Copenhagen attacks: Why an eight-year-old cartoon continues to inflame

One of the apparent targets of the Copenhagen shootings was a cartoonist who drew an unflattering depiction of the Prophet Mohammad back in 2007.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Investigative personnel work at the scene of a cafe shooting in Oesterbro, in Copenhagen, Sunday. Danish police shot and killed the man in Copenhagen on Sunday they believe was responsible for two deadly attacks at an event promoting freedom of speech and on a synagogue.

How long does it take for the wrath of a violent extremist to dissipate?

Saturday's shooting spree in Copenhagen, which killed two civilians and wounded five police officers, began at a free-speech event attended by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who eight years ago drew a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a dog.

The man allegedly behind the attacks was killed in a shootout with police on Sunday morning. Officials have identified, but did not name, him, saying only that he was a 22 years old, a native of Denmark, and had a history of gang-related violence.

That means he would have been just 14 when Vilks published his infamous cartoon. Zealotry, it seems, has a keen memory.

This means that those who happen to offend zealots may be in for a decade or more of grudge-holding.  Dr. Vilks knows this all too well: since his 2007 cartoon appeared in the Swedish daily   Nerikes Allehanda, he has been subject to numerous death threats, including a $100,000 price on his head issued by the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He says that he now keeps an ax at his bedside. 

Mr. Vilks was one of the main speakers at Saturday's panel discussion, titled "Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression." He was whisked away by his bodyguards as the shooting began, and was unharmed.

Vilks, 68, later told The Associated Press he believed he was the intended target of the shooting.

"What other motive could there be? It's possible it was inspired by Charlie Hebdo," he said, referring to the Jan. 7 attack by Islamic extremists on the French newspaper.

Vilks is not alone in facing threats. “In nearly half of the world’s countries, journalists and bloggers constantly face censorship in the name of religions, prophets or God,” according to a study by Reporters Without Borders. “If an article involving religion is deemed to be ‘insulting’ or a violation of ‘moral standards,’ the consequences can be dramatic for the author. In countries where laws are so severe that they may even include the death penalty, news and information providers have had to censor themselves for years.”

Using Author Salman Rushdie’s decade in hiding following the publication of “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 as a rule of thumb, Vilkes’ eight years as a target for his political cartoon’s publication my help to build a data arc of an offense’s half-life.

Mr. Rushdie lived in hiding for over a decade under the alias "Joseph Anton" (after Anton Chekov) according to an interview with Der Spiegel in 2012, after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the author's death.

"Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today,” Rushdie said in a statement sent to The Christian Science Monitor after the attacks in Paris.

“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. “Respect for religion” has become a code phrase meaning “fear of religion.” Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." 

The Vilks Committee is committee is organized annually, on the anniversary of Salman Rushdie’s fatwa. 

In a phone interview, Brigham Young University humanities professor Kerry Soper, who specializes in the history of comedy and satire in various media saif that he would caution any cartoonist considering this kind of lampoon, "This kind of satire is so volatile in nature that it's almost radioactive."

"It' such a complicated process to do political satire," adds Dr. Soper, who published a book on political cartoonist Gary Trudeau. "You have distortion, exaggeration mixed with the real politics and news and that is a recipe for disaster because it's so volatile."

Soper says that political cartoonists today are particularly vulnerable to becoming perpetual targets by extremists, "When you factor-in the cultural divide between radical Islam and the cartoonists it's nothing but dangerous."

Heidi Brooks a professor of Religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York says in a phone interview, "This is not just Islamic in nature. It's regional. It harkens back to Bedouin tribal practices that the Prophet Mohammed tried to end. The practice was that if your face is blackened  you must continue to retaliate until that shame or guilt is removed."

Brooks adds, "There are going to be some people who subscribe to that tribal methodology rather than the Koranic version and if they never feel the blackening of their people has been removed they will retaliate forever. They will never stop because they feel that shame has not been taken away." 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.