By Kim Hundevadt and John Hansen | 11 March 2008
Death threats against Danish cartoonists, burning embassies and more than 150 dead in violent demonstrations. Twelve drawings of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper came close to unleashing a clash between the Islamic world and Europe in February 2006. Two investigative journalists from daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the drawings, tell in their book “Provoen og Profeten” (‘The Provocateur and the Prophet’) the dramatic story behind the story. They also reveal who was actually calling the shots during the cartoon crisis. Here are excerpts from the book which was released in Denmark in May 2006.
ON A SUMMER evening in June 2005, the Danish children’s book writer Kåre Bluitgen was at a party with old friends from the political left wing in a villa in mundane Frederiksberg, a suburb of Copenhagen.
At the party, Kåre Bluitgen met a journalist from the Danish news bureau, Ritzau. Over a beer, he told the journalist that he was about to write a children’s book about the prophet Mohammed’s life but had problems finding an artist willing to illustrate it. Three illustrators had already refused for fear of violent reprisals from Islamists.
The journalist sensed a good story and awhile later, he contacted the children’s book author who in the meanwhile had found an artist. The artist however insisted on remaining anonymous out of concern for his own safety.
“I know it’s ridiculous to submit to that kind of fanaticism, but I’m afraid of being recognized on the street and beaten up – or something worse,” the illustrator explained in a subsequent interview.
Ritzau’s telegram was released to the Danish news desks on Friday, 16 September at 4am, “Danish artists fear criticizing Islam”.
The illustrators’ fear was connected among other things, to the murder of Dutch film director, Theo van Gogh, and to a violent attack on a lecturer from Copenhagen University, who had been assaulted after he read aloud to his students from the Koran.
The article led to an intense debate in the Danish media about self-censorship and the fear of confronting Islam. The chairman for a national authors’ association warned against limitations on freedom of expression and a Christian newspaper encouraged illustrators to demonstrate civil courage: “Let your pen loose,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial.
IN DUE COURSE this public debate was discussed at an editorial meeting at daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the largest circulation newspaper in Denmark, where a group of journalists on Monday, 16 September, talked about how the matter could be covered.
One of the journalists had an idea: “What if we write to all of the members of illustrators’ union and ask if they will draw Mohammed?”
Some colleagues felt the idea was an original way to document whether there was a problem with self-censorship or not. Others felt that it would be an unnecessary offence to the religious convictions of Danish Muslims.
The idea was presented to one of the newspaper’s editors-in-chief and to cultural editor Flemming Rose. The very same night, Rose wrote to the approximately 40 members of the illustrators’ trade association, referred to the previous days’ debate and concluded: ‘Daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten takes the side of freedom of expression. For that reason, we would like to invite you to draw Mohammed as you see him.’
The association had 25 active members, three of whom were the newspaper’s own illustrators. Twelve accepted the challenge – each in turn producing a very different interpretation. A couple of the illustrators turned their sarcastic sting on Bluitgen himself, whom they suspected of initiating the matter as a PR stunt for his book. Another didn’t even draw the prophet, but used a young schoolboy named Mohammed to write on a chalkboard: ‘Jyllands-Posten’s editors are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.’
One of Jyllands-Posten’s own illustrators, Kurt Westergaard, quickly focused his thoughts on the fact that the fundamentalist version of Islam fires the spiritual bonfire of suicide bombers, who blow themselves up in the name of Mohammed. He grew up in a fundamental Christian society in the 1940s, and true-believing Christians have often gagged on their early morning coffee when they have seen his drawings of Jesus in Jyllands-Posten. He drew the prophet with a bomb in his turban. In his mind, the drawing was not directed against Islam in general; it merely targeted the Islamic extremists who have taken their religion hostage in bloody terror actions.
