More on that Danish thing

In the last few years we've seen massive terrorist attacks, wars, uprisings, assassinations, worldwide torture programs, ethnic cleansing and even genocide, but of course the most-important-event-of-all-time-to-get-indignant-about are those Danish cartoons. For some reason, there is something very compelling about the argument surrounding their publication -- the freedom of expression vs. respect for religion debate -- combined of course with goading by extremists on both sides, particularly the Muslim one. Obviously this is a debate people have been wanting to have, as it encapsulates a lot of pre-conceived ideas: that Muslims are intolerant and violent, that Europeans are racist and anti-Islam in particular, or that Europe is in great danger from a sinister plan for Islamization and that must be courageously resisted at all costs. It's very depressing to think that this is the great debate of our times, and if that's what the rest of the 21st century is going to be like, I want out.

There are a few things worth highlighting about how this came to start. The cartoons could have just as easily been ignored (I remember reading a great French cartoon from the 1970s that had Mohammed, Jesus, Jehovah and Zeus attend an orgy), but there was from the start an attempt to fan the flames. This has not been very satisfactorily explained anywhere as far as I can, but this WSJ story published yesterday has some of the details:

In this volatile environment, a group of Danish Islamic clerics angered by the cartoons succeeded in enlisting help from Egypt's secular government, which has been struggling to contain a potent Islamist opposition. Secular forces in the Arab world, eager to burnish their image as defenders of Islam, provided an important initial impetus for the protests, but now are scrambling to control the fury.

From his office at the Islamic Faith Society in Copenhagen, Ahmed Abu-Laban, a fundamentalist Palestinian cleric, has been at the forefront of a campaign to force an apology from the paper. "This was the last drop in a cup of resentment, disappointment and exploitation," he says.

...

After a few days, Mr. Rose thought the worst was over. Then clerics in Copenhagen and elsewhere used their sermons to denounce the paper. Ambassadors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and nine other Islamic countries requested a meeting with Denmark's center-right prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Mr. Rasmussen declined, saying the state had no right to interfere with the country's free press. Angry local Muslim leaders organized protest rallies, demanding an apology. The paper refused.

In Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city, a radical cleric gave an interview denouncing Mr. Rose and reminding him of "what happened" to Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 by a Dutchman of Moroccan descent. Mr. Rose got a security briefing from police and had his telephone number and address de-listed.

Under pressure from young radicals for results, Mr. Abu-Laban, the Copenhagen cleric at the forefront of the campaign, and several others formed the "European Committee for Honoring the Prophet," an umbrella group that now claims to represent 27 organizations across a wide spectrum of the Islamic community. (Moderate Muslims dispute this and say the group has been hijacked by radicals.)

Frustrated by the Danish government's response, the committee decided after a series of meetings in October and November that "our only option was take our case outside Denmark," Mr. Abu-Laban says. There was growing interest from Muslim ambassadors in Copenhagen and their home governments, including Egypt.

Mr. Abu-Laban, who grew up in Egypt and was arrested there in the early 1980s after being expelled from the United Arab Emirates for his preaching, took charge of writing statements for the group and communicating with Muslim ambassadors. He denies holding extremist views, but acknowledges hosting visits to Denmark by Omar Abdel Rahman, before his arrest in New York, where the blind sheik now is serving a life sentence in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Mr. Abu-Laban began working closely with Cairo's embassy in Copenhagen, holding several meetings with Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, Mona Omar Attia. "Egypt's embassy played a fundamental role," he says. Egypt and other Arab regimes saw the furor as a good opportunity "to counteract pressure from the West" and "to show people they are good Muslims," he says.

Ms. Attia, the ambassador, says she wasn't motivated by political concerns but by personal outrage. "I was very angry. I was very upset," she says, describing the cartoons as an unacceptable insult to all Muslims. She acknowledges meeting with the Danish clerics several times but denies coordinating strategy with them.

Keen to "globalize" the crisis to pressure the Danish government, Mr. Abu-Laban and his colleagues decided to send delegations to the Middle East. They prepared a dossier to distribute during the travels. The document, which exceeded 30 pages, featured copies of the published cartoons and Arabic media reports about the controversy. It also contained a group of highly offensive pictures that had never been published by the newspaper, including a photograph of a man dressed as a pig, with the caption: "this is the real picture of Muhammad."

Ahmed Akarri, a 28-year-old Islamist activist involved in the committee, says the photographs had been sent to Danish Muslims anonymously and were included as examples of Denmark's anti-Muslim sentiment. He denies any attempt to mislead the Arab public about what had been published in Jyllands-Posten. Mr. Rose, the editor, describes it as a clear attempt at "disinformation."

The first delegation left for Cairo in early December. As that nation was about to hold the final round of the first democratic election in modern Egyptian history, the government was battling accusations from some quarters of insufficient piety. Ms. Attia, the ambassador, denies that authorities tried to manipulate the cartoon issue as an electoral ploy.

