Dangerous Depictions: A Visual Case Study of Contemporary Cartoon Controversies

Marion G Müller, Esra Özcan, Ognyan Seizov. Popular Communication. Volume 7, Issue 1. January-March 2009.


With their increasing global dissemination, visuals have assumed an important role in international political communication. The crisis sparked by Muhammad cartoons that swept the globe in early 2006, re-emerging two years later with the republication of the cartoons, testifies to the global conflict potential of visuals. Language barriers still set limits to global textual communication, yet visuals transgress those barriers and evoke different responses in different cultural contexts. In this paper we compare three connected cases of cartoon controversies in the year 2006: the cartoon conflict triggered by the publication of 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting Muslim prophet Muhammad; the follow-up event of a cartoon competition initiated by the Iranian government, ridiculing the Holocaust; and “free-riding” on the global impact of the Muhammad cartoons, and 12 cartoons published in Bulgaria, depicting Libyan leader Khadafi in the context of a trial of Bulgarian nurses, accused of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV<sup>1</sup>. <sup>1</sup>Our thanks for alerting us to this cartoon conflict go to Deyan Vitanov, who participated in the first stage of research.

While text-based communication, verbal and written, refers to a reading logic that is based on arguments, following the rules of grammar and sentence structure, visuals are not read but seen, following a logic by association that is not restricted to vocabulary and grammar. From the point of view of visual communication, cartoons are a particularly visual genre that relies on the combination of visual and textual elements and their interplay. They condense information in a special way; they portray particular individuals and alter specific properties of the individuals’ appearance in order to convey a critical, oftentimes satirical message. Cartoons carry a multiplicity of meanings. They merge visual depictions with an array of cultural associations, and they work on different levels of interpretation. Cartoons may also “shift the balance of debate and provoke thoughts that range from anger to whimsy”. Cartoons may also foster an “enemy image”, defined by as being “composed of character stereotypes and collective symbols that conspire to build a relationship between the image and its spectator, listener, or reader.” Thus, cartoons have the potential for “dual controversy,” meaning that both the content and message of the cartoon as well as its form or style can be controversial, particularly when such a controversial visual is perceived by an unintended audience in a different cultural reception context. The initial controversy grounded in different interpretations of the same visual may thus develop into a spiral of augmenting controversy where formal and content-related arguments bounce back and forth, creating a bundle of controversial issues that are condensed in the manifestation of stereotypical representations, if not outright “enemy images,” on both sides of the controversy. On top of this complex interaction of visual form and visual content comes the interpretation of humor. Both the visual itself and the humor it provokes are culturally coded. It is a property of the cartoon genre to combine humor with criticism. Usually cartoons aim at a specific and relatively narrow audience—typically the readers of a specific newspaper, who are familiar with a particular local, regional, and national context of how to interpret cartoons. However, the globalization of news content has also led to global dissemination of political cartoons that were originally intended for a specific regional or national audience. In this process, the pictures are separated from both their accompanying text as well as from their immediate cultural and political context. This de-contextualization transforms the meanings of the visuals.

In the following case study, the various meanings attributed to the three cartoon cases will be discussed and compared in order to gain an understanding of the conflict-generating potential of visuals in cross-cultural communication. The divergent interpretations of the images’ meanings will be related to the respective production and reception contexts, concluding with a discussion of how these three related cartoon controversies compare.

The original research for this article involved an in-depth pre-iconographic description, iconographic analysis, and iconological interpretation of 12 Muhammad cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jylland’s Posten in 2005, leading to protests by Muslims on a global scale in 2006, following the three-step iconological method developed by art historian Erwin. Two of the authors described the images independently from one another, thereby drawing on their different “Western” and “Muslim” backgrounds. Comparing those descriptions afterwards brought stark differences to the fore. These differences in image interpretation were reinforced when the cartoons were analyzed by a group of culturally and religiously heterogeneous students from Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, United States, Nepal, China, and Germany. This in-class exercise generated some anecdotal evidence for stark inter-cultural differences in interpreting simple pictorial objects, for example, the staff that Muhammad holds in one of the Danish cartoons. While those students who come from a Catholic background interpreted the staff as a symbol of honor and authority bestowed on the prophet very much like an archbishop’s scepter, for many of the non-Christian students, the staff was a symbol of old age and poverty. Also, without going too much into detail, since these interpretations were not part of a thorough empirical test, color interpretations and emotional responses differed considerably. While for many students coming from a post-communist background the color red was largely ambivalent, if not negative in terms of “dangerous,” and associated with a communist past, for students without that historic legacy in mind, red was positively associated with the sun as well as with life in general.

