10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Original Muhammad Controversy
With thousands taking to the streets in protest after a YouTube video mocked Muhammad, many pundits are comparing the situation to the mother of all Muslim controversies: the so-called Muhammad Cartoon Crisis of 2005 and 2006, which exploded after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons under the headline "The Face of Muhammad.”
Hundreds of thousands of people protested the cartoons, leaving nearly 250 dead and 800 or so wounded. The new uproar over the Innocence of Muslims video — in which protests have left scores dead and relations shaky between the West and the Islamic world — is occurring almost exactly seven years after the old one.
In fact, Wednesday is the anniversary of the precipitating event: On Sept. 19, 2005, Jyllands-Posten invited Danish cartoonists and illustrators to draw Muhammad "as they see him,” promising to publish all submissions. The newspaper printed the now-notorious cartoons on Sept. 30, 2005. (Update: French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published a new Muhammad cartoon Wednesday, stoking fresh outrage.)
Although the original Muhammad Cartoon Crisis made headlines around the world, there are many intriguing details that most people still don’t know. Earlier this year, as part of our global exploration into what makes things funny, we traveled to Denmark to investigate the only cartoons ever to be called a human rights violation by the United Nations. We discovered a tale far more complex and surreal than we’d ever imagined. Here are a few of the odd elements behind what scholars have labeled "the first transnational humor scandal”:
1) Not Necessarily ‘The Face of Muhammad’
Since the cartoons were published under the headline "The Face of Muhammad,” it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume they all satirized the Muslim prophet. But in fact, of the 12 cartoons, two don’t portray Muhammad at all; in three others, the depictions are ambiguous at best. One cartoon is completely unintelligible; in a Harper’s Magazine critique, cartoonist Art Spiegelman said as best he could tell, it’s of five Pac-Men eating stars and crescents.
2) A Subversive Message Got Lost
One cartoon, by liberal illustrator Lars Refn, made fun of Jyllands-Posten and its notoriously far-right politics. As requested, Refn drew Muhammad as he saw him, but not Muhammad the Prophet. Instead he drew Muhammad, a seventh-grade boy from a local school district, dressed in the jersey of a nearby soccer club known for its diversity and socialist leanings. In the picture, "Muhammad” has written on a blackboard, "The board of direction of Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of right-wing extremists.”
The subtitles in Refn’s cartoon were lost in the ensuing controversy, however, and like several of his colleagues, he briefly had to take his family into hiding. As Refn told us when we met him earlier this year, "If I had known a billion people would see this, I would have made a better drawing.”
3) Still Waiting for ‘Muhammad the Profit’
"First there was Muhammad the Prophet. Now there is Muhammad the profit.”
The most controversial and iconic of the 12 cartoons was penned by Jyllands-Posten staff cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. He depicted Muhammad wearing a sizzling bomb for a turban. Since then, Westergaard has been the target of multiple attacks. He’s lived under 24-hour-a-day armed security ever since an intruder smashed through his back door with an ax in 2010.
The cartoon that got him into the mess sits in a vault somewhere, waiting for the right buyer. When we visited him, Westergaard told us a $5,000 offer came from Martin J. McNally, a former American sailor who spent several decades in prison after hijacking a Boeing 727 in 1972, only to be nabbed once he parachuted out over rural Indiana. Westergaard’s still waiting on a better bid. "As my very practical wife puts it,” he told us, "‘first there was Muhammad the Prophet. Now there is Muhammad the profit.’” (continue reading...)