Cartoons of Prophet Met With Outrage

Members of the Popular Resistance Commitees, a militant Palestinian group, burn a Danish flag next to the European Commission building during a protest in Gaza City.
Members of the Popular Resistance Commitees, a militant Palestinian group, burn a Danish flag next to the European Commission building during a protest in Gaza City. (By Emilio Morenatti -- Associated Press)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

PARIS, Jan. 30 -- Cartoons in Danish and Norwegian newspapers depicting the prophet Muhammad in unflattering poses, including one in which he is portrayed as an apparent terrorist with a bomb in his turban, have triggered outrage among Muslims across the Middle East, sparking protests, economic boycotts and warnings of possible retaliation against the people, companies and countries involved.

The cartoons were published in September in a conservative, mass-circulation Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten, and were reprinted three weeks ago in Magazinet, a small evangelical Christian newspaper in Norway. But the reaction has been widespread, and fallout over the images reached new levels Monday, with the European Union backing Denmark in the dispute and warning that a boycott of Danish products -- already being felt by some companies -- would violate World Trade Organization rules.

Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Denmark and Libya has closed its embassy in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. Kuwait called the cartoons "despicable racism." Iran's foreign minister termed them "ridiculous and revolting."

The cartoons included one of the prophet as a crazed, knife-wielding Bedouin and another of him at the gates of heaven telling suicide bombers: "Stop. Stop. We have run out of virgins!" -- a reference to the belief of some Muslim extremists that male suicide bombers are rewarded in heaven with 72 virgins.

Islamic critics charged that the cartoons were a deliberate provocation and insult to their religion designed to incite hatred and polarize people of different faiths. Defenders of the newspapers and artists said the 12 published cartoons simply were intended to highlight Islam's intolerance.

The controversy has pitted two newspapers championing what they say is the cause of free speech against Islam's prohibition of any artistic depiction of the prophet Muhammad, which is considered blasphemous, no matter how benign. The clash is being fueled by a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in staunchly secular Denmark, where many express frustration that the country's 200,000 Muslim immigrants are resisting assimilation into Danish society.

"There's widespread skepticism toward immigration and integration efforts" because of a popular belief that "immigrants are here to take advantage of the Danish system," said Ulf Hedetoft, a political scientist at Aalborg University and director of Denmark's Academy for Migration Studies.

"People are inclined to see Islam and political extremism as two sides of the same coin," he said.

In a statement, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference has condemned "the printing of blasphemous and insulting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed," saying it "falls into the trap set up by fundamentalists and fosters acts of revenge." Protesters across the Muslim world have burned Norwegian and Danish flags and issued sharp denunciations.

The controversy began in September, after an author in Denmark complained that he could not find an artist willing, under his own name, to illustrate a book about the prophet's life.

In response, Jyllands-Posten, the conservative daily, ran 12 cartoons by various staff artists depicting Muhammad. The paper explained that the project was meant to gauge the public's response.

In the Islamic world, it was swift and furious, but in Denmark, the majority backed the paper's right to print the cartoons. A recent poll showed that 62 percent of those surveyed said the paper should not apologize.

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