Not all of the cartoons can be analyzed here. Three of the Danish cartoons were selected for analysis. Two of these—”Bomb in the Head” and “Muhammad with Scimitar”—were selected on the basis of their strongest conflict potential as seen from the point of view of the authors, and taking into account which of the original 12 cartoons had been discussed and reproduced the most, according to the subjective impression of the authors at the time of the controversy. The third Muhammad cartoon, “Muhammad in the desert,” was initially an unlikely candidate, since it had hardly been discussed in the media. Surprisingly, the original in-depth analysis of all 12 cartoons revealed this cartoon’s hidden conflict potential and it was thus chosen as our third example. With respect to the Bulgarian Khadafi cartoon controversy, a summary of all 12 motifs is given, focusing on visual elements that are most similar to or most different from the Muhammad cartoons. The abundance of Iranian Holocaust cartoons made it impossible to analyze every single cartoon. Here, again, a summary of the most pervasive and most provocative motifs is given.

The Muhammad Cartoon Controversy: An Example of the “Glocalization” of Communication

The first conflict came about with the publication of 12 cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten in September 2005. Following a series of diplomatic correspondences riddled with communication failures and misunderstandings, the controversy turned into a global crisis involving Muslim countries and Western states. As Thomas  has shown in his analysis of media dissemination, the two Arab television channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya “played a pivotal role in diffusion of the conflict” (2007a, p. 301), first airing the issue on January 26, 2006. The reactions to the cartoons reached a peak at the end of January and continued throughout February 2006. The protests had started with consumer boycotts and escalated to violent demonstrations that in the end targeted anything that symbolized “the West.” Fundamentalist actors and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East instrumentalized the conflict to promote their own violent goals or to distract from existing domestic deficiencies. In Muslim countries that already had problematic relations with the West, either due to their histories of colonization or the processes of modernization, the Muhammad cartoon controversy exacerbated historical resentments towards the West, augmenting existing frustrations and political conflicts. Although the violence died down after several months, the sensitivities remained on all sides and the political and diplomatic “fallout” of the cartoon controversy continues to this day. Two Muslims who had planted bombs in regional trains in Germany identified the cartoons as their motivation, and when on February 13, 2008, a plot to murder the Muhammad cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was discovered, most Danish newspapers reacted with a reprint of the Muhammad cartoons on their front pages, as an act of solidarity with the cartoonist and an assertion of press freedom. This reignited the conflict, with predictable reactions from Iran, Egypt, Sudan, and many other Muslim governments. The violent protests, Danish flag burnings, and boycott incidents led the Danish government to reconsider its developmental policy toward Sudan, for example, opposing a debt relief deal for Sudan which owes Denmark nearly $405 million.

The majority of the Muhammad cartoons depict the prophet in an unpleasant, threatening way. In most of the cartoons, Muhammad is depicted with aggressive looks, a dark and wild beard as well as thick eyebrows. Many of the cartoons are drawn as cutouts without any setting or background. The head cutouts have a strong impact since they draw attention directly to the face. When Muhammad is shown in front of a backdrop, he is depicted either as a heavenly creature, standing on clouds, as a pauper in the desert, or as an oriental sultan in a palace. The dominant colors are black, white, and green, the latter being considered the color symbolizing Islam.

Bomb in the Head

The black-and-white drawing depicts the head of a man wearing a turban. The face has a grim expression. He seems to stare out of the picture without making eye contact with the viewer. The bushy eyebrows and wild beard, shadowy eyes, the absence of a mouth, as well as the furrows on his forehead in conjunction with an impressive nose, give the face a dangerous expression. This is emphasized in the depiction of his black turban as a large bomb with a fuse on top that has already been lit. At the center of this turban is a leaf-like ornament with green Arabic inscriptions. The turban bomb could also be interpreted as a symbolic depiction of a globe and the Arabic inscription would thus be located in the Middle East. The ideological threat of Islam is translated into a fanaticized face, meant to depict the prophet of Islam, and also the noncommunicative attitude of his followers, who are focused on destruction instead of dialogue.

