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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 12:33 GMT
Cartoons: Divisions and inconsistencies
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News website World Affairs correspondent

The "cartoon crisis" has demonstrated the gulf between sections of the West and the Muslim world, revealed divisions within Islam itself and showed inconsistencies by advocates of both sides.

Youth waving Islamic flag as fire burns in Beirut
The gap between the West and the Muslim world is still wide

A look back at the way the issue developed shows the key moments in what was a slow burn towards a crisis.

For this did not just spring upon the world, and decisions taken in the course of the build-up materially influenced the eventual outcome.

It began, in fact, before 30 September 2005, the day the original 12 cartoons of Muhammad were published in Jyllands-Posten.


And here came the first inconsistency on one side.

More than two years previously, in April 2003, a Danish cartoonist Christoffer Zieler offered some cartoons of Jesus Christ to Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest daily paper and generally seen as right-wing.

One of the paper's editors told Zieler: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."

(Update: a reader has pointed out that in 2000 the paper did publish a cartoon in which Joseph, quoting Bill Clinton at the time of Monica Lewinsky, says about Mary: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The reader queries therefore why J-P should be criticised over the Zieler offerings. I would reply that the inconsistency remains because of the reasons stated for the refusal, that they would offend.)

No such concern prevailed when Jyllands-Posten decided to solicit drawings of Muhammad after a children's author, Kare Bluitgen, had been unable to find illustrators for his book about the Prophet (written with the intention of widening understanding, though one reader has asked why, if this was so, he had even sought to use such illustrations). The illustrators refused either because they knew that portraits of the Prophet were against Islamic tradition, or were afraid of reprisals.


Publication led to immediate protests by Muslim leaders in Denmark - and an immediate effort by them to internationalise the issue.

Imam Raed Hlayhel gave an interview to the news website of the Arabic channel Al Jazeera and said: "This type of democracy is worthless for Muslims. Muslims will never accept this kind of humiliation."

The paper's editor-in-chief Carsten Juste replied: "We live in a democracy. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn't set any barriers on that sort of expression."

At this stage the row was largely confined to Denmark. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to get involved and declined a meeting with eleven Arab ambassadors mobilised by the Danish imams.

On 17 October, a curious thing happened. Six of the cartoons were prominently reprinted in an Egyptian newspaper, al-Fagr. The paper said they were racist and would insult Muslims everywhere and predicted an outcry. However, at this stage, nothing happened on the streets. There was no public outcry.

It took concerted action by the Danish Muslim leaders to effect a change.

Wider audience

They decided to take their complaints both about the cartoons and about the position of Muslims in Denmark to other audiences. In December, encouraged by an imam well known in Denmark, Abu Laban, a delegation went to the Middle East where they saw leading Islamic scholars and political leaders.

They took along the cartoons as evidence but they also included in a 43-page dossier three other drawings which were even more insulting and which had not been published in Jyllands-Posten.

The dossier revealed inconsistencies of it own. It contained some placatory statements to the effect that the delegation simply wanted "stable relations, and a flourishing Denmark for all that live here."

But it also contained some rude remarks about Denmark including the sentence "If you say that they are all infidels, then you are not wrong".

The 'non-cartoons'

The three extra drawings were said to have been sent to Muslims in Denmark as insults. However one of them, apparently showing the prophet with the face of a pig, has been traced to a photo of the winner of a pig-squealing contest in the French Pyrenees last summer.

It remains unclear as to how this last picture, a grey photocopy, came to such prominence but it does seem to have played a role in the raising of the temperature.

The crisis has exposed the fragility of relations between the West and Muslim countries
The delegation spokesman, Ahmed Akkari, said they pointed out the status of the different pictures on their travels but the "pigface" photocopy was later filmed in Gaza at the end of January when gunmen took over EU offices, and so somehow it had been lifted out and given importance.

Mecca meeting

A key moment came in December at a meeting of the Organisation of The Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca, itself such an important and relevant venue for a discussion of Muhammad.

This transformed the issue.

The OIC expressed its concern at "rising hatred against Islam and Muslims" and condemned "the recent incident of desecration of the image of the Holy Prophet Muhammad".

Its statement attacked the "use of freedom of expression as a pretext for defaming religions".

The row had moved from an argument in Denmark through Islamic circles in the Middle East to become political as well. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark on 26 January. Demonstrations followed across the Middle East.

Western governments strove for calm, with statements to the effect that there was a right to publish but a responsibility not to publish.

In turn this prompted a counter-move by defenders of free speech and the cartoons appeared in some, though relatively few, Western publications.

On 31 January, Jyllands-Posten issued the apology it had refused to give earlier.


By now, the crisis had exposed the fragility of relations between the West and Muslim countries. The publication might have passed without major international trouble if these relations had been calm. At the moment, they are not and in such fertile soil, the seed of conflict grew rapidly.

One side felt the insults deeply. The other saw the violence as overreaction.

And in process, the battle was joined within Islam. In Britain, this process was seen very clearly. The extremist elements made their voices heard first, with small, but fervent protests and placards ("Behead those who insult Islam" etc) that led to calls for police action.

But they also led moderate elements within the Muslim community to rally their forces and this they did with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

This struggle for the hearts and minds of Islam may yet prove to be the most significant battle of all, even more important than a confrontation between Western secularism and Islamic belief.


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