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New York Review of Books: Why Are the Muhammad Cartoons Still Inciting Violence?

Author: Malise Ruthven
February 9, 2011


More than five years after Danish artist Kurt Westergaard published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, lives continue to be lost. Malise Ruthven of the New York Review of Books investigates why.

More than five years after Danish artist Kurt Westergaard published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, lives continue to be lost and—if we are to believe the police and intelligence agencies of dozens of countries—assassinations are still being attempted and plotted because Muslims have been angered by the display of such images. In December, a suicide bomber inspired by other insulting drawings of Muhammad attacked a busy shopping street in Stockholm; on Friday, a court in Copenhagen sentenced a Somali man to nine years in prison for attempting to kill Westergaard.

Traditional Islamic doctrine offers little explanation for this violent response. There is no explicit ban on figurative art in the Quran, and representations of Muhammad, though absent from public spaces, appear in illuminated manuscripts up until the seventeenth century; they still feature in the popular iconography of Shiism, where antipathy to pictures of the Prophet is much less prevalent. There are numerous such depictions—faceless or veiled as an indication of his holiness, or even depicted with facial features—in manuscript collections. It is only quite recently that Muslims living in the west have begun lodging objections to the reproduction of these images in books. The objections are by no means confined to a militant fringe. Populist sentiment—fuelled by the Salafist or “fundamentalist” trends emanating from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, has produced a near consensus among a majority of Muslims that representations of the Prophet and other holy figures are forbidden by Islam.

All the more puzzling, the recent iconophobia in popular Islam has largely ignored the spread of such images on the Web. Indeed, all the images that have been cited in the cartoons controversy are readily accessible online, including Westergaard's notorious cartoon published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, and a more recent one by Swedish artist Lars Vilks showing him as a dog, modeled on the canine sculptures that since 2006 have been installed on Swedish traffic circles.

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