This was one of the most criticized of the 12 cartoons, presumably because of its hostile depiction of the prophet, and because of the implication that all Muslims are potentially dangerous suicide-bombers. However, this generalization might not be apparent to some audiences in the West, who are accustomed to seeing images deemed offensive to their beliefs, and for whom the picture depicts the danger of Islamic fundamentalist ideology and violence committed in the name of the prophet rather than the prophet himself.

Muhammad in the Desert

In this cartoon, Muhammad appears to be depicted, literally, in his historic setting. A man stands upright, holding a staff in one hand and a rope in the other. He wears simple white trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, and his feet are bare in sandals. His gaze is defiant and unfriendly. The hills in the background suggest that he is traveling on foot in the desert. A donkey is shown carrying goods in red bags attached to its saddle. The scene is either set at dawn or late in the evening with an intense reddish sun in the background.

The visual meanings of this drawing are ambivalent. In Islamic contexts, the donkey carries explicitly negative associations, as demonstrated by an incident taking place in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in reaction to the publication of the Danish cartoons. A violent crowd of about 50,000 demonstrators “wrapped a copy of a Danish flag around a donkey—regarded as a symbol of stupidity—and hoisted it as the crowd jeered”.

Muhammad with Scimitar and Two Veiled Women

In the color cartoon a male figure—presumably Muhammad—is shown at the center of the picture. He is dressed in a white gown and holds a saber in his right hand, seemingly defending two veiled women who hide behind his back. A long and wild beard, a moustache, and thick eyebrows dominate his face. His eyes are hidden behind a black bar, similar to the depictions of crime suspects in the Western press, where, due to strict privacy laws, the eyes of suspects have to be covered as long as they have not been sentenced. This implicit presumption of innocence however clashes with the aggressive dagger-wielding impression of Muhammad, whose depiction conjures up televised images of Al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. While the image shows everything of this figure but his eyes, the opposite is true of the two female figures. The full black veil of the women hides everything except for their eyes, which convey a frightened expression. The background is green—the color of Islam. The suggestion is that fundamentalist Muslim societies oppress and terrorize women.

Contextualizing the Cartoons

Although visual images may be clear, the meanings attributed to them depend on the social, cultural, and political context in which they are perceived. Thus, the cartoons have to be interpreted in the light of their reception contexts. Denmark is a small Scandinavian country with a population of 5.4 million. It has a parliamentary monarchy ruled by liberal democratic principles and freedom of expression is considered an important human and civil right. In 2007 Freedom House ranked Denmark among the top countries worldwide providing and protecting freedom of the press. Jyllands Posten is Denmark’s largest newspaper with a circulation of about 175,000. It is a moderate-conservative newspaper, which usually pays attention to the religious and political sensitivities of its readership, which are “mainly the Lutheran farmers and the provincial middle class”. In 2003, the newspaper refused to publish portrayals of Jesus on the grounds that this would offend readers. It is also reported to be related to the government “not by ownership but by political affinity and history”.

The first Muslim immigrants started to arrive in the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Reports on the situation of minorities in Denmark point to an increasingly negative trend with respect to attitudes towards the Muslim minority. Studies conducted as early as 1995 reported that cultural racism is gaining ground in Denmark and that the media play a significant role in spreading stereotypical images of Muslims. Another study points out that “[t]he mass media’s selective focus on Muslim minorities has resulted in the concept of refugees or immigrants being automatically associated with Muslims, as a binary opposite of a Dane, in popular discourse”. The report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published in 2001, mentions the Muslim minority in Denmark as a group particularly vulnerable to racism and discrimination. The report states, “Political elites and other public opinion leaders such as the media and intellectuals have, in some cases, promoted fears and negative stereotypes about these immigrant communities contributing to a climate of opinion where individuals of foreign background are perceived as a threat to the Danish economy, way of life and value system”.

In this context, the negativity of the Muhammad cartoons takes on a different dimension. The derogatory elements in the depictions of Muhammad may be related to the particular anti-Muslim discourse in Denmark, which predates the events of 9/11. On the other hand, taking the spread of Muslim fundamentalism and two Islamist terrorist attacks inside of Europe following 9/11 (Madrid in March 2004, London in July 2005) into account, the cartoons also reflect the pervasive association of Muslims and Islam with terrorism.

