Controversial Content

Case Study: The Danish Cartoons Controversy


In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Mohammad. The cartoons were controversial in that they maligned the Muslim religion and drew on negative stereotype of Muslims as terrorists. One cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban was seen to be the most controversial.

The controversy grew bigger when dozens of newspapers worldwide republished these cartoons, often provoking heated and in some cases violent responses from Muslim audiences.

According to the BBC, this is how the controversy developed:

  • 30 September: Danish paper publishes cartoons
  • 20 October: Muslim ambassadors complain to the Danish prime minister
  • 10 January: Norwegian publication reprints cartoons
  • 26 January: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador
  • 30 January: Gunmen raid the office of the European Union in Gaza demanding apology
  • 31 January: Danish paper apologizes
  • 1 February: papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain reprint cartoons
  • 4 February: Syrians attack Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus
  • 5 February: Lebanese demonstrators set the Danish embassy on fire; Lebanese Minister of Interior resigns

Many Muslims around the world felt offended by the creation and publishing of the cartoons, as it is prohibited in Islam to draw any images of the prophet. What appeared as an act of freedom of expression to some Western media outlets looked like plain racism, Islamophobia, ignorance and blasphemy to many Muslim audiences. While some Europeans saw the critics of the cartoons as criticizing freedom of expression, many Muslims believed that freedom of speech should not cross certain limits.

Those media outlets that decided to publish the cartoons provoked both political as well as economic repercussions. The reactions were so extreme that Danish Prime Minister described the controversy as “Denmark’s worst international crisis since World War II.”

The following photographs show some of the reactions:

A Palestinian holding the Danish flag during a street protest over the cartoons.Protesters set Danish embassies on fire in Beirut, Damascus and Teheran. A campaign was launched to boycott Danish products in some Islamic countries.Another campaign was launched to support Danish products and counter the boycott




This was a situation in which the same media messages - those embedded in the cartoons - were received differently by different audiences. And those messages were reinforced by newspapers and other media outlets on opposite sides chosing to highlight the differences between the European and Muslim audiences.

The controversy was framed in East vs. West terms--a framing that only served to widen the gap between those on opposite sides, reinforce the "us vs. “them” discourse, confirm the preexisting stereotypes held by both--all--sides.

A cartoon of the controversy by Joergen Bitsch depicting the “Muslim” and “Western” clashing perspectives.What is the influence of global media today? They are the representatives of their own and other cultures. Media can be a bridge that connects people worldwide and raises awareness on global issues. But media can also create or widen gaps between cultures, communities, and populations, often by way of serving political or economic ends.

How then should media handle culturally sensitive topics? Do we need to practice self-restraint in order to prevent social, cultural, and political clashes? Is self-restraint a form of censorship? Is it a breach of the freedom of expression?

— The original cartoons that started this controversy. —