It was just twelve simple drawing published in a Danish newspaper. But they have triggered an international relations crisis for Copenhagen -- and potentially the rest of Europe. The drawings depicted the prophet Muhammed, a major no-no for Muslims. The result has been protests and boycotts in the Arab world, and soul searching in Denmark and Europe.
The explosiveness of the tensions between Danes and the Arab World this week drew ugly comparisons to a conflict of civilizations and raised uncomfortable memories of the fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie in the 1980s over his novel "The Satanic Verses," which Muslim groups claim disparaged their religion's central figure, Muhammad. But Denmark's crisis has been simmering for months.
Islam forbids the depiction of the religion's founder Muhammad, and Muslims in Denmark grew outraged after the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, a major Danish daily, published a series of 12 political cartoons in September that depicted the prophet in various disparaging contexts. When they responded -- through letters to the editor and complaints within the community -- they felt ignored.
One group of Danish Muslims, led by a young imam named Ahmed Akkari, grew so frustrated by the inability of Muslims to get their message across in Denmark that they compiled a dossier of racist and culturally insensitive images circulating in the country and took them on an road show in the Arab World to raise awareness of the discrimination they faced.
"There is currently a climate (in Denmark) that is contributing to an increase in racism," the group warned in the introduction to a 43-page dossier it prepared before traveling to Egypt in late 2005. It dedicated the rest of the dossier to "drawings and pictures" that disparaged Islam and "denigrated the prophet." The offending images included Muhammad with a bomb wrapped in his turban. The Muslim community in the small Scandinavian country erupted in anger -- not only did the images denigrate Islam's central figure, many felt the drawings also equated all Muslims with terrorism.
Tivoli Gardens and Islamophobia
To Muslim leaders in Denmark like Akkari and fellow imam Abu Laban, the images provided evidence of an Islamophobia that they believe permeates Danish society. Worse yet, they felt their protests against racism had been ignored. Newspapers failed to publish their letters to the editor and politicians seemed unwilling to listen. "As a group in society, we've simply been ignored," Akkari told the Aarhus-based daily Stiftstidende earlier this month.
Akkari and his group traveled together to Cairo, where they visited Al-Azhar University, which has a reputation for building bridges between Egypt and Europe. Akkari said he wanted to draw attention to the racist climate in order to prevent a repeat of the Theo Van Gogh drama in the Netherlands. In November 2004, a radical Islamist murdered Van Gogh, motivated by the filmmaker's criticism of Muslims.
Kaare Quist, a journalist at the Danish daily Ekstra Bladet, who has been reporting on the story for a number of weeks, says the group found a number of highly placed officials in the Arab World keen to listen to its message. Quist told SPIEGEL ONLINE they included representatives of the Arab League, Egypt's grand mufti and other high-level officials. The trip the group made, Quist believes, helped to raise attention to the political cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and prejudices against Denmark's Muslims. some 270,000 of Denmark's 5.4 million population are Muslim, making up 5 percent of the population.
Quist says the dossier they shared in Egypt may have been far more damaging than the Jyllands-Posten episode -- and it may have further exacerbated misgivings between Denmark and the Arab world. In addition to the now notorious caricatures published by the newspaper which have now spread like wildfire in the blogosphere, it also included patently offensive anti-Muslim images that had been sent to the group by other Muslims living in Denmark. The origins or authenticity of the images haven't been confirmed, but their content was nevertheless damaging. Quist says the dossier included three obscene caricatures -- one showed Muhammad as a pedophile, another as a pig and the last depicted a praying Muslim being raped by a dog.
"The drawings in Jyllands-Posten were harmless compared to these," he says.
For his part, Akkari said the more outrageous images were clearly separated from those published by the paper when the group met with Muslim leaders. "They were at the back of the folder," he told Stiftstidende. By including them, the group sought to show the kind of hate they feel subjected to in Denmark.
Stoking the fire?
But Quist claims the group may also have perpetuated misunderstandings during its trip. The reporter says that Arabs who visited with the group later claimed Akkari's delegation had given them the impression that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen somehow controlled or owned Jyllands-Posten.
"I believe that this misunderstanding was unintentional," Quist said, reviewing his research. "But I also think that they are also trying to profit from the agitation."
Still, whether the trip by Akkari's group had any impact or not, Fogh Rasmussen and the editors of Jyllands-Posten are on the defensive this week, dodging bomb threats and a growing diplomatic crisis. The episode also sparked a strong debate in the European media about free speech and whether editors in other European countries should stand together in support of free speech and a Danish paper that pushes the wrong buttons or whether they should scorn a series of cartoons that perpetuated uncomfortable stereotypes about Muslims.
The newspaper's editor issued an apology this week. And the Danish prime minister, who earlier said it would be inappropriate for him to apologize for a newspaper's right to free of speech, did say he hoped the apology would "contribute to the comfort of those who have been hurt."
But sentiment against Denmark is strong. Earlier this week, Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Libya and Jordan, have staged loosely organized, impromptu boycotts that have led many companies, including France's Carrefour supermarket chain, to remove Danish products from their shelves. Denmark's Jyske Bank has estimated that a one-year Arab boycott of Danish food products could result in lost revenues of €322 million and the loss of as many as 4,000 jobs.
In addition, Arabs have taken their protests to the street, to the Internet and to the sphere of official international diplomacy. Arab hackers have attacked the server of Jyllands-Posten's Web site and several Arab countries -- most recently Syria on Wednesday -- have recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen.
With reporting by Yassin Musharbash and Anna Reimann.