Two types of Muslim reception contexts have to be distinguished: Muslim minorities in Denmark and other European countries, and Muslim communities and societies outside of the Western world. While for the Muslim populations inside Europe the cartoons were considered outright “racist” in their intentions, symbolizing the social rejection and isolation of European Muslims from the “native” population, the reception of the cartoons in Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan took place in the context of autocratic and theocratic regimes characterized by a complete lack of tolerance for diverging opinions. In addition, the memory of colonial imperialism and oppression is still strong, and the cartoons catered to the general anti-Western mood propagated by the governments. Even though the cartoons are stereotypical, reflecting growing racism in the Danish society, they also reflect the frictions and persistent problems in the contemporary Muslim world, such as the precarious situation of women in many Muslim countries, the intolerance connected with dogmatic and fundamentalist religious teachings, and the lack of due process of law and guarantees of individual human rights. No matter how loud Muslims speak out against violence, the actions and religious motivations of the terrorists of September 11, 2001, of the Madrid and London bombings, and the violent eruptions and assassination attempts following the cartoon controversy “brand” Islam as a cradle for mass-murderers and lunatics of all sorts. In sum, the different reception contexts are not independent from one another but closely related to a long process of unequal power relations and mutual stereotype building.

While the Muhammad cartoon controversy originated in the unintended de-contextualization of the visuals, and their very different interpretations by Muslim viewers, both of the following cartoon controversies were intentionally sparked by political and journalistic actors in order to capitalize on the surprising success of the Muhammad cartoons in creating a global audience, and thus global awareness.

Iranian Holocaust Cartoons: An Example of Visual Agenda Setting

At the height of the Muhammad cartoon controversy in February 2006, an Iranian daily newspaper, the Tehran-based Hamshahri, announced a cartoon competition—the 12 best to receive an award, on the topic of the Holocaust. As in the Danish case, a newspaper was the primary actor, although in this instance it became obvious that the newspaper did not act independently but with encouragement and support from the Iranian political leadership. While Jyllands Posten acted on its own as an independent newspaper, Hamshahri lacked the independence to do so, and its contest can be interpreted as a journalistic extension of governmental public policies. The cartoon competition was declared an act of retaliation to the 12 Muhammad cartoons to denounce what the newspaper called the “Western hypocrisy with respect to freedom of expression”.

The publication of the cartoon contest also fulfilled an agenda setting function for the Iranian government. The cartoon controversy provided an opportunity to reiterate the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust and a welcome distraction from controversy over the restart of the Iranian nuclear power program at the end of January 2006, and discussions about United Nations sanctions against Iran. The contest was also a globally reported controversial incident, strengthening Ahmadinejad’s claim to be a spokesperson for Muslims worldwide.

Bulgarian Khadafi Cartoons: An Attempt at Creating Global Awareness for a Bilateral Conflict

Another contribution to international cartoon controversy, inspired by the Muhammad controversy, came from Bulgaria. In May 2006 the independent Bulgarian newspaper Novinar published a set of 12 cartoons and distributed them to those newspapers that had previously printed the Muhammad cartoons. The cartoon motifs relate to an unresolved controversy between Bulgaria and Libya, also involving the European Union, dating back seven years prior to the cartoons’ publication: In 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician were imprisoned and soon after they allegedly “confessed to the crime of working with the CIA to deliberately infect 426 Libyan children with HIV”. It was claimed that these confessions were extracted through prolonged, gruesome tortures and that the infection was due to poor hygiene standards and lack of proper communication. However, the Libyan court ignored these claims and sentenced the six health workers to death in May 2004. In 2007, France’s first lady, Cecilia Sarkozy, flew to Libya and subsequently announced a “breakthrough” and the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor were released. The cartoons mocked Libyan justice and targeted the Libyan leader, Muammar Khadafi. A female allegory of justice was at the center of three cartoons. Religious symbols were sometimes used, mainly in the form of the traditional chador, or full-body-veil for women. In five of the cartoons, Khadafi is depicted as a devilish person, in one case with devil’s hooves and pointed tail, scattering seeds inside a noose, trying to lure somebody into a trap. The cartoons in general are politically offensive, but not targeted against Muslims or the Muslim faith.

Two types of Bulgarian cartoons can be distinguished: The first criticizes the handling of the HIV case and features Khadafi as a symbol for the unjust treatment of the accused Bulgarian nurses. The second relies on general cultural symbols rather than personal depictions. Justice is depicted as a blindfolded female figure with scales in one hand and a sword in the other. In one of the cartoons, two female figures stand next to each other. Both of them carry a scale and a sword. One is dressed in a white gown and has blindfolded her eyes as a symbol of equal justice for all. The other is fully veiled in black. Only her eyes are visible, thus stressing the inversion of justice. The depiction of Libyan Justice is similar to the depiction of Muslim females in the cartoon “Muhammad with scimitar and two veiled women.” Both show women veiled in black with only their eyes visible, swords, and blindfolding.

