DENMARK: Cartoons of the Prophet started with a man named Rose
Editor's insistence, cleric's persistence over Prophet Muhammad caricatures crack open ethnic faultline in Denmark
Thursday, February 9, 2006
Copenhagen --- The global furore started one day last September, when newspaper editor Flemming Rose smelled a good story.
He had read that museums in Sweden and London had recently removed artworks which their staff deemed offensive to Muslims.
A Danish comedian told him he felt free to desecrate the Bible, but he would be afraid to do the same to the Quran.
Then Mr Rose read that a Danish children's book author could not find illustrators who dared draw the Prophet for a new book on Islam.
Mr Rose, Culture Editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, suspected the art world was self-censoring out of fear of Islamic radicals.
So he contacted 25 Danish newspaper cartoonists with a challenge: Draw Muhammad as you see him.
Twelve responded, and the newspaper printed their submissions, including one that depicted Islam's holiest figure with a bomb in his turban.
"We have a tradition of satire in Denmark," Mr Rose, 47, said in an interview. "We do the same with the royal family, politicians, anyone. In a modern secular society, nobody can impose their religious taboos in the public domain."
At the Islamic Cultural Centre here, Mr Ahmed Abu Laban saw the cartoons.
"We were astonished and extremely shocked," said Mr Abu Laban, 60.
One of Denmark's most prominent Muslim clerics, he said the faith's tradition forbids any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
He saw the crude drawings as the latest smear against Muslims in Denmark, a nation whose long history of tolerance has been tested in recent years by rising anti-immigrant sentiment.
He called together 11 other Muslim leaders to plan an immediate response.
Eliciting no regrets from the newspaper or the Danish government, they sent envoys to the Middle East to seek support there.
The chain of events illustrates how in the current climate of tension between Islam and the West, a small spark, printed on an inside page of a mid-size newspaper in a small country, can escalate into an international conflagration.
This country of 5.4 million people, including about 200,000 Muslims, has long viewed itself as a haven for all views and faiths.
But skyrocketing immigration in the 1990s spurred a backlash that culminated in the November 2001 election of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Mr Rasmussen's government immediately passed some of Europe's toughest immigration laws and changed speech laws to make it illegal to instigate terrorism or offer advice to terrorists.
The Prime Minister has relied on the support of the fiercely anti-immigration Danish People's Party, which holds nearly 13 per cent of the seats in Parliament.
Mr Morten Messerschmidt, a People's Party MP, said the clash between Muslims and ethnic Danes, who are largely Christian, is inevitable because the two cultures have vastly different traditions about issues such as free speech.
He blamed Mr Abu Laban and other Muslim immigrant clerics for escalating the conflict and refusing to integrate and accept "freedoms that have created our highly developed societies in the West."
Mr Thomas Larsen, an author and political analyst, said the hardened views on both sides, along with images of demonstrators burning Danish embassies from Iran to Indonesia and demanding "Danish blood," have shocked Danes.
"Every terrorist in the world will now know the name Denmark," Mr Larsen said. "That is something new for us."
But many Muslims in Denmark have disavowed the vehemence of the protests. "The majority of Muslims don't care about this," said Mr Naser Khader, a Syrian-born MP.
"This is an Islamist agenda," he said, using a word describing the philosophy of Islamic "All thinkers and big writers have been engaged in this matter. And as we expected, the wave moved to the masses."
Mr Abu Laban said he supports peaceful protests and that violence and economic boycotts are "counter-productive."
Government officials and other critics here said Mr Abu Laban's delegations intentionally inflamed Islamic leaders in Egypt and Lebanon by passing off several obscene cartoons of Prophet Muhammad as among those published in the newspaper.
Mr Abu Laban said those had been sent anonymously to Muslim leaders in Denmark and were shown to the Islamic officials as examples of anti-Muslim feelings in the country.
He said no one suggested they had been published in the newspaper.
Mr Rose, a tall and soft-spoken man, said he has not slept much in the past week.
Interviewed in a quiet coffee shop just before midnight, he said his newspaper has received two bomb threats, and he got an anonymous e-mail message telling him there was a contract on his life.
He is guarded by police officers whenever he appears in public. He bristled when asked if he had any regrets about publishing the cartoons.
"Asking me that is like asking a rape victim if she regrets wearing a short skirt at the discotheque on Friday night," he said.
Mr Rose said he believes the cartoon controversy is a symbol of how a nation and its new immigrants learn to cope with each other.
He said he respects Islam and is sensitive to different cultures -- he is married to a Russian woman.
But he said he unconditionally supports Denmark's tradition of free speech.
"I apologise for having offended them," he said.
"But as an editor, as a newspaper man, as long as I'm operating within the law, as long as I am not breaking any code of conduct in the Danish context, I cannot apologise for that."
Date Posted: 2/9/2006