'It Was Worth It' Editor Reflects on Denmark's Cartoon Jihad

In Aarhus, Denmark, an editor says the societal debate unleashed by his paper's controversial decision to publish political cartoons of the prophet Muhammad has justified his move. In the town, many residents are standing behind Jyllands-Posten.
Von Roman Heflik

The call came at five o'clock in the evening. A man warned the receptionist in English: There's a bomb in the building and it's going to go off in 10 minutes. A few seconds later, more than 200 employees -- editors, secretaries and printing staff -- fled the offices of Jyllands-Posten in Denmark's second-largest city, Aarhus. The police quickly turned up on the scene, as did the journalists, photographers and satellite trucks.

Bomb-sniffing dogs sleuthed through the editorial offices and the adjacent printing plant for traces of a bomb. A short time later, the police gave the all clear signal -- no bomb had been found.

It was the second bomb threat within 24 hours, the result of a foreign policy crisis of a scale unlike any Denmark has ever seen before. "We expected these kinds of threats," said Jyllands-Posten spokesman Tage Clausen, looking calm, composed and almost peaceful given the commotion surrounding his newspaper. The bomb threat, he said, just served to show how relevant the debate that the newspaper unleashed four months ago is in contemporary society. In September, Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's highest-circulation newspaper, published 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad -- one showed him wearing a bomb as a turban with the fuse already burning.

Clausen said the paper did not intend to provoke Muslims by running the political cartoons. "Instead we wanted to show how deeply entrenched self-censorship has already become," he said. After the explosive reaction to the drawings, however, you would be hard pressed to find a Danish cartoonist willing to risk drawing any caricatures relating to Islam.

Shortly after the publication of the comics, representatives of Denmark's Muslim population began a storm of protests. Though not explicitly stated in the Koran, the Muslim religion forbids drawings or other graphic depictions of Muhammad -- and any image that spoofs the prophet is seen as an affront by many Muslims. A group of Danish Muslims unsuccessfully sought to sue the newspaper for publishing the comics. When that initiative failed, a delegation of Muslims living in Denmark took their complaints to the Middle East , where they sought help from Muslim leaders.

The resulting wave of outrage in the Arab World washed over Denmark this week unrelentingly. Saudi Arabia temporarily recalled its ambassador, Syria removed its top diplomat and Libya closed its embassy. In Arab countries, Danish products were boycotted and its trademark red and white flag burned in public demonstrations of outrage.

The Jyllands-Posten office received bomb threats and its employees were flooded with death threats by telephone and post, the paper's political editor, Joern Mikkelsen confirmed. But Mikkelsen said the editors at the paper remained strong. "We're not afraid," he said, "but this has made us more reflective."

Free speech proponent or provocateur?

For his part, Mikkelsen also seemed at relative ease on Wednesday, at least given the stakes the crisis could have for Denmark's image abroad. It may be seen as a pariah in the Arab world, but the conservative Jyllands-Posten will be seen by some now as a trailblazer in the fight freedom of the press. "Was it worth it?" Mikkelsen asked rhetorically and pausing briefly before answering: "Yes, it was worth it."

Mikkelsen said the subsequent debate over who is or isn't entitled to criticize a religion only served to further legitimize his paper's decision to run the comics.

Mikkelsen said the paper had not violated ethics or even the law, but it had nevertheless apologized to all those who were offended by the caricatures. "Of course you can ask yourself if the drawings were a bit naive," he concedes. "But in the end, this doesn't have to do with the pictures anymore -- I mean, who has even seen them?" Instead, the issue has been transformed into a conflict of civilizations.

Mikkelsen said he was pleased by the fact that other European papers, like Paris's France Soir or Berlin's Die Welt had chosen to print the caricatures in solidarity.

The regional newspaper Stiftstidende is located just a few kilometers down the road from from Mikkelsen's office. The paper's editor-in-chief, Flemming Moenster, said the comic scandal had also been felt in his newsroom. "The intense reactions to the J-P drawings have certainly frightened us," he admitted. But he said the paper wouldn't permit itself to be muzzled under pressure. "We could still write a critical article on the issue of Islam tomorrow," he said, assuringly. Nevertheless, he said the scuffle had created a situation that would force newspapers to take more time in the future to consider whether stories they publish would hurt people's feelings -- and whether the story is important enough to take that risk. "But we will continue to print stories that are important and necessary," he said.

"Censorship isn't our aim"

Meanwhile, Imam Akkari, who led the delegation that sought help from the Arab World in dealing with prejudices against Denmark's Muslim community, said it wasn't his intention to stymie the right of free speech to the country's journalists.

"Our intention was never to introduce censorship or to ban criticism of issues related to religion," Akkari emphasized. In recent years though, he points out, the Danish media focused an inordinate amount of attention on Muslim communities. "But now we are worried that the problem is escalating and that some people might get the wrong idea," he said. Akkari strongly condemned the bomb threat levelled against Jyllands-Posten and is quick to emphasize that he is dedicated to "the political path of discussion."

But despite his conciliatory tone, Danish repugnance for the harsh reaction to the caricatures among Denmark's Muslims is growing. "I can understand if someone feels their religious sensibilities have been offended," said Martin, a 25-year-old bicycle salesman. "But burning the Danish flag? That's going too far."

"In Denmark, we love irony and sarcasm," said Eminie Ehlers, 23. "I can't imagine living in a country where I am no longer allowed to voice my free opinion." Her companion Tonni Soerensen agreed. "The Muslim reaction was exaggerated in the extreme," he said. "When these imams go around telling everybody how bad we are, it's like a stab in the back." After all, he adds, the door was opened to Denmark's immigrants.

Other Aarhus inhabitants went even further. "If they don't agree with the freedom of the press, then they should go back home," said Anne Grethe, a 59-year-old who refused to give her last name. Jen, too, wanted to remain anonymous. "Most Muslims don't want this conflict," the 33-year-old said. "But I can't help thinking, if Danish companies have to lay people off as a result of the boycott, then it should be the Muslim employees who are let go first."

The escalation that concerns Akkari seems already to have arrived.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren