Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 February 2006
Issue No. 780
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cartoon battle turns uglier

A Danish newspaper's apology failed to subdue the anger on the street over cartoons depicting Prophet Mohamed. Gihan Shahine tracks a telling week

Punishing Denmark

Danish affront

Many Muslims in Egypt and the Islamic world scoffed at the apology proffered by Jyllands-Posten's Chief Editor Carsten Juste this week for the newspaper's decision to publish 12 cartoons depicting Prophet Mohamed, including one with a turban shaped like a bomb strapped to his head.

The cartoons appeared in the Danish newspaper on 30 September 2005. When complaints first surfaced about them, Juste said he "would not dream of saying sorry". This week's turnaround was the result of a sudden escalation of anger in the Muslim world over the offensive cartoons, which were subsequently republished in Norway.

The newspaper was apparently pressured into issuing the apology when Danish businessmen expressed concerns over growing waves of boycotts of Danish products across the Arab world. Negative diplomatic ramifications had also started to appear. On Sunday Libya closed its embassy in Copenhagen in protest, and threatened to take "unspecific economic measures" against Denmark, while Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador earlier in the week.

In response to calls by religious leaders, Danish products were boycotted en masse in Saudi Arabia, several other Gulf countries, Yemen and Iran. Meanwhile, a spate of protests erupted in different parts of the world. On the West Bank, members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades carried out a major protest, with the demonstrators burning the Danish flag, and calling on Palestinian authorities to cut diplomatic ties with Denmark. They also threatened Danes in the area, and told them to leave immediately.

The Saudi Arabian boycott in particular hit Danish businesses hard, threatening some 1.3 billion Saudi riyals worth of exports. Egypt joined the boycott fray on Sunday, with many major supermarket chains, including Metro and Seoudi, announcing that they had stopped selling Danish products. The Pharmacists' Syndicate in Alexandria also decided to boycott Danish pharmaceutical suppliers, and called upon the Egyptian government to recall its ambassador to Denmark. Mobile messages calling for a boycott, and listing the Danish and Norwegian products to be avoided were widely circulated.

"My 10-year-old son has now learnt to check the label of sweets before he buys them to make sure they are not made in Denmark or Norway," said a 30-year-old mother while shopping in a supermarket. "If Danes are free to insult our prophet, then we are free not to buy their products."

The relativity of freedom appeared to be the key issue at stake. After all, tellingly accompanying the newspaper's apology was a warning that "the situation demands serious consideration by the EU, because crucial principles are at stake if the situation is not tackled sensibly." The EU, for its part, appeared to be supporting the Danish government when it declared that, "any boycott of Danish goods would be seen as a boycott of European goods."

The conditional nature of these remarks helped keep the controversy alive. An angry woman on an Orbit satellite channel talk show on Monday night seemed to be speaking for many in the Arab world when she said that the newspaper's "apology was far from enough". During the show, hundreds of people called in and sent messages urging a continuation of the boycott. "The Danes, and their government, insisted on insulting our prophet, and showed that they care little for our feelings. Now they come to simply say 'sorry'. This is unacceptable, and sorry: we don't need their products anymore," said another of the show's guests.

The jab at the Danish government and public was in reaction to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's decision not to intervene in the affair, on the grounds of freedom of expression. An opinion poll also showed that 79 per cent of Danes thought Rasmussen should not issue an apology, and 62 per cent said the newspaper should not apologise.

Rasmussen did say, however, that his government respects Islam, and never meant to defame prophets. He also expressed hopes that the crisis would end after the newspaper apologised for the offence.

That was not likely to happen, as was clear from the reaction of disgruntled Egyptian MP Hamdi Hassan, who is also a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. "The Danish government needs to make a more formal apology," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, "in acknowledgment that freedom of expression does not mean people are free to insult prophets."

Others slammed the EU's "double standards" for keeping silent about the cartoons ridiculing Prophet Mohamed, while insisting on enforcing economic sanctions against countries that publish anti-Semitic material. "The world would have been up in arms had a Jewish sanctuary been defamed instead," thundered Ahmed, a 36-year-old accountant. "The world has to know Muslims will defend their prophet until their last breath as well."

Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a member of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy (IRA), called the boycott a religious duty. "The boycott is the least Muslims could do to defend their prophet after the majority of Danish people supported their government for not apologising for the offensive drawings," Bayoumi told the Weekly. "Now other nations will think twice before defaming Islam."

This also appeared to be a clear case of over-optimistic thinking. On Wednesday, French newspaper France Soir decided to reproduce the offensive cartoons. The decision was made, the paper said, to show that "religious dogma" has no place in a secular society. The French government backed the paper's stance, saying it supported press freedom, although it also added that beliefs and religions must be respected. A domino effect soon took place, with several other major European newspapers -- including Germany's Die Welt, Italy's La Stampa, and Spain's El Periodico -- also choosing to reprint the offensive cartoons.

"Muslims might have miscalculated the manner in which they handled the crisis," noted prominent Islamic scholar Abdel-Sabour Shahine, who suggested that instead of pursuing a boycott of Danish products, the Islamic world should have shown more tolerance, by focusing on promoting dialogue with the west, and educating them more about Islam. "The Qur'an ordains Muslims to engage in peaceful dialogue and use a more logical approach with those of different creeds." The prophet himself, Shahine argued, was constantly subject to offence during the first years of his prophecy in Mecca, and his reactions were so tolerant that those who initially opposed him ended up becoming Muslim.

"After all," said Shahine, "we'd rather have the Danes apologising out of conviction, rather than because they feel threatened."

Others, like Hassan, continued to insist that the boycott was very effective in delivering an important message to the world: that Muslims are still "alive, and are ready to unite and move".

The question of who might lead that movement, however, was still very much up in the air. Many Egyptians were upset at what they called the "shamefully weak stance" of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's foremost seat of learning. Al-Azhar's grand imam, often criticised for toeing the government line, had not been one of the first to speak up about the offensive cartoons. When he finally did, he sparked public outrage when he based his denunciation on the grounds that it is "not acceptable to ridicule dead people in general, and deceased prophets in particular"-- a statement that, albeit bearing the official seal of Al-Azhar, was heartily denied in a subsequent statement issued by Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy (IRA) on Wednesday.

Senior Al-Azhar cleric Mahmoud Ashour said that Al-Azhar scholars convened immediately after the publication of the offensive cartoons to study ways of countering them. "Our response appeared to be late because we had to first see how the Danish government would react," Ashour said. "But the press spares no effort in belittling the role of the grand imam, who loves Islam and the prophet more than anyone else."

Hassan and others remained sceptical of these kinds of claims. "The grand imam's response sounded even more offensive than the cartoons themselves because it supposedly came from the most prestigious seat of learning in the Islamic world," the MP said.

"How can Prophet Mohamed be compared with any other dead person?" asked Ibrahim El-Zaafarani, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the Shura Council who also serves as secretary-general of Alexandria's Doctors' Syndicate. "It's a shame, a shame."

Other scholars argued that the imam's statement ran counter to a principle enshrined in the Qur'an, which implies that Prophet Mohamed is spiritually alive amongst Muslims via his teachings. "If the grand imam is more interested in his [position]," El-Zaafarani said, "he needs to be made aware that the prestige of his seat stems from the grandiosity of his religion."

In the meantime, a host of other organisations -- including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Federation of Arab Journalists, the International Union of Muslim Clergy, the Islamic Conference Organisation, the Arab League, and the Egyptian Parliament -- all joined the fray, issuing statements condemning the cartoons. Several protest marches are also being planned for Cairo and Alexandria this Friday.

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