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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Blasphemy in Ink: The Danish Muhammad Cartoons and their Fallout

In September 2005 a Danish newspaper published twelve satirical cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in ways that many Muslims consider to be blasphemous. The cartoons were accompanied by a strident editorial arguing everyone in a secular democracy that protects free expression must be prepared to face “scorn, ridicule, and humiliation” without receiving special consideration or legal protection.  The cartoons and editorial were intentionally provocative, and most of the ensuing media coverage duly reported the anger, resentment, recrimination and violence that broke out in more than a dozen countries around the world. Very few reports, however, closely examined the cartoons themselves.

On April 3 the Boisi Center invited John McCoy, information and collections specialist at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, to speak about these cartoons in the context of European and American traditions of political cartooning.  In a presentation entitled “Blasphemy in Ink: The Danish Muhammad Cartoons and their Fallout,” McCoy showed slides of the Danish cartoons alongside other examples of political cartoons with religious themes or targets. With the eye of a practitioner as well as a critic—McCoy is both an historian of graphic novels and cartoons and an illustrator and cartoonist himself—he described how certain features of the cartoons rendered them more aggressive or respectful or ambiguous. Kurt Westergaard’s infamous sketch of Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban was exacerbated, for example, by the turban’s inscription of  the shahadah, or Muslim profession of faith (“There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the prophet of Allah”). Claus Seidel’s depiction of the Prophet in modest Bedouin garb was “respectful” and clear-cut, whereas Peter Bugaard’s juxtaposition of  Muhammad’s face with the Islamic star and crescent was “poorly drawn and completely ambiguous.” In that sense, McCoy noted, Bugaard’s cartoon epitomized the group. A lively and wide-ranging Q&A period followed the presentation, which can be downloaded on the Boisi Center’s web site; a video recording will be posted early this summer.