Culture & Politics

CASE STUDY: MOHAMMED CARTOONS

IntroductionAn editorial decision can lead to an entire political and cultural phenomenon. One image can change the voice of a country and incite people to react. When the Danish newspaper Jyllands Postem published twelve cartoons on Sept. 20, 2005, showing the Muslim prophet, it provoked political, economic and cultural discussions worldwide.

The published cartoons were in response to a news story in the Danish newspaper Politiken discussing the difficulties writer Kare Bluitgen had finding an illustrator for his book about Prophet Mohammed’s life. Nobody wanted to draw the prophet. So, Jyllands Postem, arguing for freedom of expression, invited different drawers to make a cartoon of him. The most controversial cartoon was one made by Kurt Westegard featuring the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb on his turban.

The decision of one editor to run the image complicated situations for the whole country. The ambassador of Palestine and ten Muslim countries requested a meeting with Denmark’s Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, demanding an explanation. But he refused to give an answer, stating he couldn’t apologize for the publication because the newspaper is “free and independent.”

Denmark was also affected economically, as some Muslim groups organized a boycott of the country’s products. The same situation occurred in Norway, where the cartoons were republished in the newspaper Magazinet.

The cartoons were published in different media around the world, in more than one hundred blogs and in newspapers from approximately 60 countries, with different intentions and reactions. In this map from Wikipedia.org, we can see the countries where the cartoons were shown, painted in orange.

Spain’s newspaper El Mundo highlighted that the newspapers Die Welt from Germany and France Soir from France published the pictures to advocate for a free press. France Soir's headline read: “We have the right to make a cartoon of God,” adding cartoons that represented divinity of other religions. In this respect, republishing the cartoons became a political act.

In some countries the social consequences were violent. In Damascus, Syria, hundreds of Muslims demonstrators surrounded the embassies of Denmark and Norway. The Danish embassy in Lebanon was burnt, an event that caused the resignation of Lebanon Secretary of the Interior, Hassan Saba.

Bbcmundo.com quoted Hassan Saba’s words: “We had two options: keep people far just how we did or use weapons against them. I will never order the use of weapons against Lebanese’s.”

In addition, the Mohammed cartoons were related to the death of more than ten people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey, participants in protests when Muslim demonstrators faced resistance.

In this media event, newspapers became political actors, and publishing turned into an ideological action that brings consequences. Republishing the cartoons was also a political choice. The way they were presented is a decision that papers had to make, considering their own interests and the impact that the images would provoke among their readers.