Echoes of Charlie Hebdo in attack on Texas Muhammad cartoon event

Texas police killed two gunmen on Sunday after they opened fired outside the exhibit, which was hosted by a prominent anti-Islam group in a Dallas suburb. 

Gregory Castillo/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Security officials walk around the perimeter of the Curtis Culwell Center on Sunday in Garland, Texas. A contest for cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Dallas suburb is on lockdown Sunday after authorities reported a shooting outside the building.

Two gunmen were killed in an attack on a cartoon contest to draw the prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas, Sunday night – an incident and event that has invoked both January's Charlie Hebdo attacks and the anti-Muslim cartoons from Europe that sparked the controversy over Hebdo.

The gunmen reportedly drove up to the event, a "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest," some time before 7 p.m.  at the Curtis Culwell Center, a public event space run by the local school district. The two men opened fire on the event, wounding an unarmed security guard in the ankle, before being shot and killed by police, who were already nearby providing security.

The Associated Press reports that the bomb squad was called in to search the gunmen's bodies and their car for explosives. "Because of the situation of what was going on today and the history of what we've been told has happened at other events like this, we are considering their car [is] possibly containing a bomb," Officer Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland Police Department, said at a news conference.

The gunmen have not yet been identified, and police say there were no credible threats made ahead of the event.

But the attack has already stirred comparisons to the deadly attack in Paris on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi killed 12 people, including several of the magazine's cartoonists, over its frequent depictions of the prophet Muhammad.

Indeed, yesterday's event was a direct response to one held on the same site in late January called "Stand with the Prophet." The Dallas Morning News reports that that January event spurred the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a group led by prominent anti-Islam activist Pam Geller, to organize the cartoon contest at the same location. The AFDI is considered an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and hate organizations.

The event was attended Ms. Geller, who described it as an exercise of free speech, as well as prominent far-right politician Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party. Mr. Wilders reportedly gave the keynote speech, in which he similarly depicted anti-Muhammad imagery as a matter of free speech. "Muhammad fought and terrorized people with the swords. Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword," he said.

But as The Christian Science Monitor reported during the aftermath of the Hebdo attacks, the Muhammad cartoon controversies over the past decade or so were not simply exercises of free speech, but were also deeply rooted in anti-Islamic sentiments. They first peaked in Denmark, and were given loudest voice by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (JP), which routinely railed against Islam and its adherents.

“Jyllands-Posten’s official voice was more critical of Islam than anyone else, often speaking about Islam and Muslims as an enemy,” says [anthropologist Peter Hervik]. “The veil was compared to the swastika, Muslims to tumors, and Islam was called a plague to be fought like Nazism…. There seems no limit to what can be said in the Danish public.”

It was JP that organized the first Muhammad cartoons, as "part of the provocative local anti-Muslim campaign sweeping Denmark, not a statement about free speech."

The Muhammad cartoon crisis actually began with Kare Bluitgen, a Danish Marxist author who is avowedly secular and anti-Islam. Mr. Bluitgen wanted to illustrate a children’s book on Islam that would depict the face of Muhammad, something that is offensive to orthodox Muslims. According to a 2005 Danish wire story, Bluitgen commented at a dinner party that Danish artists were afraid to draw the prophet.

The story was an overnight sensation. In fact, after the dust settled, only one illustrator was ever found who refused to take on Bluitgen’s book project.

Yet based on the wire story, the JP cultural editor, Mr. Rose, decided to test Danes' self-censorship. On a Wednesday, he issued an invitation to Danish cartoonists (not illustrators, about whom Bluitgen complained) to draw Muhammad “as you see him.” By Friday, 12 of Denmark's 25 working cartoonists responded with images. They were published in the paper on Sept. 30, 2005, next to an editorial titled “The Threat of Darkness.”

The cartoons were not uniformly anti-Muslim. Because of JP's reputation for Islam-bashing, several of the 12 cartoons actually made fun of the campaign, one calling it a "PR stunt." Another showed a Muslim migrant schoolboy in Denmark called “Muhammad” pointing to a blackboard with the words, “The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” 

In retrospect, Hervik argues, the Danish cartoons picked up by Charlie Hebdo were always intended to be part of the provocative local anti-Muslim campaign sweeping Denmark, not a statement about free speech.

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