IN THE FOLLOWING days, the newspaper’s editors learned about other cases of cultural life censoring itself and an unwillingness to confront Islam: the Tate Museum in London removed a work by the artist John Latham out of fear of a Muslim backlash. A museum in Gothenburg, Sweden had done the same thing. The translator of a book by the Dutch-Somalian critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, insisted on remaining anonymous. And a well-known Danish stand-up comedian said in an interview that he was afraid to perform provocative satire about Islam. The editorial staff also noted that a Danish imam, Mahmoud Fouad al-Barazi, who was closely connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamic movement in the Middle East, demanded that Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, insist that the press should not dishonour religions.
That helped solidify the foundations of his project, Flemming Rose felt. After serving his time as a correspondent in Moscow during communist rule, Rose has a strong hostility toward any limitations on free speech.
Editor-in-chief Carsten Juste was less convinced but chose not to stand in the way, because he found the drawings harmless – totally in line with the Danish tradition for satire.
The 12 drawings were printed in Jyllands-Posten’s culture section on 30 September 2005 accompanied by an article by Flemming Rose in which he explained the background of the cartoon series and added:
Some Muslims reject modern, secular society. They make demands for special treatment when they insist on special consideration for their religious feelings. That stance is irreconcilable with a secular democracy and freedom of expression where you have to be ready to accept insults, mockery and ridicule. It’s not always pleasant and nice to experience, and that doesn’t mean religious principles should be made fun of at all costs, but those considerations are secondary in this context.
Expectations at Jyllands-Posten varied. Some predicted a hefty debate because Islamists in Denmark were about to receive an “electroshock treatment in democracy”. Editor Juste and others did not feel the matter would have much significance.
The immediate reaction was also limited. Several Muslim storeowners refused to sell the newspaper, stating they felt the drawings were a deliberate provocation.
Outside the searchlight of the media, however, an intense discussion ensued in Muslim circles in Denmark. Only a few people had seen the newspaper and a good number of prominent Muslims did not feel it was worth the effort to protest – either because they did not care about the drawings or because they feared that violent protests would give Danish Muslims negative publicity. The best known imam in Denmark, Ahmed Abu Laban of Palestine, who also has connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, said in several confidential conversations that he was prepared to ignore the cartoons.
Other imams strongly disagreed. They felt the offence was so serious that an example had to be made. At the same time, they strongly criticised the Muslims who disagreed with them. The complaint was that they were disloyal and did not defend the prophet.
The most vocal advocates arguing for Danish Muslims to stand up in protest were associated with a mosque in Århus administered by the fundamentalist organisation, Equality and Brotherhood. The group had been under the scrutiny of Danish media before for its connections to extremists, including a Danish prisoner at Guantanamo, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, as well as Abu Rached el-Halabi of Syria, whom Spanish police believed was connected to terror bombings in Madrid.
IN THE MOSQUE, five imams, including Raed Hlayhel, gathered to share their anger and to draw a battle plan. They had been angry with Jyllands-Posten in the past, because the paper had written critically about their activities. The newspaper had published a Friday prayer where Raed Hlayhel, a Palestinian trained in sharia law at the university in the Saudi Arabian city Medina, demanded that women should be covered from head to toe, also when they are together with other women and that ‘women can be Satan’s instruments against men.’
Raed Hlayhel won the internal power struggle to decide strategy. He organised an emergency meeting in Copenhagen for 10 Islamic organisations, two days after the drawings were published. At the meeting, he was elected as chairman of the committee which was to defend the prophet’s honour, and participants agreed to a battle plan with a total of 19 points.
The most important points included imams and their supporters complaining to the Danish government, petitioning Muslim embassies in Denmark to take up the case, writing to Islamic clerics around the world, contacting the influential Al-Azhar University in Cairo and religious leaders in Mecca and asking major media in the Middle East, including the satellite station Al Jazeera, to cover the infamous drawings.
At the same time, they would carpet bomb the newspaper with text messages, emails and telephone calls, collect signatures in mosques, organise mass protests in Copenhagen and investigate the possibility of suing the newspaper. They also talked more informally about getting the Islamic world to mount a boycott of Danish products.
The imams quickly began implementing the plan and organising what would become the most effective Muslim protest ever in Denmark.