Comparing the Cartoon Controversies

In all three cases, the cartoons employed stereotypical and offensive depictions of another culture to make a statement. Most of the 12 Muhammad and the 12 Khadafi cartoons have a person as the central motif, while the approximately 265 Holocaust cartoons submitted to the contest are more complex and diverse. Many of them refer to the genocide of more than 6 million European Jews by the German Nazi regime during World War II, some feature explicit anti-Semitic and anti-American content, and others criticized Zionism and Israel for their treatment of Palestinians.

While both the Muhammad and the Khadafi cartoons share the commonality of criticizing Islam or the leader of a Muslim nation through satire, the Holocaust cartoons criticize and satirize Israel and the West. The Muhammad and Bulgarian cartoons also use visual motifs associated with Islam from a non-Muslim perspective: the crescent, the color green, veiled women, blindfolded eyes, swords, long gowns, and men with headgear or turbans.

The comparison of two cartoons shows the importance of the context for the attribution of meaning. Whereas the sword is a symbol of male aggression in the Danish cartoon, it is a symbol of justice in the Bulgarian cartoon. Blindfolded eyes refer to criminal behavior in the Danish cartoon and to justice in the Bulgarian cartoon. The veiled women in Jyllands Posten’s cartoon look terrified, while the female figures in Novinar exhibit no particular emotional reaction. Here blindness is used in a positive sense, since justice needs to be blind to be fair to everybody. In the Danish cartoon the veiled women refer to the victimization of women in Muslim countries, whereas they are used as a symbol of injustice in the Bulgarian cartoon. In short, the same motifs were used to connote contrasting meanings in the two cartoons.

The Holocaust cartoons use another set of stereotypical images relating to Judaism and the Holocaust. The prominent visual motifs in these cartoons are the Star of David, the menorah or six, seven, or nine branched candelabrum, images of Hitler, and illustrations of gas chambers. In one of the cartoons Israel’s policy towards Palestinians is likened to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews in a depiction of a concentration camp with the inscription “Palestine.” In another Zionism is likened to Nazism, showing a tangram game with a swastika transforming into the Star of David, the national symbol of the state of Israel and of the Zionist movement. Aside from the use of a different set of stereotypical images, the major difference between the Holocaust cartoons and the others is the absence of female depictions. The mockery of the Holocaust is conveyed via male figures, whereas females are used to criticize and mock Islam in the cartoons published in Denmark and Bulgaria.

In all three cases newspapers were the primary actors in asking for cartoon submissions on a particular topic. This is interesting from the point of view of debates about old versus new media technology. The newspapers instigated political discussions that were disseminated globally through other mass media, mainly using the new technology of the internet. The new medium altered the original meanings of the images. While the newspapers had a clearly limited audience, the Internet enabled a speedy global distribution, far exceeding the original audience. It could be argued that the editors-in-chief of all three newspapers used global dissemination to capture international attention, and become “global players” in terms of their newspapers’ name recognition. In the process the cartoons were separated from their original accompanying text, often fused with other images, and textual references that changed both the meanings and emotional potential of the original cartoons.

All three cartoon cases deal with frictions between Islam and the West. But, in each country the motivations behind the cartoon production were different. The publication of the Muhammad cartoons was a form of “journalistic experiment,” testing the limits of tolerance in Denmark. Jyllands Posten’s cultural editor had received a complaint from a Danish author, who described to him how difficult it was to find artists to illustrate his children’s book on Muhammad, because Danish illustrators were censoring themselves due to feared pressures from Muslim groups. The editor commissioned twelve cartoonists to draw Muhammad from their individual and professional points of view.

The Holocaust cartoons originated as a reaction to the Muhammad cartoons. The equivalent to satirizing Muhammad would have been to satirize Jesus, but such a decision could not have been taken by the Iranian editors because in Islamic theology Jesus is accepted as a predecessor of Muhammad and is a holy figure. Satirizing Jesus would have been as blasphemous as satirizing Muhammad. Second, satirizing religious figures is not uncommon in the secularized societies of the West. The newspaper editors of Hamshahri looked for a taboo topic in the West that could create similar outrage; not an equivalent topic in kind, but an equivalent topic in effect. The visual counter-reaction was designed on the basis of the political tensions in the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian–Israeli conflict and the hostility between Iran/the Muslim world and Israel/the West.

