January 2, 2010: Attempted murder of Danish cartoonist behind ‘Muhammad satire’

We in the West take editorial cartoons and lampooning for granted: terrorists don’t.

We in the West take editorial cartoons and lampooning for granted: terrorists don’t.

I don’t know about you but I am a huge Gary Larson fan. He is the genius behind The Far Side, a one-panel cartoon that ran from 1979 to 1995. There was little Mr. Larson could not poke fun of although scientists were a particular subject of his pen. I cannot tell you how many of his drawings adorned my cubicle when I worked at CSE as a multilingual intelligence analyst in the 1980s and 1990s. Lots.

One thing I treasure about Western society is political humour. We are allowed, under freedom of expression statutes, to say – or draw – just about anything about anybody, including those in power. Nothing underscores democracy more than a cartoon taking the mickey out of an elected official.

Not all countries are ok with this form of criticism. Some outlaw it completely or invent laws saying that cartoons somehow undermine the public order. Whatever. Another group that does not appear to have a funny bone is terrorists.

This is of course not surprising. When you are busy saving the world, or destroying it, or doing both simultaneously, you simply don’t have time for a belly laugh. That is too bad as I have laughed out loud on countless occasions upon viewing a Gary Larson piece or similar offerings.

Jihadists – Islamist terrorists – are particularly mirthless. These wankers are so tied up in their warped sense of religious purity that they are incapable of cracking a smile. Their collective moroseness extends to others: no one should have a good time, whether it be by watching comedy, or having a drink, or attending a sports event, or going to a concert, or just about anything aside from serious religious reflection – on their terms naturally.

When you are busy saving the world, or destroying it, or doing both simultaneously, you simply don’t have time for a belly laugh.

So when someone else tries to be provocative these guys don’t get the joke. They just get angry. And that anger turns to efforts to kill those responsible for the ‘insult’ to whatever it is the terrorists hold dear.

One famously lethal incident occurred a decade ago in response to a 2005 ‘cartoon contest’ sponsored by the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten to draw pictures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad after it had learned that a Danish writer was unable to find an illustrator prepared to work on his children’s book The Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Twelve cartoon were submitted: here are a few of those submissions

More than four years later, on January 2, 2010, a 27-year-old Somali man armed with a knife and axe tried to break in to the house of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westegaard, one of the authors of the drawings (the one above with Muhammad’s turban in the shape of a bomb). The assailant then tried to attack a police officer with an axe and was shot in his right leg and his left arm before being taken in custody.

This was definitely an act of terrorism as it was serious violence motivated by religion. That it failed was a blessing.

I recall at the time arguments on both sides of the debate on whether the cartoon contest should have been held in the first place. Those who felt it should wanted to uphold freedom – of worship, thought, expression, etc. Those who held the other view thought it was tasteless. Frankly, I can see merit in both. While nothing should be sacrosanct or off limits there are better ways to make your point than to draw crude images. At least that is my perspective.

Interestingly, this affair has not gone away (the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack which also occurred early in the New Year – January 7, 2015 – is perhaps the most well known). It now turns out that Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who really hates Islam and will do anything to hog the limelight, has just announced the winner of a contest for caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, more than a year after cancelling a similar event due to the fear of a violent backlash.

Really Geert? Been there done that.

We will see more attempts, of that I am sure. In the end we need to denounce terrorism at every turn, regardless of the form it takes. That is non-negotiable.

But do we have to mock the faith of a billion people just because we can? Maybe. Maybe not. This is not a call for censorship, just a sense of decency regarding what some hold dearly.

Then again if we say some things are off limits many would accuse us of heading down a ‘slippery slope’ (am I the only one who thinks that term is VASTLY overused?). This ain’t easy folks. Those who pretend it is are not really thinking this through.

Sorry I can’t come up with a pat answer to this. You are free to ‘draw’ your own conclusions.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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