E-Mail, Blogs, Text Messages Propel Anger Over Images

A cell phone is held aloft as protesters angry over caricatures of Muhammad burn Danish and U.S. flags in Amman, Jordan. Digital communication has become a lifeline for protest organizers.
A cell phone is held aloft as protesters angry over caricatures of Muhammad burn Danish and U.S. flags in Amman, Jordan. Digital communication has become a lifeline for protest organizers. (By Ali Jarekji -- Reuters)

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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 9, 2006

COPENHAGEN, Feb. 8 -- Mohammad Fouad Barazi, a prominent Muslim cleric here, received a text message on his cell phone last week. It was a mass mailing from an anonymous sender, he said, warning that Danish people were planning to burn the Koran that Saturday in Copenhagen's City Hall Square out of anger over Muslim demonstrations against Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Hundreds of people -- Muslims and ethnic Danes -- turned out in response to the messages and the rampant rumors they sparked, and by the end of Saturday, police had arrested 179 people. In the end, no Koran was burned.

The messages, which were received as far away as the Gaza Strip and recounted on al-Jazeera satellite television, illustrate how modern digital technology -- especially cell phones and Internet blogs -- helped turn an incident in tiny Denmark into a uniting cause for protesters around the world in days or even hours.

From London to Kabul, Afghanistan, to Jakarta, Indonesia, the digital revolution has given unprecedented access to information -- accurate or not -- to anyone with enough money to buy a secondhand cell phone. Where faxes and coffeehouse leaflets were once the lifelines of protest organizers, a new generation of technology has taken hold, doing for the speed and scope of global communication what airplanes did for travel.

Real-world conflicts such as the cartoons controversy almost instantly echo in cyberspace. Radical Islamic Web sites feature photos of beheadings and calls to violence. A posting on one, alghorabaa.net, called for an "embassy-burning day" to protest the Muhammad cartoons and offered wording supporters could use in a text-messaging campaign urging people to throw molotov cocktails and storm embassies, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. group that monitors such sites.

E-mails, blogs and text messages have been used to press a boycott of Danish goods in Arab countries and a "Buy Danish" campaign in the United States. Text messages were used to organize anti-Danish protests in Brussels, while Canada's largest Muslim umbrella group sent e-mails to 300,000 members urging them to avoid such demonstrations. Text messages and blogs were also used to organize protests during violent unrest in Paris last fall.

"These messages are now part of the conflict," said Manu Sareen, a member of the Copenhagen City Council. "The problem is that you can't always rely on them. Nobody burned the Koran, but it doesn't matter because the rumor was out there."

Barazi, a Syrian-born cleric who came to Denmark 15 years ago, said in an interview that he was inundated with calls last week from followers who had received the same text message on their phones. Later, he received a call from a reporter from al-Jazeera, the world's largest Arabic-language news channel, asking to interview him on the subject.

In an on-air telephone interview, with perhaps millions of people watching across the Middle East, Barazi said, he related the threat to burn the Koran. "I said it might happen. I don't think so, but I don't know," said Barazi, who said he urged viewers to remain calm.

Barazi strongly disagreed that repeating the message on al-Jazeera made the situation worse. He said he cautioned against violence during the interview, and later told worshipers at Friday prayers that as far as he knew no one actually planned to burn a Koran and to stay away from the square that Saturday.

But others, including Naser Khader, a moderate Muslim member of Parliament, said mentioning the rumors on al-Jazeera added to anti-Danish feelings and encouraged attacks on the Danish Embassy in Syria on Saturday. Government officials, who declined to be identified because of the delicate nature of the situation, expressed the same sentiment. Barazi denied that his interview contributed to the Syrian incident.

On Saturday, 300 to 400 people showed up in City Hall Square in Copenhagen, largely because of the text messages, said Flemming Munch, a spokesman for the Copenhagen police. The crowd included Muslims and ethnic Danes from the far left, who both clashed with Danish right-wing extremists. In all, 179 people -- 120 ethnic Danes and 59 Muslims -- were arrested in protests that spilled from Copenhagen into two small suburban towns, Munch said.

The episode so unnerved Danish authorities that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen addressed it at a news conference Tuesday.

"We are confronted by misinformation passed on by mobile messages and Web logs at such high speed that it is picked up and acted upon before we have a chance to correct it," Rasmussen said. "So for the record, let me reiterate: There has been no burning of the Koran in Denmark."

In London, Azzam Tamimi, a member of the Muslim Association of Britain, said text messages were being used to bring out the vote in opinion polls on the Internet. On Tuesday, he received a group message asking him to respond to a poll that a German newspaper was conducting about whether it should publish the cartoons. Even though the poll was aimed at readers in Germany, Tamimi said, instant global communication means "there are no barriers anymore."

His group is helping to stage a rally Saturday in London's Trafalgar Square. Organizers hope to attract thousands of moderate Muslims through mass e-mails and text messaging.

Abdul-Rehman Malik, a contributing editor of Q-News, a popular Muslim magazine in Britain, said he had received hundreds of e-mails and dozens of text messages about the cartoons. He said some messages were computer-generated so that thousands of phones could be reached nearly instantly, such as one telling him to reply "no" to a British TV survey about whether to broadcast the cartoons. "It's efficient and immediate -- the ultimate activists' dream," Malik said.

In Saudi Arabia, the Fanan Web site this week included a message urging people to vote on an MSNBC site asking whether Muslims were justified in their anger over the drawings. "A German television Web site is also holding a survey poll on the issue," it said. "Please vote."

Several people interviewed in Saudi Arabia said they were getting five or six text messages a day on the cartoon issue. A message widely circulating Wednesday urged people to call the BBC to protest rumored plans to show some of the cartoons on air.

Sporadic protests about the cartoons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were organized mainly by such traditional methods as mosques, word of mouth and Palestinian party organizations. But Arab satellite television, e-mail campaigns and text messages helped drive the protests, too, which appeared to be dwindling Wednesday.

In Iraq, demonstrations against the cartoons have occurred in a few large cities but have remained relatively peaceful. Word has spread mainly through more traditional means -- sometimes coupled with digital technology. When the Internet site run by the Islamic Army in Iraq, an insurgent group, called for attacks on Danish citizens and threatened that anyone captured would be "cut into pieces," the missive was also type-written and posted in a mosque in Ramadi.

Muslims in Indonesia are exploring cyberspace, but extremists there have not yet managed to foment mass outrage over the cartoons. A few text messages and e-mails have been circulating, including one that reads: "The Danish cartoons are a design by the Jews and Americans to drive a wedge between Europe and the Islamic world."

And in countries unknown, apparent Islamic hackers have been active. The Internet-monitoring Web site Zone-H said this week that nearly 600 Danish sites had been broken into by people who posted threats or protests against the cartoons, the Reuters news agency reported.

Correspondents Mary Jordan in London, Scott Wilson in Jerusalem, Ellen Nakashima in Jakarta, Jonathan Finer in Baghdad and Doug Struck in Toronto and special correspondents Yayu Yuniar in Jakarta, Alexandra Topping in London and Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.


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