One member of the Danish delegation, Ahmed Harby, an Egyptian who runs a cleaning business in Copenhagen, says the trip wasn't designed to stir hatred against Denmark. It was intended, he says, to appease hotheads in Copenhagen and elsewhere who might take violent action if Jyllands-Posten wasn't forced to apologize. He says he didn't realize the dossier contained pictures the newspaper had never published.

The delegation met with a special assistant to the foreign minister, with the head of al-Azhar, the Muslim world's oldest university, and with the Egyptian head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. During a meeting with Cairo's senior Muslim cleric, Mr. Harby says, a fatwa, or religious opinion, was drafted calling for a boycott of Danish goods. The order was never formally released, he says.

Later in December, a second delegation traveled to Lebanon to meet with religious leaders and appeared on television. Mr. Akarri, the Copenhagen activist, later traveled alone to Syria to deliver the dossier to Syria's senior Sunni cleric.

Back in Denmark, the pressure on Mr. Rose mounted. He was warned that a security-service informant had reported that some Muslim radicals were spreading word that killing him was halal, meaning sanctioned by Islam. "It was the only time I felt cold running down my spine," he says.

Denmark's government began to reach out to Muslim ambassadors and others it had earlier rebuffed. In a New Year's speech, the prime minister retreated slightly from previously strong support for Jyllands-Posten. Egypt promptly claimed credit for the modest shift and suggested in a foreign ministry statement it was ready to drop the matter.

Protests elsewhere were intensifying, fanned by both Islamists and secular forces eager to prove their Islamic credentials. In Jordan, a pro-Western monarchy, Parliament condemned the cartoons as "racist and evil." Tunisia and Libya, where police regularly arrest Islamist activists and block protests, also denounced them.

Late last month, influential clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere called for a boycott of Danish goods. Arab consumers began to shun Danish products en masse.
Hassan Fattah of the NYT has more today, specifically on how the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was used to spread outrage about the cartoons:

At first, the agitation was limited to Denmark. Ahmed Akkari, 28, a Lebanese-born Dane, acts as spokesman for the European Committee for Honoring the Prophet, an umbrella group of 27 Danish Muslim organizations to press the Danish government into action over the cartoons.



Mr. Akkari said the group had worked for more than two months in Denmark without eliciting any response. "We collected 17,000 signatures and delivered them to the office of the prime minister, we saw the minister of culture, we talked to the editor of the Jyllands-Posten, we took many steps within Denmark, but could get no action," Mr. Akkari said, referring to the newspaper that published the cartoons. He added that the prime minister's office had not even responded to the petition.



Frustrated, he said, the group turned to the ambassadors of Muslim countries in Denmark and asked them to speak to the prime minister on their behalf. He refused them too.



"Then the case moved to a new stage," Mr. Akkari recalled. "We decided then that to be heard, it must come from influential people in the Muslim world."



The group put together a 43-page dossier, including the offending cartoons and three more shocking images that had been sent to Danish Muslims who had spoken out against the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.



Mr. Akkari denied that the three other offending images had contributed to the violent reaction, saying the images, received in the mail by Muslims who had complained about the cartoons, were included to show the response that Muslims got when they spoke out in Denmark.



In early December, the group's first delegation of Danish Muslims flew to Cairo, where they met with the grand mufti, Muhammad Sayid Tantawy, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League.



"After that, there was a certain response," Mr. Akkari said, adding that the Cairo government and the Arab League both summoned the Danish ambassador to Egypt for talks.



Mr. Akkari denies that the group had meant to misinform, but concedes that there were misunderstandings along the way.



In Cairo, for example, the group also met with journalists from Egypt's media. During a news conference, they spoke about a proposal from the far-right Danish People's Party to ban the Koran in Denmark because of some 200 verses that are alleged to encourage violence.



Several newspapers then ran articles claiming that Denmark planned to issue a censored version of the Koran. The delegation returned to Denmark, but the dossier continued to make waves in the Middle East. Egypt's foreign minister had taken the dossier with him to the Mecca meeting, where he showed it around. The Danish group also sent a second delegation to Lebanon to meet religious and political leaders there.



Mr. Akkari went on that trip. The delegation met with the grand mufti in Lebanon, Muhammad Rashid Kabbani, and the spiritual head of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, as well as the patriarch of the Maronite Church, Nasrallah Sfeir. The group also appeared on Hezbollah's satellite station Al Manar TV, which is seen throughout the Arab world.



Mr. Akkari also made a side trip to Damascus, Syria, to deliver a copy of the dossier to that country's grand mufti, Sheik Ahmed Badr-Eddine Hassoun.