“It’s not because we are threatening anyone, but when you have seen what happened in the Netherlands and still print the caricatures, then it’s just a dumb thing to do,” said Raed Hlayhel with reference to the murder of Theo van Gogh.
Other threats were less veiled. The first came from a 17-year-old Muslim who phoned the newspaper and said that he had the names and addresses of all of the illustrators and that the first one would die within 14 days. He was arrested two days later. The week after, serious threats were made against two of the illustrators, leading police to advise them to go underground.
DURING THESE FIRST two weeks, the case was largely ignored by the Danish media. The major breakthrough came at a demonstration at Copenhagen’s central Town Hall Square which gathered about 3000 participants for Muslims’ Friday night prayer on 14 October. It showed that the imams were now able to mobilise Muslims in a broad protest. The imams who originally hesitated were forced to join the campaign to maintain their position of power.
A number of Muslims stated in interviews that they were not especially offended by the blasphemic content of the drawings, but they felt that their culture and religion generally was not respected in Denmark and the drawings were a symbolic case which they could rally around.
When imams on 24 October took status of the campaign in an email to active members, they noted that all 19 point were largely fulfilled. They only lacked a protest demonstration at Town Hall Square to burn their passports.
The imams’ pressure on Muslim ambassadors asking them to intervene against “the horrible crime” was especially a success. The Egyptian ambassador, Mona Omar Attia, was particularly receptive. She took the initiative to draft a letter to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in which the ambassadors lamented “the ongoing smear campaign” against Islam and Muslims in Denmark.
They asked the government to “take action against the responsible parties based on the law of the country” and “to take the necessary steps” to avoid defamation of Islam, and they asked for a prompt meeting due to the case’s “sensitive nature.”
In his reply, PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen explained the principles behind freedom of expression and the blasphemy law in Denmark, but did not comment on the ambassadors’ request for a meeting because he felt that their demands to take action against the press provided the wrong basis for a discussion.
That created intense embitterment among the ambassadors and their governments in the Islamic world and it was later a point of criticism against the Danish prime minister that he could possibly have avoided the ensuing conflict if he had listened more to their protests. Others praised Rasmussen for not cowing under to “totalitarian regimes” in the Middle East.
EGYPT REACTED particularly strongly to the prime minister’s answer. The Egyptians were already irate, because they felt Fogh Rasmussen had overplayed his role as a close ally of the US and because during a visit in Spring 2005, he had asked to meet with the Egyptian opposition. From the Cairo perspective, it appeared as if the Danes wanted to teach the Egyptians about democracy. That was not popular in Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The case about the drawings could therefore be used to send a reply message: We can be difficult too. Don’t push us around.
The Egyptian government had another motive: During an election in November 2005, it was hard-pressed by Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood, and it had an acute need to profile itself as sympathetic to religious points of view. With support from state-controlled media, the Egyptians succeeded in November and December to make the Danish newspaper’s offence a popular cause and to portray the government as a watchdog of Islam.
The foreign minister of Egypt, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, attempted at the same time to use his influence to bring the case up an international level. He succeeded in persuading both the UN as well as the Arab League and The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to become involved.
“The aim is that this would lead … to apology, an end to such acts and a stimulus to Europe to correct its approaches,” Gheit told Reuters on 15 November.
OIC and the Arab League had a clear agenda: The two organisations had worked for years for an international prohibition against offending religions in general and Islam in particular. They sought to achieve this through, among other things, UN resolutions – resolutions which EU countries have consistently opposed, because they feel it would limit free speech.
The version of free speech, which OIC’s member nations sought passed, can be found in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights which was accepted in 1990: “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.” The goal was that Islamic law should define the limits of free expression.
Seen through the eyes of the OIC, a widespread wave of protests about the Mohammed drawings could be used to put pressure on EU countries to make them accept a resolution and a tightening of the European blasphemy law.
That was exactly what happened when, during Spring 2006, OIC came with more demands for legal censure:
“The situation is so critical that without a legal obligation, we will not be able to handle the crisis. We cannot be satisfied with casual declarations,” said OIC’s secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
A European prohibition against violations of Islam’s holy symbols had become the price for making peace.
