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What the Muhammad cartoons portray

By Martin Asser
BBC News

France Soir
Several other newspapers have republished the controversial images

Twelve caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in 2005 had a huge impact around the world, with riots in many Muslim countries the following year causing deaths and destruction - so what do the drawings actually say?

They originally appeared in the best-selling Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005 to accompany an editorial criticising self-censorship in the Danish media.

After that some media outlets republished the pictures in solidarity or outrage, while others - including the BBC - have refrained from publishing them to avoid causing offence to their audiences.

The issue arose after Danish writer Kare Bluitgen complained he was unable to find an illustrator for his children's book about the Prophet because he said no one dared break an Islamic tenet banning the portrayal of his image.

We are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end
Jyllands-Posten editorial

Jyllands-Posten asked cartoonists to "draw the Prophet as they saw him", as an assertion of free speech and to reject pressure by Muslims groups to respect their sensitivities.

The paper chose as its central image a visual joke about the Prophet among other turban-wearing figures in a police line-up and the witness saying: "I don't know which one he is".

It is presumably an ironic appeal for calm over the issue, the suggestion being that, if a Danish illustrator were to portray the Prophet, it is not known what he looks like and is therefore a harmless gesture.

The humour comes from the fact that the line-up also includes people like Jesus Christ, the far-right Danish politician Pia Kjaersgaard and Mr Bluitgen himself.

'PR stunt'

Eleven other cartoons are printed around the edge of the page showing the Prophet in a variety of supposedly humorous or satirical situations.

One seems to criticise Mr Bluitgen for exploiting the issue for publicity to sell his book.

He is portrayed holding a child's drawing of the Prophet, while an orange inscribed with "PR stunt" drops into a turban he is wearing. (The expression "orange in the turban" connotes a "piece of luck" in Danish.)

Other images appear not especially critical of Islam in their content.

One shows the Prophet wandering through the desert with the sun setting behind him. In another his face merges with an Islamic star and crescent.

Several cartoonists, however, do seem to take the Jyllands-Posten commission as an invitation to be deliberately provocative towards Muslims.

Critical views

The most controversial image shows the Prophet Muhammad carrying a lit bomb in the shape of a turban on his head decorated with the Islamic creed.

The face is angry, dangerous-looking - a stereotypical villain with heavy, dark eyebrows and whiskers.

Demonstration in Indonesia
Much anger has been directed at Jyllands-Posten newspaper

Another shows Muhammad brandishing a sword ready for a fight. His eyes are blacked out while two women stand behind him with their Islamic dress leaving only their eyes uncovered.

Two of the critical cartoons do not show the Prophet at all. One uses crescent moons and stars of David to form repeated abstract shapes, possibly showing women in Islamic dress.

A poem accompanies the shapes, that one translator has rendered as: "Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke."

In the other, a schoolboy points to a blackboard on which it is written in Farsi: "The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs".

The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7A", suggesting he is a second-generation Iranian immigrant to Denmark. "The future" is written on his shirt.

Humorous views

Other cartoonists have clearly attempted a more humorous approach - as with the central image - although the images will be no less offensive to Muslims.

For example, one shows Muhammad standing on a cloud holding back a line of smouldering suicide bombers trying to get into heaven.

"Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins," he says.

This is a reference to the supposed reward of 72 virgins in heaven for Muslim martyrs, although Islamic scholars often point out that there is no specific belief of this kind.

Another drawing shows Muhammad looking at a sheet of paper, but holding back two sword-wielding assassins.

"Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander (ie from the middle of nowhere)," the figure says.

One cartoonist portrays Muhammad with a kind of halo around his head, but it could be a crescent moon, or a pair of devil's horns.

Anger and confusion

The last cartoon on the page goes back to the theme of artistic freedom: a cartoonist draws an Arab face with headdress, inscribed "Mohammed", but he crouches over the drawing and shields it with his hand.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoons do not include some images that may have had a role in bringing the issue to international attention.

Three images in particular have done the rounds, in Gaza for example, which are reported to be considerably more obscene and were mistakenly assumed to have been part of the Jyllands-Posten set.

One of the pictures, a photocopied photograph of a man with a pig's ears and snout, has been identified as an old Associated Press picture from a French "pig-squealing" contest.

It was reportedly circulated by Danish Muslims to illustrate the atmosphere of Islamophobia which they say they live under.

There is no doubt that the some of the original Jyllands-Posten cartoons are sufficiently hostile in nature to be taken as provocative by the Muslim community, whatever their intention.

But some critics have said all the drawings and the manner of their publication betray European arrogance and Islamophia.

Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar likens them to anti-Semitic images published in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, with Muslims being demonised as violent, backward and fanatical.

"Freedom of expression is not about doing whatever we want to do because we can do it," he wrote in the Independent on Sunday.

"It is about creating an open marketplace for ideas and debate where all, including the marginalised, can take part as equals."



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