How does it Feel to be a Cartoonist after the Muhammad Controversy?

Religion and Senses of Humour - Stephen E. Gregg

Pål Ketil Botvar [+-]
University of Agder
Pål Ketil Botvar is Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Agder, Norway. His main research is on values and religiosity in the Nordic countries and in Europe. He has also been editor of several books about religion and popular culture. He was one of the editors of the book Ingen spøk. A study of religion and humour (“No joke: A study of religion and humour”). He has published the article Religion and humour – will the two sides ever meet? (in U. Riegel et al, Understanding religion 2019) and Religious humour in a welfare state context (forthcoming, 2021).


In recent years, the relationship between religion and visual satiric expressions has been a topic of public discourse, sparked initially when Danish and Norwegian newspapers in 2005 published cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The publications led to heated debate and demonstrations. The 2015 attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo brought the topic back into the public eye. In 2019 New York Times stopped publishing cartoons when a drawing of the Israeli prime minister as a guide dog wearing a Star of David collar and leading a blind US President Donald Trump, led to protests. The controversy over boundaries for joking about religion is part of a larger debate about satire, freedom of expression and the rights of vulnerable religious minorities. In this article I will focus on newspaper cartoonists. I have interviewed seven cartoonists in Norway about religious satire. I want to know how the public controversies have influenced their work. What kind of drawings will they not make, and are they reflecting on majority vs minority issues when they make religious satire? Does their own religious background have anything to say? We tend to like humour that target people below ourselves in the social status hierarchy (cf. superiority theory). A survey conducted among the general population shows that 52 percent states that the publishing of newspaper caricatures about religion in most cases will be the right thing to do. But a significant minority have second thoughts on the topic. Attitudes towards religious satire are related to what people think about religious minorities. Both fear and feeling of solidarity can lead to more restrictive attitudes towards caricatures. The relevance of superiority in societies that focus on human rights for vulnerable groups can thus be questioned.

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Botvar, Pål. How does it Feel to be a Cartoonist after the Muhammad Controversy?. Religion and Senses of Humour. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Nov 2022. ISBN 9781000000000. Date accessed: 22 Oct 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.43237. Nov 2022

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