BACK IN AUTUMN 2005, the Egyptian Embassy in Copenhagen entered an alliance with Raed Hlayhel, Ahmed Abu Laban and the other imams who managed the protests in Denmark.
The ambassador helped the imams by arranging delegation trips to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria where the imams received an audience with influential politicians and religious leaders as well as prominent media.
In their luggage, the imams had a stack of folders which documented their perceived violation, but they did not limit themselves to only showing the drawings printed in Jyllands-Posten. They also showed a number of graphic pictures which apparently were sent anonymously to Danish Muslims: The prophet as a paedophilic, horned devil. The prophet wearing a pig’s snout and ears. And the prophet having sexual intercourse with a dog.
A number of Middle Eastern media did not distinguish between the two categories of pictures. They simply reported that Danish newspapers had represented Mohammed as a pig. And a great deal of misinformation appeared in the aftermath of the delegations – for example, that there were 120 drawings and that the Danish government was behind them. Regardless of who is ultimately responsible for these errors, or if they were intentional or not, there is no doubt that the imams’ trips helped to fan the flames in the Middle East.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit also ensured that the controversial folder in December was distributed at OIC’s summit in Mecca, where the drawings were indirectly condemned in a resolution, and where state and government leaders discussed the case busily in corridors. The fuse on the explosion which would come in January was lit.
The Danish government was aware that it confronted an alliance of powerful opponents – from the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood to the secular, but totalitarian regimes in the Middle East. But both the government and Jyllands-Posten also came under growing pressure at home in Denmark.
In the first weeks, politicians and opinion makers had been largely in agreement about a flat-out denial of the Muslim demand that Jyllands-Posten should apologise and the government should step in to put the newspaper in its place. A survey in November also showed that 57 percent of Danes felt that it was ‘right’ to print the drawings while 31 percent felt it was ‘wrong’.
But the criticism of Jyllands-Posten gradually became more and more confrontational. The newspaper was accused for example, of deliberately targeting and ridiculing Muslims and that the publication of the drawings was a racist action.
A number of left-wing intellectuals had originally defended the newspaper’s right to print the drawings, but support gradually dissipated as the case was used for political attacks on liberal prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who maintained his position that respect for people’s religious beliefs should not lead to a situation in which ‘we place limits on the press’s ability for criticism, humour and satire.’
IN THE BEGINNING of January, it appeared as if the crisis was about to blow over. Signs of reconciliation came from Egypt’s government which after the election did not have the same need to profile itself.
But that was just the calm before the storm. Other actors had a strong interest in awakening a larger protest against the drawings.
The state controlled imams in Saudi Arabia came first. On 10 January, in the holy city of Mecca, they celebrated the Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the end of the annual pilgrimage. Imam Abdul Rahman Alsidis had the world’s largest Muslim audience at his disposal during his sermon: Two million listened to him in Mecca. Another 100 million could follow along on direct TV transmissions on Arabic satellite stations.
They heard Abdul Rahman Alsidis’s speech that Islam and the prophet were under attack in the media. Without naming either Denmark or Jyllands-Posten, he encouraged Muslims to give resistance to what he called “a deliberate campaign against the prophet Mohammed.” Observers have several interpretations of the Saudi motives: Fundamentalists, with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as the most prominent, continually criticise the dominant ruling royal family for corruption and decadence and an un-Islamic lifestyle. For that reason the regime could use a “harmless” case such as the Danish Mohammed drawings to profile itself as a true defender of the prophet – and at the same time move attention away from the fact that crowd security during the annual pilgrimage had once again been insufficient: 362 pilgrims had lost their lives during an accident a few days before.
Saudi Arabia allowed demonstrations in the country’s media, in the mosques where they were a favourite subject during Friday prayers, and in supermarkets where there was support for a significant ban against Danish products.
