Comics / Spotlight / Religion and Comics

Editorial Cartoons Versus the Muslim Faith

By Hervé St-Louis
February 10, 2006 - 10:50

The Economist' February 10 2006 Cover
On September 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of editorial cartoons with caricatures of Muslim Prophet Mohamed. The acts, a calculated move to test free speech that is not perceived as absolute in Europe, nearly went unnoticed, until they resurfaced again in early February 2006. Since, the series of illustrations have caused uproar in several countries with large Muslim populations.

In the Muslim religion, depictions of the Prophet Mohamed are forbidden. The reaction on the cartoons has led to a boycott of Danish products, death threats against editors and cartoonists responsible for the cartoons, the destruction of the Danish embassy in Tehran, Iran by protesters. In a show of defiance, several other European newspapers have republished the Danish editorial cartoons.

A Harlot's Progress by Hogarth
Editorial cartoons are mainstays in Western politics and history and have influenced how civil society views its rulers and other notable individuals. Editorial cartoons seek to mock situations and people by resorting to caricature. In caricature, an illustrator distorts the features of a person or a concept to exposed another point. The point of caricature is to show the ugly side of people and things.

Editorial cartoons are very important to the world of comic books because they have given birth to comic strips, which in time were collected in compilations and sold again as comic books. In editorial cartoons, sequential illustrations were often used to show the progression of subjects depicted by illustrators. One such early comic strip was William Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, etched in 1732. It is about a young countryside woman arriving in a city and slowly becoming a prostitute.

Religious Art

Virgin Amolyntos or The Immaculate Virgin, 16th Century
It is usual in other religions to portray religious figures in art and caricatures. In fact, religious-based fine arts In the West have developed thanks to Christianity. All the great painters of the past depicted religious figures. One of the most prestigious subjects for many Western artists of the past was the scene of the Final Supper. One would judge an artist’ merits based on how good it looked.

The one limit imposed by Christianity was to not worship depictions of religious figures. This did not stop Byzantine Art in the Eastern Roman Empire to flourish. In particular, icons depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and more, were worshipped by the Romans and Greeks in that area. In the Orthodox Church, icons still play a prominent role.

Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt
If it is forbidden to portray the Prophet Mohamed, then works of fictions that have been highlights of modern culture would never exist. For example, a cartoon based on the life of the prophet, like the one created by Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt would be a tough sell. This cartoon’s reach has taught the story of Moses to many children aspects of Jewish history. Islam which is unknown and viewed with suspicion by many in the West, cannot use strong educational tools like animation to make itself better known.

Muslim Comics

Of note, Arab-based comics are available and carefully thread around the issue of Islam in their contents. Kuwait-based Teshkeel Media Group that republishes Marvel Comics in for the Middle Eastern market has developed its own line of comics. One of them, The 99 line of comics, features characters with one attribute each based on ancient Islamic sources. The company is very careful to not say that the character’s powers make them a match for Allah.

99 by Teshkeel Media Group
Egypt-based AK Comics circumvents the entire problem of attributing powers coming from God to comic book characters and depicting the Prophet Mohamed, by creating characters whose culture is from the Middle East, but not explicitly Muslims. They are probably of Muslim faith, but there are no apparent ties to Allah or the Prophet Mohamed as the source of their power.

In both instances, the comic book creators are carefully threading water, afraid of creating controversy while publishing positive Muslim role models for Middle Eastern readers. Muslims and Arabs in particular, in the world of North American comics, are often depicted as villains and extremists. Middle Eastern publishers like AK Comics and Teshkeel have a delicate task on their hands.

To Publish or to Not Publish

Jalia #6 by AK Comics
Finding the series of Danish caricature is not an easy task. It would seem that self-censorship has already affected the media that trumpet their freedom of press at every turn. The collaboration of Western officials in this cultural divide has been less than supportive of the media. A common question asked is whether to sacrifice the value of freedom of the press from the respect due to others. In particular, the Danish series on Islam was designed to hurt.

I finally found the illustrations. I asked myself whether I should post them at The Comic Book Bin in support of freedom of the press. But there are a few concerns. First, I asked myself what’s the point of publishing them?

