Responses to the Prophet Muhammad Cartoon Competition

Ariel Koch analyzes the social media controversy that followed the Dutch Party for Freedom's declaration of a planned Prophet Muhammad caricature contest to be held in the parliament building.

Stop Blasphemous Cartoons, from Twitter
From Twitter. 

On June 12, the Dutch Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders and known for its opposition to Islam and Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and Europe in general, announced that it would hold a contest for caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in its offices in the Dutch parliament.[1] They decided to hold the contest after receiving approval from the National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV), approval which was apparently predicated on the assumption that the parliament building is a secure location. The initiative quickly provoked furious responses and calls for its cancellation that were shared on social networks, as well as overt threats from Islamic extremists against Wilders and other contest participants.

In recent years, organizations and people identified with Al-Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadi movements have threatened anyone who, in their view, sullies the honor of the Muslim prophet. A particularly conspicuous example was the November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van-Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri, a young Dutchman of Moroccan origin, in Amsterdam. The pretext for the murder was a short video produced by Van-Gogh, “Submission,” in which a woman is shown naked except for a veil concealing her face. In a scene that aroused angry reactions from many Muslims, she recites verses from the Koran that also adorn her body. Bouyeri stabbed Van-Gogh several dozen times in the presence of stunned passers-by, and then impaled a five-page manifesto justifying his act on the corpse.[2]

Over the years that followed, various newspapers and magazines in Europe published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, either to protest Van-Gogh’s murder and/or out of a desire to promote discussion of the possibility of criticizing Islam, and/or to attack Islamic extremists. One of the most memorable examples, published in the Danish newspaper Jyllandes-Posten in September 2005, depicted the Prophet with a bomb-shaped turban on his head.[3] These, and other incidents, led to angry demonstrations around the world and at Western embassies in Islamic countries,[4] as well as Muslim legal rulings (“fatawa”) authorizing the killing of the artists, as happened after distribution of the video “Innocence of Muslims,” which presented the prophet in a grotesque manner on YouTube in 2012. [5]

In March 2013, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula published a list of individuals accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed, for the express purpose of encouraging readers to harm them.[6] This list, which appeared in the tenth edition of the organization’s online terrorism magazine, Inspire, included Muslim authors such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie, who were exiled from their countries because of the criticism of Islam; cartoonists from Sweden and Denmark who drew scornful depictions of the Prophet in various magazines; American pastor Terry Jones, who burned the Koran and called on others around the world to do likewise;[7] and Stéphane Charbonnier, editor of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons of the prophet.

The calls fell on attentive ears, and in January 2015 the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, including Stéphane Charbonnier. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for the attack.[8] Four months later, two supporters of ISIS opened fire at people viewing the Jihad Watch Mohammed Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest in Garland, Texas, which was organized by Pamela Geller, a right-wing American activist who battles what she calls the “Islamization of America.” One person was wounded before the attackers were neutralized by an armed guard.[9] In 2015, four secular bloggers who critiqued radical Islam were assassinated in Bangladesh in attacks attributed to Ansar al-Islam Bengala, an affiliate of the al-Qaeda branch for the Indian subcontinent. [10]

Therefore, the aggressive responses to the cartoon competition launched by the Dutch Party for Freedom were unsurprising. Protests were circulated using the hashtag “#StopBlasphemousCartoonContest).” Among the reactions were those of Pakistani users who called for the closure of the Dutch Embassy in Pakistan.[11] Similarly, a picture showing the Dutch parliament and the Dutch flag in the upper frame, with Muslim horsemen with swords drawn in the lower part, accompanied by text reading, “You started it in Parliament. We will finish it in Battlefield [sic]” .[12] Another example, published by a Twitter account called “Bint al-Fakir” stated: “There is a line between freedom of speech and ‘hate speech.’ Geert Wilders’ dogs cross it. Wait for a Tanveer Qadri ‎ or Amir Cheema to teach you a fitting lesson. See you soon.”[13] Amir Cheema, of Pakistani origin, planned the murder a German journalist who published caricatures of the Prophet on March 20, 2006,[14] while Tanveer Qadri, also of Pakistani origin, stabbed Asad Shah, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, on March 24, 2016 in Scotland, after the latter posted videos on YouTube claiming he was a prophet.[15]