At the same time a 79-year-old preacher from Qatar stepped onto the scene: The Egyptian born Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the world’s most influential religious leaders. As a young person he was active in the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle against the former royalty in Egypt and he was in jail four times before he moved to Qatar. Today he is considered by many as the Brotherhood’s unofficial spiritual leader.
From a base in Qatar he has secured a number of important channels of influence on Muslims both in Islamic countries and in Europe: He has his own programme at Al Jazeera and his own news channel on the internet, IslamOnline. And he has founded two organisations which he fronts himself: the European Council for Fatwa and Research along with the International Union of Muslim Scholars.
The latter organisation provided the springboard for Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s fight against the Mohammed drawings.
In a declaration on Saturday, 21 January, he threatened to encourage all of the world’s Muslims to boycott Denmark and Norway – unless the two countries’ governments “resolutely” took action against the media’s offence to the prophet. Norway was included in the threat, because a small Christian newspaper, Magazinet, had re-printed Jyllands-Posten’s page of cartoons, and cultural editor Flemming Rose’s text in the beginning of January. The paper had also included its own articles describing how Norwegian illustrators submit to self-censorship to avoid awakening Muslims’ anger.
The declaration was also meant as a final warning that al-Qaradawi would open the floodgates if his demands to control the media were not met.
WHEN EU’S FOREIGN ministers met in Brussels on 30 January, support for Denmark was lukewarm. Several foreign ministers suggested that Denmark had neglected the chance to resolve the conflict on its own. Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said flat out that he considered the case ‘more of a Danish than a European problem.’ Austria’s foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, criticised the Mohammed drawings when she said in a speech that ‘words and actions that disparage a religion in an offensive manner are to be condemned.’ A handful of EU Commissioners also distanced themselves the same week.
The US did not form a common front with Denmark either. In the course of a day, three different spokespeople for the US State Department used words such as ‘unacceptable’, ‘offensive’, and ‘insulting’. One of them, Kurtis Cooper, went so far that Reuters wired a story under the headline: ‘US backs Muslims in cartoon dispute.’ That Denmark stood relatively alone was a major reason that the storm about the prophet drawings was allowed to grow, The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrima Sabri, stated in an interview: ‘Denmark is an easy target. A little country, which does not have significant value for the Arab countries. That’s why nobody is concerned the protests continue,’ said the mufti. It was in this climate that Yusuf al-Qaradawi once again stepped forward and incited Muslims around the world to battle:
“Let us make Friday, February 3, a day for worldwide Muslim protests over the insulting campaigns against Allah and His Prophet, Mohammed (peace be upon him),” the challenge sounded, once again broadcast through the International Union for Muslim Scholars.
Al-Qaradawi’s news service IslamOnline dubbed Friday, 3 February a ‘day of anger’.
And al-Qaradawi’s challenge was heard: the Mohammed drawings were the subject of Friday prayer around the world from the major cities of Europe such as Lyon and London to Muslim countries such as Sudan, Pakistan and Indonesia. In at least 13 countries, the Friday prayer was followed by demonstrations against the drawings. Imams encouraged the world’s faithful Muslims to express their anger through a boycott of the countries which published the drawings.
It was also clear in the circulating rhetoric, especially that of Friday prayers, that many considered “the day of anger” to be a chance to gather and establish the umma – the Islamic religious nation which in principle includes all of the world’s Muslims regardless of their nationality and Islamic faith. The cartoons provided the one common cause, the one point which all Muslims could meet in agreement and feel they were Muslims rather than shias or sunnis or citizens of Indonesia, Turkey or France: Defence for the prophet!
Yusuf al-Qaradawi said it himself in his Friday prayer in Qatar: “The whole nation must be angry and rise up to show their anger … Anger is a must. We are not a nation of donkeys. We are a nation of lions.”
An imam in Riyadh, Sheikh Badr bin Nader al-Mashari, also addressed the world’s Muslims in a speech which was distributed through Islamic internet pages:
“Brothers, it’s war against Islam…., grab your swords… To the billion Muslims: Where are your arms? Your enemies have trampled on the prophet. Rise up!”
