This post has been in the pipeline for quite some time now. The reason that I haven’t posted anything about the Muhammad cartoons is that I originally wanted things to cool down a bit and then try to sort out the political and social implications.
Instead of cooling down, the conflict has been escalating in ever stranger ways, involving new participants and accusations so that the more fundamental aspects have been more or less lost, at least in a Danish context.
But first, just to put things straight: God is a cartoon character. He reveals himself every morning in the Copenhagen-based daily Politiken and has done so for the past twenty years. In case you should wonder, he’s the little fat guy. And yes, the young girl is his daughter.
If God’s behaviour at times seems a bit strange, then this is probably because the cartoonist – somehow the term “creator of the series” appears a little odd in this context – used to be a grammar school teacher in Greek and Latin and this God’s approach to something like sex definitely has more in common with that of the ancient Greek and Roman deities than traditional Christian or Muslim chastity. You have been warned.
Anyway, the cartoonist is alive and well. Christian groups in Denmark have taken this in its stride and whether God is amused, bemused, laden with wrath or indifferent – well, God only knows.
Muhammad – who is not a god, but a prophet – is a different ballgame. As you may know by now, the Århus-based daily Jyllands-Posten published a number of cartoons depicting Muhammad in late September and this triggered a rather complex conflict involving among others journalists, Danish politicians, representatives of the Danish Muslim community and the Egyptian government.
What was the problem, then?
If you ask Jyllands-Posten, the paper had two motives for publishing the cartoons.
One was that the writer Kåre Bluitgen had complained that his publishers had been turned down by a number of artists when they wanted to commission illustrations for a book about the prophet Muhammad that Bluitgen was working on. Some of the artists explained their rejection to work on the book with fear of violent retribution by extremist Muslims who claim that any depiction of Muhammad amout to sacrilege.
Another motive was that Jyllands-Posted alleged that “mainstream” Danish media (Danmarks Radio and Politiken would be two obvious suspects) under the guise of multi-culturalism and political correctness were bowing to the demands of the most extreme parts of the Muslim community instead of claiming the right of free speech.
The cartoons – which can be seen here – are a mixed bunch. One is purely illustrative and to a Western audience the only point of interest is whether Muhammad’s clothes are historically correct. Some link Muhammad with Muslim symbols such as the crescent moon while others take a humorous self-mocking perspective to the issue; one has Muhammad stopping some zealots armed with swords and bombs with the words “it’s only a cartoon made by an indefil”. One cartoonist suggests that we wouldn’t be able to point out Muhammad in a group of Westerners and finally some artists turn the joke on Jyllands-Posten itself by declaring the publication a media stunt.
The cartoons have some troubling aspects, though.
I’ll leave aside the question of blasphemy for a moment as the Danish point of view would probably be that depicting a human as such cannot be an act of blasphemy and point to elements of ethnic and religious stereotyping: Muhammad in many of the cartoons has the typic “semitic” nose known from anti-Jewish cartoons, he carries a kilij (which is in fact an Osman sword that only came into use long after the historical Muhammad’s death) and one cartoon shows Muhammad as a psycopathic bigamist. This, incidentially, was the cartoon that graced the front page of Jyllands-Posten when the cartoons were originally published.
And finally: Religious fanatics – including Muslim extremists – will take offense at anything remotely connected to their religion but I think most people would understand that publishing a cartoon with a text claiming that “Muhammad was a madman whose aim was to subjugate women” might alienate even moderate Muslims. That the status of women in the Muslim world leaves a lot to be desired is undeniably true but as in the Western world, the relationship between religion and social development is complex.
In a second post, I will look at the political aspects of the cartoon case.