Muslim backlash over cartoons forces Danish newspaper to apologise

In a statement to « Honourable Fellow Citizens of the Muslim World », the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, Carsten Juste, said the cartoons, first published on September 30, « were not in violation of Danish law but they have undoubtedly offended many Muslims, for which we would like to apologise ».

The contrition came after the long-simmering row erupted into widespread street demonstrations and flag-burnings in the Middle East, with Libya joining Saudi Arabia in withdrawing their ambassadors from Copenhagen.

Islamic governments and organisations issued furious denunciations, and a boycott of Danish goods took hold across the Muslim world.

Before the newspaper’s apology, Denmark-based dairy group Arla Foods, with annual sales of about $US430million ($574million) in the Middle East, had urged the Danish Government to take action.

« I urgently beg the Government to enter a positive dialogue with the many millions of Muslims who feel they have been offended by Denmark, » Arla’s executive director Peder Tuborgh said in a statement.

The Danish Government warned its citizens against travelling to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, and withdrew aid workers from the Gaza Strip.

EU foreign ministers responded with a statement in support of Denmark, and the European Commission threatened to report to the World Trade Organisation any government backing the boycott of Danish goods.

The fury echoed the outcry that followed the publication in 1989 of the Salman Rushdie novel The Satanic Verses.

The trigger for the clash of cultures was the publication by the Jyllands-Posten on September 30 of 12 cartoons of Mohammed. A biographer of the prophet had complained no one would dare to illustrate his book, and the newspaper challenged cartoonists to draw pictures of the prophet in a self-declared battle for freedom of speech.

One cartoon showed Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban. In another, he tells dead suicide bombers he has run out of virgins with which to reward them. Any portrayal of Mohammed is considered blasphemous in Islam, lest it encourages idolatory.

In October, ambassadors from 10 Muslim countries complained to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who refused to interfere with the press’s freedom.

But the issue began to boil over this month after the cartoons appeared in Magazinet, a Christian newspaper in Norway, and on the website of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

Imams denounced Denmark from their pulpits, the Arab press inflamed pent-up Muslim anger at the West, and last Friday the Saudi Government recalled its ambassador. But still Mr Rasmussen refused to apologise.

He condemned attempts to « demonise people because of religious beliefs », but argued: « The Government can in no way influence the media. »

By Monday, governments across the Arab world had begun responding to public outrage. Libya closed its embassy in Copenhagen, and the Egyptian parliament demanded that its Government follow suit. The Kuwaiti and Jordanian governments called for explanations from their Danish ambassadors.

President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon condemned the cartoons, saying his country « cannot accept any insult to any religion ».

The Justice Minister of the United Arab Emirates said: « This is cultural terrorism, not freedom of expression. »

In Gaza, gunmen briefly occupied the EU office in Gaza, and warned Danes and Norwegians to stay away. Palestinians in the West Bank burned Danish flags.

The Islamic militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology.

Supermarkets in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all removed Danish produce from their shelves and refused to accept any more stock.

AP, The Times

Nim Myotis 31/1/2006

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