Putting controversy in ‘context’

PANEL/Experts discuss press freedom, cultural clashes and the causes of the Muhammad cartoon mess.


The fury that erupted over the recent publishing of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad has largely subsided. The long-term effects on the relationship between the West and Middle East may be more serious, though.

That, says Penn’s Adnan Zulfiqar, is because many in the West—including Americans who condemned violence that broke out in the Middle East—don’t understand the context in which these riots took place. “The West has not been interested in the context in which these cartoons have elicited such a response,” said Zulfiqar, a dual doctoral student in law and Islamic studies, at a panel discussion at Penn Museum on Feb. 20. “The West has not sought to contextualize this.”

The evening’s program, “Drawing Controversy, Images of Muhammad,” sought to do just that. Joining Zulfiqar on stage were Renata Holod, the Museum’s curator of Islamic art and professor of History of Art and Signe Wilkinson, the Daily News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist.

Holod provided historical context, showing slides from the 9th through 20th centuries that depicted Muhammad on coins, in books and even in a photograph. “The story of Muhammad and that it can be illustrated is not something new,” she said. Holod also showed illustrations of heavenly scenes and attempts to illustrate the scent of the prophet. “The idea that text can be expanded by illustrations is not rare.”

Wilkinson took a different tack, emphasizing the importance of being able to say nearly anything in her work. “I hope in this short time I have been allotted I offend each and every one of you,” she said with a laugh. Wilkinson then praised her rival paper, the Inquirer for running the offending cartoon shortly after rioting broke out in the Middle East. The majority of American press who refused to run the images, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe—the members of what she called the “axis of earnestness”—were simply “too darn chicken to show them.”

Wilkinson showed slides of cartoons throughout history—including an anti-Catholic Thomas Nast cartoon from 1871 and a racist image from the early 1900s—and compared those to her own work from the pages of the Daily News. Wilkinson, who once drew a cartoon with the caption, “Radical Islam Sponsors the Miss Muslim World Contest,” that featured contestants with name tags reading “Miss Illiteracy,” Miss Waiting to be Stoned” and “Miss Can’t Vote,” has been accused by readers of being anti-just about every faith. As a cartoonist, however, she says she always carefully weighs the images before drawing them. She says she asks herself, “Does your content obscure the point because of the images you use?” If it does, she says it may not be worth using in a cartoon.

Zulfiqar was critical of what he saw as a “neo-colonial discourse that is dominating cartoons today.” He noted that the West condemned the protests or riots—some of which were violent—by “ignoring the racist demons in their own closets.”

Holod, in response to an audience question, said there are two parts to a civil society—freedom of opinion and respect for others. “There are very few places in the Muslim world where [freedom of opinion] exists,” she said, while adding, “it’s one thing to make fun ... It’s another to operate in a space that shows a lack of respect and disdain.”

Originally published on March 16, 2006