The opinion of Cuban Cartoonist Enrique Lacoste
What do I have to prove? It turns out I don’t have much to prove. I’m rather apolitical usually, so publishing the cartoons here would prove nothing whatsoever and maybe put me on a black list in the Muslim world. I don’t have any issues with Muslims. My third reason is more important and the real clincher here. I have very good Muslim friends. I never discussed it with them. These are dear friends, and I understand that publishing these images could hurt them. I don’t want to hurt them.

Nevertheless, I’d like to describe the caricatures to those who seek them out. I don’t know if it’s against Islam to describe the contents of an illustration, but I’m not a Muslim, and I want to inform those who like me wonder what the hell this uproar is about. You’ll notice that the media doesn’t show any of the cartoons in news broadcasts, in the papers or on the Web also. I wonder what their reasons were.

Depictions of Prophet Mohamed

The first illustration features a row of suspects with turbans. A man standing behind a protective window is trying to identify which one of them is the Prophet Mohamed. The first guy on the left, is a peace-loving hippy, next, is a small woman, probably in her 50s. She looks like a secretary. Next, there’s a guy that looks like Jesus Christ. Next, there’s Buddha, followed by a tanned guy with a white beard who could very well be Arab. Next, there’s a Jew with his curly hair. Finally there’s a stupid guy, who reminds me of Bill Gates.

The next cartoon features a guy that looks similar to the Bill Gates look alike from the previous cartoon. He may very well be a Danish personality but not being Danish, I have no idea who he is. He sports a turban with an orange on his head that says “PR stunt.” He holds a stick character cartoon of Prophet Mohamed.

The next drawing has an Arab-looking guy with two moon crescents on his head. They resemble horns, as if he were a demon. Please don’t blow me up. He looks peaceful enough.

The next drawing in line features a cartoonist drawing the Prophet Mohamed on a drafting table. That illustration is meant to show the process of giving a human depiction of the prophet, the very act that is against the teachings of Islam.

Next is a guy that looks like a Bedouin in a desert pulling a donkey. He looks unhappy.

Next is a series of symbols assemble together to resemble people. The symbols show an angry crowd. The base symbols are a star of David and a moon crescent. This cartoon protests against Muslim women forced to cover their faces.

Next, there’s a sheik in a fortress that’s holding a paper in his hands and reading it. He tells his henchmen with large sabres ready to cut their opponents into pieces to hold off, as the illustrator is a Danish Christian who doesn’t believe.

The next drawing shows an Arab with a stripe shirt and jeans teaching on a black board. On the board, written in Arabic, a translation tells us that the Danish folks are nothing but provocateurs.

Next, there’s a composition using various symbols, such as a star, and a crescent. They are part of a composition of an Arab with a turban.

The next illustration shows a man with a beard with two women dressed in black with their face totally covered, except for their eyes. The man’s eyes are covered with the exact same type of box which only allows us to see the eyes of the women. The man holds a large knife.

The next illustration is the funniest of the series - considering most were not funny at all. I would even say that they are boring and uninspired. A Muslim man in heaven, Similar to Saint Peters, at the front end of paradise, tells cripples who have self-detonated bombs in suicidal attacks to stop doing it because they are running out of virgins up there.

The last illustration is the one that has caused the most uproar. It features the head of a Muslim man with a bomb that’s been detonated on his turban. Many have claimed that this illustration was the Prophet Mohamed.

The King’s Fool

An Iranian Cartoonist Responds To The Danish Caricatures
The art of editorial cartoons has always survived on the edges of society. Cartoonists are often the first victims in change of regimes and used an example to warn other people about the rules in place. A popular cartoonist can easily turn into a villain the next day. A cartoonist is often judged on the tastes of the days and his last drawing. There has been a tendency to tone down editorial cartoons recently. Attacks come from the political correct left and the reactionary right.

Yet, political cartoons that used to be staples of Western culture have been morphed into bland comic strips with funny animals that are gaining new grounds day by day. For example, Iran hosts a vibrant community of political cartoonists that fight against their political regime. In their case, their strength doesn’t stem from the portrayal of the Prophet Mohamed. It stems from the very power of cartoons. Illustrations with meaning that can bring down any institution or man.

I’m not going to post the illustrations on the site. The Comic Book Bin is not about politics, but about comics. Also, I really don’t have anything to add to this debate. Don’t expect me to send you the illustrations privately nor help you find them on the Web. Don’t even try, you’ll be wasting your time and I’m telling you, I won’t respond to demands.

Last Updated: January 24, 2022 - 11:00

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