Is Cartoon Controversy History? Danish Library Wants to Preserve Inflammatory Drawings

By Andrew Curry

Copenhagen's Royal Library is working to acquire controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed for its permanent collection. The 12 drawings would be preserved for posterity -- but probably never put on display, to the dismay of some.

A dozen of the most inflammatory newspaper sketches in history may soon share shelves with some of Denmark's most prized historical documents. The Danish Royal Library, founded more than 350 years ago, is working to acquire 12 cartoons of Muhammad that angered Muslims and resulted in deadly riots worldwide in 2006.

Pakistani students burn the Danish flag in Multan, Pakistan, in 2006. A dozen drawings sparked similar protests across the Muslim world. The Danish Royal Library wants to preserve the cartoons for posterity.
AP

Pakistani students burn the Danish flag in Multan, Pakistan, in 2006. A dozen drawings sparked similar protests across the Muslim world. The Danish Royal Library wants to preserve the cartoons for posterity.

"We're thinking of their historical importance, not their artistic value," museum spokeswoman Jytte Kjaergaard told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They created a part of Danish history, and we want to be sure we'll have the originals here."

According to Danish law, two copies of everything published in Denmark -- from bestselling novels to local newspapers -- have to be deposited at the Royal Library, making it the country's most important repository.

If the Royal Library's acquisition goes through, the controversial cartoons would share shelf space with some lofty company. The institution is considered Scandinavia's leading library. Its shelves hold some of Denmark's greatest treasures, including one of 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible known to exist, tormented philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's original manuscripts and "Out of Africa" author Karen Blixen's diaries.

Kjaergaard was careful to point out that the drawings were not intended to be put on display. "We keep in our warehouses valuable maps, books, photographs and art that will be of interest for future generations," she said. "We have to keep an open mind now to secure material that might be important 50 years to come."

The library is hoping to get the cartoons for free. Most are still in the hands of the artists, though one was sold to a private buyer. Setting a fair market price may be tough, as so far Danish auction houses have refused to touch the drawings.

The 12 cartoons were first published in September 2005 by the Jyllands-Posten Danish newspaper. The daily said they were intended as comments on self-censorship in the face of Muslim sensitivities. Many of the cartoons drew connections between Islam and terrorism; one featured a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

Angry Reactions

The drawings were reprinted in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Norway; and in 2006, reaction to the cartoons thrust the tiny Scandinavian nation into the global spotlight. Anti-Denmark riots caused more than 100 deaths, the destruction of Denmark's embassy in Syria and attacks on Scandinavian diplomatic posts across the Muslim world.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has described the cartoon controversy as Denmark's worst international crisis since WWII. "It was a shock for everyone here in Denmark," said Esben Ösberg, head of the Danish Union of Journalists. "I don't think even (Jylland-Posten) had it in mind that it would make such a noise in the international community."

The cartoons are still reverberating. One of two men accused of planting suitcase bombs on German trains in 2006 said at his trial in Lebanon that the failed bombings were "revenge" for the cartoons.

Yet in Denmark, Ösberg said, the cartoons have had a positive impact. "I don't think it's caused any harm," Ösberg said. "The international debate has been healthy to the Danish debate. If anything, the Danish journalism community is speaking more freely about satire now." Kasem Said Ahmad, head of the Danish Muslim Society, called the acquisition a "provocation" but said his group had no plans to protest publicly.

The Royal Library isn't the only Danish institution trying to secure the drawings. Ervin Nielsen, director of the Media Museum in Odense, hopes to make the cartoons part of an exhibition on freedom of expression in Denmark, either by borrowing them from the Royal Library or acquiring them for his own museum. "This is one of many cases where you can say freedom of expression is at stake," Nielsen told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Kjaergaard described that as unlikely. Since items in the Royal Library collections are unique, security and insurance concerns make loans difficult, particularly, she says in the case of something as controversial as the cartoons. "I can hardly imagine that, if we had all the illustrations here, (a loan) would be realistic," she said. "Anyway, I can't really see the point when you can see them all on the Internet."

Nielsen says many people don't even know what the famous cartoons look like -- and that there's nothing like the original to change minds. "We also have to show people what we are talking about," he says. "Here you have just some pencil strokes and some color -- do you really think that's Muhammad?"

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