takes on the original Jyllands-Posten prompt. Accompanying her post was an illustration designating various inanimate objects—a coffee cup, a cherry, a box of pasta—as the likeness of Mohammad. She also jokingly claimed to be sponsored by an organization called CACAH (Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor). Norris’ intent was to so overwhelm the on-line world with images of the prophet that any threats of retribution would be made null and void.

Within days of her initial invitation, “(Everybody) Draw Mohammed Day” had gone viral with numerous bloggers and media outlets picking up on the story. Over 100,000 members joined the event, though an equal number joined a protest (to the protest) page. As in the aftermath of the original Jyllands-Posten publication, “(E)DMA” was as lauded for its stance on behalf of free speech as it was condemned for being needlessly provocative and offensive. And although liberal sentiments on behalf of freedom of expression appear to have been driving Norris, the project has since been adopted and adapted by more openly anti-Muslim groups such as the American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose “Mohammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Texas was recently halted when ISIS-inspired gunmen sprayed bullets towards the hosting conference hall, leading to the wounding of an attendant security guard and the two assailants being shot dead by the local police.

The extent to which the cartoon wars—both the Jyllands-Posten and recent Charlie Hebdo skirmishes—have divided opinion is particularly illustrated within the liberal-left, where prior comrades like Noam Chomsky and Hitchens adopted differing perspectives of criticism and advocacy. Although he defended the “right” to publish and condemned the violent responses (like Hitchens), Chomsky called the Jyllands-Posten cartoons “just ordinary racism under the cover of freedom of expression” and argued that the publishers should have shown the common sense of restraint (“A View from the West: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Torgeir Norling“, Global Knowledge, June, 2006).

Hitchens, who regarded such a perspective as tantamount to appeasement, called for more of the same expressions in order to combat the censorious forces of Islamists and the weak-kneed apologists running western governments. Rather than cowering with fear through conciliatory gestures, these elected representatives of democratic values should be supporting Denmark’s right to defend its own constitutional values, argued Hitchens. He warned—prophetically, some might say—of a surging wave of political correctness whereby “Islamophobia” would be interminably evoked in order to silence any voices critical of Muslims and their faith (p.706).


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