Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 April 2007
The controversy over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons that swept the globe at the beginning of 2006 was arguably the second major event after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought “Muslims” as a group of political actors to the forefront of international politics. The crisis was sparked in late September 2005, by the publication of political cartoons, depicting Islamic prophet Muhammad, in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. While the original cause of controversy was limited to a small country in northern Europe, political actions spread worldwide, ranging from peaceful protests to diplomatic sanctions to consumer boycotts, and finally to open violence against anything symbolizing “the West.” The levels of political action were muddled, and responsibilities as well as the potential to act were confused. Almost all of the actors involved in the controversy were left without an appropriate counterpart to address. For example, the Arab League and Muslim organizations blamed the Danish government for the publication of the cartoons, and for not taking action against the independent publisher of Jyllands-Posten. Enraged Muslim citizens of countries as geographically distant as Lebanon, Sudan, and Indonesia attacked and ransacked Danish embassies, and threatened anyone coming from a country belonging to the European Union. The editors of several newspapers—e.g., in France and Jordan—who had decided to reprint the cartoons either in an act of journalistic solidarity with Jyllands-Posten or to inform their Muslim readership about the cartoons, were fired. And, terrorist group Al Qaeda put the editor and cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten, as well as all of Denmark, at the top of its target list. The diplomatic fallout from the cartoon publication was enormous and has severely shattered relations between European and Arab countries. Despite the enormity of the event, the question of how the publication of 12 cartoons in Denmark could lead to a global crisis that dominated the news and kept diplomats and politicians on alert for more than three months remains unanswered.