Yet the debate about whether to publish depictions of Muhammad – a practice generally prohibited in Islam and violently opposed by extremists – hasn't disappeared following the horrific events of the past few months. And now, a Danish proposal would push the debate far further than before – by putting cartoons of Muhammad in school textbooks.
Denmark's Association of Religious Education Teachers (known as the Religionslærerforeningen) this week told the Danish media that a series of controversial cartoons of Muhammad, first published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, should be printed in schoolchildren's learning materials. "It should come sooner rather than later," association Chairman John Rydahl was reported as saying in DR Nyheder.
When they were published a decade ago, the Jyllands-Posten cartoons became the first sparks of an ongoing controversy that reached a bloody crescendo in recent months. Inspired by the inability of writer Kåre Bluitgen to find anyone to depict Muhammad for his book on the Islamic prophet, the newspaper, one of the largest in Denmark, challenged cartoonists and illustrators to draw Muhammad for publication. Coming soon after the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who had created a film that criticized the way Islam relates to women, the project played into a broader European debate about the nature of freedom of speech amid Europe's growing Islamic population.
The newspaper published 12 cartoons of Muhammad in the end, including one especially controversial image, drawn by Kurt Westergaard, which showed the prophet with a bomb for a turban. The cartoons sparked an international incident, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing its ambassador from Denmark, and threats of violence were made against the newspaper and its cartoonists (Westergaard was the target of a murder plot in 2008). However, it also produced support, with the cartoons republished all around the world, and other artists – including Vilks and those working at Charlie Hebdo – inspired to draw Muhammad themselves, in turn drawing their own backlash.
Now, the country that sparked the debate about cartoons and Islam is in the middle of a big debate about how the controversy should be taught to children. The Copenhagen Post reports that several political parties – including Socialdemokraterne, the major partner in the coalition government – have expressed some degree of support for putting the subject matter on the curriculum, and many schools teach their students about the cartoons in history or social studies classes.
Some want more, however. The Danish People's Party, a right-wing populist party that enjoys the third-largest level of support in the country, went one step further by saying that religious studies teachers should be obligated to teach their students about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Mai Mercado, a spokesman for the right-wing Conservative Party, published an article in Jyllands-Posten itself that said children needed to learn about the cartoons to receive a key message about Danish society: "No matter how strong one's religious feelings are, or how much one cultivates their religion, you do not earn the right to violence or threats."
Will publishing the images in school textbooks help children understand the issue? Some have their doubts – Claus Hjortdal of Denmark's Headmaster Association told the BBC that publishing the images while knowing they will offend amounts to bullying. "One can easily talk about it without showing the images," Hjortdal explained.