While the motivations for the production of Muhammad and Holocaust cartoons are connected with each other in a kind of chain reaction, the motivation for the Khadafi cartoons seems less directly related to either. The conflict between Bulgaria and Libya over the HIV trial dates back to 1999 and does not have any connection with the Muhammad cartoon controversy. The common ground between the Bulgarian-Libyan conflict and the Muhammad cartoon controversy is the timing and number of published cartoons as well as the religious affiliation of the populations of the respective countries involved.

All three cases had multiple and overlapping audiences. The Muhammad cartoons attracted a global audience and achieved the largest reach, followed by the Holocaust cartoons. The Khadafi cartoons only reached a limited audience, mainly in Bulgaria. Local, national, international, and global audiences took part in the debates on the cartoons, interpreting the images differently. The reception of the original Muhammad cartoons by far exceeded their intended national audience in Denmark, reaching a wider audience in different cultural and political contexts. The meanings of the images were transformed when they left their original context and important contextual information was lost during their global travel. Those unintended audiences became influential in subsequent stages of the controversy. In contrast, the Holocaust cartoons were aimed at a global audience from the beginning, and at provoking solidarity among Muslim audiences and controversy in Western audiences. The Khadafi cartoons were similarly aimed at a global audience from the beginning, though they did not achieve this goal.

Lessons From the Cartoon Controversies

In all three cases the cartoons were published in national newspapers, with the respective editors being the movers and claiming responsibility for the cartoon publication. While the original publication took place in an old print medium, global dissemination was achieved in electronic form via television and the internet. All three cartoon publications expressed political beliefs that touched on the relationship between Islam and the West. However, the rationale and motivation behind the three controversies was very different, with the Iranian and Bulgarian cartoons trying to use the same format to create publicity for very different causes. While the global controversy sparked by the Muhammad cartoons surprised the cartoonists, the journalists, and the Danish public alike, also catching European Union officials off guard, the Iranian Holocaust cartoons were carefully planned and capitalized on the confusion and heated atmosphere in the aftermath of the Muhammad cartoon conflict. Cartoons, it became apparent, had turned into a potent instrument of foreign policy, disseminating “enemy images” through global channels, thus setting both the agenda and the backdrop for global tensions that pitched the “West” against “the Muslim world.” This visually created “friend-or-foe” climate reduced the complexity of reality into a binary code that reinforced already existing stereotypes, both in Western and non-Western societies, about “the Other.” This binary visual setting had a long-lasting effect that can easily be reactivated, as the ensuing violence after the re-publication of the Muhammad cartoons in 2008, and the controversy about the anti-Islamic movie Fitna by Dutch politician Geert Wilders in the same year vividly illustrated.

The Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy and its corollaries emphasize the need for more cross-cultural visual competence in both journalistic and political decision making. Visuals are still widely considered to be mere illustrations, accompanying textual arguments, nothing more than “a decorative afterthought to the content” (p. 5). In reality, the relationship between text and visual in journalism has significantly shifted towards the visual, determining which stories will be covered, and which not, the text accompanying the visual rather than the other way around. Depictions can become dangerous communication tools if their content and cross-cultural conflict potential is underestimated, or simply ignored.

The Muhammad cartoon controversy reflects the impossibility of limiting visual messages to a national audience under the conditions of a globalized communication environment, and demonstrates contemporary “glocalized” communication patterns. The Iranian cartoon contest is an example of visual agenda setting in a religious regime that is in total control of the media, and that knows how to use the media both to distract from other pressing issues and to promote itself as a spokesperson for pan-Islamic interests. The Bulgarian newspaper used the existing cartoon controversies to articulate a nationally relevant topic related to frictions between a Muslim and a post-communist, non-Muslim country. The associative nature of visuals blurs the originally intended meanings of the cartoons, but also the lines between political and religious spheres. The cartoon controversies show that visuals intended for a local or national audience can become “dangerous depictions” when transmitted to a global platform. Because of the de-contextualization of the images, the visuals take on different meanings in the new reception contexts. These controversies, initially grounded in mutual misperceptions, can easily be instrumentalized by political actors with a malicious interest in fueling global friction and controversy. A lesson from the cartoon controversies is that visuals have to be taken more seriously as powerful communication tools on a global scale.