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Lesson Plans

Prophet Muhammad cartoon debate continues 10 years later

October 2, 2015

Full Lesson


Prophet Muhammad — in Islam, the man believed to have been the last prophet of God to mankind and credited with establishing Islam in present-day Saudi Arabia

satire — the use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people or ideas one disagrees with, particularly in the context of contemporary politics

Ten years ago, a Danish newspaper published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, setting off a series of violent protests and debate throughout the world.

Images of the Prophet Muhammad are strictly forbidden in Islam and many Muslims were upset at the cartoons depicting Muhammad in offensive ways. The cartoons also brought into question what freedom of expression and freedom of religion mean to people living in a democratic society.

Freedom of speech supporters saw the cartoons as satirical and an important part of a debate over the role of religion in society.

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard received numerous death threats when the cartoon first published and survived an assassination attempt five years ago. “I think it’s a cartoonist’s, a satirist’s job to criticize those in power,” Westergaard said.

In 2006, more than 200 people in Turkey died in protests after the cartoons were published. In Denmark, many Muslims protested in the streets.

Some free speech activists worry that news organizations in Europe are self-censoring by not printing images of the prophet out of fears of being attacked by extremists.

Imran Shah of the Islamic Society of Denmark said there are no winners and losers in the debate. “The simple thing is to respect each other and not to force people to accept to be dishonored, ridiculed and so on and so forth,” Shah said.

The debate over freedom of religion and freedom of speech will likely continue as thousands of refugees from primarily Muslim countries arrive in Europe.

Warm up questions
  1. What is freedom of speech?
  2. Who is the Prophet Muhammad?
  3. What is the job of a political cartoonist?
  4. What is satire?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Is freedom of expression important to sustain democracy?
  2. Should cartoonists be able to draw satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, even if it upsets Muslims?
  3. Why is it important to find a balance between freedom of speech and freedom of religion?
  4. Some Muslims protesting magazines that publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad point to laws in some European countries forbidding anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish symbols and speech. Countries such as Germany, France and Austria, all places where the Holocaust had devastating effects, have laws against Nazi symbols and denying the Holocaust. Should free speech include pro-Nazi speech?