Responses to the contest also came from accounts affiliated with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On one channel of the Taliban Pakistan, someone wrote in Urdu and English: “If heresy against a person who is holy to 1.25 billion people around the world isn’t terrorism, there is no terrorism in this world.”[16] The statements were accompanied by hashtags“#StopTerrorismbyGeertWilders,” #ourprophetourhonour, “#ceasedutchembassy,” and “#NoToNetherlandproducts.” On a Taliban-affiliated Telegram channel in Afghanistan, Wilders’ picture appeared on “wanted poster” with the caption “Wanted dead/slaughtered,” with the promised reward for the killing listed as “Jannah” or paradise.[17] On another Taliban-affiliated channel, Wilders was depicted in orange overalls, reminiscent of those worn by prisoners being executed in ISIS videos, and the caption: “Soon, very soon. The lions of Islam are coming for you, cowardly Wilders.”[18] Similar words were also published on a Telegram channel identified with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda: “We shall kill and incite against all those who attack our beloved Prophet, even if we have to sacrifice every last drop of our blood. Oh, dirty infidels, we will show you the fire in this world.”[19] Despite the volume of content originating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is important to note that protests were voiced across the Muslim world.

Events from the past few years prove that the threats to harm editors and participants in cartoon contests focused on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the artists and sponsors, magazines and journals do not end with inflammatory rhetoric. Jihadist extremists are interested in avenging every insult to the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad, and win sympathy from all Muslims. Despite this, the people and organizations being threatened, especially those from the right-wing, remain steadfast and continue to take inflammatory steps, often to raise political capital, attract attention and confirm the existence of an “Islamic threat” to the West, as they define it.

[1] "Dutch anti-Islam party to hold Prophet Mohammad cartoon competition", Reuters, 12 June 2018.

[2] Beatrice de-Graaf, "The Nexus Between Salafism and Jihadism in the Netherlands", CTC Sentinel, Vol. 3, No. 3, March 2010: 17-22.

[3] Peter Hervik, "The Danish Muhammad Cartoon Conflict", Current Themes in IMER Research, Malmö University, No. 13, 2012, p. 32.  

[4] Jytte Klausen, The Cartoons That Shook the Word (USA: Yale University Press, 2009)

[5] "Fatwa issued against 'Innocence of Muslims' film producer", The Telegraph, 18 September 2012.

[6] Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's al-Malaḥim Media, "Yes we can. A bullet a day keeps the infidels away", Inspire, March 2013, Issue 10, pp. 14-15.

[7] Lauren Russell, "Church plans Quran-burning event", CNN, 31 July 2010.

[8] Catherine E. Shoichet, "Al Qaeda branch claims Charlie Hebdo attack was years in the making", CNN, 21 january 2015.

[9] William J. Gorta, "Garland shooting: 'Draw Muhammad' contest host Pamela Geller wants more, similar events", NBC News, 5 May 2015.

[10] "Fourth secular Bangladesh blogger hacked to death", Al-Jazeera, 8 August 2015.

[11] @Shah1Hira, 8 July 2018, Last accessed 18 July 2018.

[12] @AliTayasar, 7 July 2018, . Last accessed 18 July 2018.

[13] @binte_faqeer, 7 July 2018, Last accessed 18 July 2018. This account has since been deactivated.

[14] Huge crowds at Pakistani funeral", BBC, 13 May 2006.

[15] Libby Brooks, "Man admits murder of Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah", The Guardian, 7 July 2016.

[16] @Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan Ghazi Force (تحریک طالبان پاکستان غازی فورس), July 2018, Telegram. Last accessed 18 July 2018: If, the blasphemy of a person who is sacred among 1.25 billion people of the world, is not a terrorism. So there is no terrorism exists in this world.

[17] @Beautifulafghan, Telegram, 7 July 2018. Last accessed 16 July 2018.

[18] @DigitalResistance Telegram channel, 6 July 2018. Last accessed 14 July 2018. The channel has since been closed, with no sharable link. channel. 

[19] @TawheedAwākenīng《Media》Telegram channel, 7 July  2018. The channel is closed. There was no sharable link to this channel. Last accessed 14 July 2018: Defending the honour of our Prophet in today's age is the greater Jihad. […] And you don't need a permission from Shaykhs and callers to kill those who insult and attack the honour of our prophet. […] We will kill and we will incite against all those who attack our beloved Prophet even if we have to sacrifice the last drop our blood. […] O filthy Kaffirs we will show you the hell in this duniya […] May Allah choose us in the blessed ones who take Shahadah defending the honour of our beloved Prophet. Ameen.