Lebanon's foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, says he agreed to meet in mid-December with Egypt's ambassador to Lebanon, who presented him with a letter from his foreign minister, Aboul Gheit, urging him to get involved in the issue. Attached to the letter were copies of some of the drawings.



At the end of December, the pace picked up as talk of a boycott became more prominent. The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, comprising more than 50 states, published on its Web site a statement condemning "the aggressive campaign waged against Islam and its Prophet" by Jyllands-Posten, and officials of the organization said member nations should impose a boycott on Denmark until an apology was offered for the drawings.



"We encourage the organization's members to boycott Denmark both economically and politically until Denmark presents an official apology for the drawings that have offended the world's Muslims," said Abdulaziz Othman al-Twaijri, the organization's secretary general.



In a few weeks, the Jordanian Parliament condemned the cartoons, as had several other Arab governments.



On Jan. 10, as anti-Danish pressure built, a Norwegian newspaper republished the caricatures in an act of solidarity with the Danes, leading many Muslims to believe that a real campaign against them had begun.



On Jan. 26, in a key move, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark, and Libya followed suit. Saudi clerics began sounding the call for a boycott, and within a day, most Danish products were pulled off supermarket shelves.



"The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists," said Mr. Said, the Cairo political scientist. "Syria made an even worse miscalculation," he added, alluding to the sense that the protest had gotten out of hand. The issue of the cartoons came at a critical time in the Muslim world because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and a sense that Muslims were under siege. Strong showings by Islamists in elections in Egypt and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections had given new momentum to Islamic movements in the region, and many economies, especially those in the Persian Gulf, realized their economic power as it pertained to Denmark.



"The cartoons were a fuse that lit a bigger fire," said Rami Khouri, editor at large at the English-language Daily Star of Beirut. "It is this deepening sense of vulnerability combines with a sense that the Islamists were on a roll that made it happen."



The wave swept many in the region. Sheik Muhammad Abu Zaid, an imam from the Lebanese town of Saida, said he began hearing of the caricatures from several Palestinian friends visiting from Denmark in December but made little of it.



"For me, honestly, this didn't seem so important," Sheik Abu Zaid said, comparing the drawings to those made of Jesus in Christian countries. "I thought, I know that this is something typical in such countries."



Then, he started to hear that ambassadors of Arab countries had tried to meet with the prime minister of Denmark and had been snubbed, and he began to feel differently.



"It started to seem that this way of thinking was an insult to us," he said. "It is fine to say, 'This is our freedom, this is our way of thinking.' But we began to believe that their freedom was something that hurts us."
The overall picture is one in which Arab officials (notably Egyptian ones) really promoted this on the agenda. Although this is legitimate since some of the cartoons were truly offensive, one wonders what political motivation there was. Is the regime trying to out-religion the Islamists, as has been done many times in the past? In any case, it seems that Arab government officials did their best to bring attention to the issue. -- and it was not those that Condi Rice is accusing of fomenting trouble, but US allies. It is also evident that Danish officials completely bungled the diplomacy element.

Incidentally, there are also some wild rumors running around about the political motivation to start this uproar. One story going around Cairo is that it was all started in Saudi Arabia by a businessman who tried, and failed, to take the right to distribute Danish food products from a competitor. As revenge, he decided to pull strings and get high-ranking officials to pay more attention to the issue. Unlikely, but amusing.

The other thing that is clear emerging is that Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish paper that started the whole thing, is a major-league idiot. Via Haaretz:

The Danish editor behind the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that ignited deadly riots in the Muslim world said Wednesday he's trying to coordinate with an Iranian paper soliciting cartoons on the Holocaust.



"My newspaper is trying to establish a contact with the Iranian newspaper, and we would run the cartoons the same day as they publish them," Flemming Rose said Wednesday in an interview on CNN's "American Morning."



The Iranian newspaper Hamshahri said Tuesday it would hold the competition to test whether the West extends the principle of freedom of expression to the Nazi genocide as it did to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Really mature.

Update: The Danish newspaper now says that the interview that aired on CNN "over-interpreted" Rose's statements and that no Holocaust cartoons will run:

Citing CNN as source various media have stated that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten intends to publish Holocaust cartoons from an Iranian newspaper.



This information is based on an over-interpretation of a statement made by Culture Editor Flemming Rose, and Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten's Editor-in-Chief Carsten Juste emphasizes that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten in no circumstances will publish Holocaust cartoons from an Iranian newspaper.



Culture Editor Flemming Rose had informed CNN that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten would consider publishing the cartoons, but that this would not happen until Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten had seen the cartoons and until the newspaper had had the opportunity to take a decision on their standard.



Under any circumstances, such a possible publication would solely serve as journalistic documentation in the same way as Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten recently published a page with cartoons from the Arab press.
I guess they still don't get that some of the Muhammed cartoons were as offensive to Muslims as anti-Semitic cartoons would be to Jews.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.