THE RHETORIC was even more violent during Friday night prayers and demonstrations in, among other places, Lebanon and London. In Indonesian capital Jakarta, demonstrators attacked the Danish Embassy for the first time on Friday.
The fire was lit and the flames were fanned once again by Danish imams: The previous Monday, Mahmoud Fouad al-Barazi, who had demanded more Islam-friendly media back in September 2005, wrongly told tv station Al Jazeera that extremist Danes planned to burn the Koran in the central Town Hall Square in Copenhagen.
More moderate imams had tried to tone down the rumours during the week by emphasising in Arab media that these were only rumours which should not be listened to.
But Saturday morning, 4 February – immediately following “the day of anger” – the story popped up again – this time on the Islamic internet media, IslamOnline, which was controlled by al-Qaradawi.
Imam Raed Hlayhel from Århus, who took the initiative for protests and represented the most hard-line strategy, reported that Danish racists that same afternoon would burn the Koran during a demonstration in the city of Hillerød north of Copenhagen.
“Hell will break loose, if these extremists burn the Koran,” said Raed Hlayhel. The same Saturday, a demonstration in Syria’s capital Damascus ended with Denmark’s and Norway’s embassies being attacked and set on fire. Eyewitnesses reported afterward that text messages sent by mobile phone about planned Koran burnings in Denmark were the catalyst that sent the relatively peaceful demonstration out of control.
The day after, Sunday, 5 February, demonstrators set fire to Denmark’s embassy building in Beirut, Lebanon. Monday, the Danish missions in Iran’s capital Teheran were attacked with fire bombs. From that moment, the protests spread like ripples around the world. Threats and attacks were also targeted against other European countries as raging demonstrators heard about French and German newspapers that had chosen to reprint Jyllands-Posten’s drawings or had printed completely new drawings of their own in the beginning of February.
These demonstrations and conflicts which sprung out of protests against the Mohammed drawings ended up taking the lives of 150 people.
Denmark was forced to withdraw its diplomats from five countries for fear of attack. Danish citizens evacuated countries such as Indonesia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and the Palestinian Self-Rule Area, because threats to their lives were made.
IN THE COURSE of March and April, the demonstrations stopped, diplomats returned home to their posts, and the boycott against Danish products eased off.
Conditions became more ordinary – just not for the 12 illustrators. Their daily routine has not returned to normal.
They continue to live under police protection and are forced to maintain their anonymity which makes it difficult for some of them to maintain a livelihood. Danish police are investigating more than 150 death threats against them. And the threats from foreign extremists appear to have no end.
At the end of April, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden demanded the illustrators extradited so he could try them in front of an Islamic court. And there have been numerous reports in the international press that commandos are on their way from Afghanistan or Pakistan to make an end to the illustrators’ lives. The 12 illustrators are clearly the most apparent losers in the struggle of values which is the essence of the cartoon battle. A struggle with strong forces on both sides of the front: Liberal, Western secularism on one side and dogmatic Islamism on the other.
The conflict has shown that a true compromise cannot be found between Islamists’ demands that the prophet must never be offended, and a Western tradition that no religious dogmas can avoid criticism. The standoff is an either-or scenario.
The cartoon crisis is ultimately a political battle. And it ended with a three-quarters loss to Islamists: They did not have their demands for an unconditional apology fulfilled, nor did they secure a guarantee for rules prohibiting the offence of Islamic symbols in future.
But they also achieved a quarter victory: All of those who do not have a death wish will tread extra carefully in future when they approach a sensitive subject such as Islam, because they have seen how violently a situation can develop.
That was only the first round, however. Similar battles about values will come in future years. They might not develop so violently. But they have the potential to develop even more explosively.
Reprinted with permission.
Kim Hundevadt is the publishing director of JP / Politiken Publishers (nonfiction). John Hansen is managing editor in charge of investigative reporting at Politiken.
Provoen og profeten
(The Provocateur and the Prophet)
By John Hansen, Kim Hundevadt
Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo
Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy (Documentary)
Bill Maher on Islam and Mohammad cartoons
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