CAIRO: A series of cartoons in a Danish newspaper has prompted a controversy that threatens to escalate into a global trade dispute between the European Union and Muslim countries.
A series of caricatures first published last September that made light of Prophet Muhammed are at the center of the controversy. Danish daily Jyllands-Posten had published 12 drawings purporting to portray what different cartoonists imagined Prophet Muhammed might have looked like. One of these depicts the face of a bearded man with a turban in the shape of a bomb.
The initiative was taken as part of an ongoing public debate on freedom of expression, explained Carsten Juste, editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, in a statement issued on Monday.
Juste described the drawings as sober, but nevertheless apologized in the statement. [The drawings] were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims, for which we apologize, said Juste.
Juste added that his newspaper has worked to engage Danish Muslims in a productive dialogue and that a number of drawings that have been circulated in the region were in fact never published by Jyllands-Posten.
In Egypt, retail giant Metro has joined a growing boycott of products of Danish origin by Arab businesses.
The company explained in an email to customers that the boycott was in protest against the persistent provocation of the Danish media against Islam and the apparent lack of appropriate response from the Danish government.
Metro is one of the country s biggest grocers and is part of the Mansour Group, which is headed by Minister of Transport Mohammed Mansour and owned by his family.
Metro s actions follow similar bans by retailers in the Gulf, including Carrefour and Spinneys in the United Arab Emirates.
Islamic scholar Khaled El-Gindy says that the newspaper s apology is unconvincing and that it was only made in response to intense diplomatic and economic pressure.
El-Gindy, who is a member of the Center for Quran and Sunnah Studies in Cairo, believes that the cartoonists should personally get involved in the dialogue and explain their intentions behind the drawings.
It is nevertheless the responsibility of Muslims to educate the West about the Prophet, says El-Gindy, in a manner similar to that in which Christians do in movies and other mediums. The current portrayal of the Prophet to Westerners focuses on the story of his struggle, and El-Gindy suggests that seminars be held in Europe to describe the other aspects of the Prophet, such as his roles as a father and a husband.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen also issued a statement on Tuesday condemning any expression, action or indication that attempts to demonize groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background, adding that he hoped the newspaper s apology will contribute to comfort those that have been hurt.
But Fogh s statement fell short of an apology, and Saudi Arabia s Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faysal said that the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) may therefore consider a boycott of Danish products. The move to boycott Danish goods following the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet is something the Saudi population wants, Saudi daily Al-Watan quoted Al-Faysal as saying. It is not the initiative of the Saudi government and will go ahead irrespective of whether the government wants it or not.
OIC Secretary-General Ekmeledidin Ihsanoglu was also disappointed by the responses of the newspaper and the Danish government, explaining that they were only issued after several months of procrastination and that they failed to address the underlying issues. By providing protection to the newspapers and failure to censure in unequivocal terms, Ihsanoglu said in a statement, it has served neither the cause of freedom of expression nor it has advanced the goals of multiculturalism, domestically or internationally.
In response to the increasing rhetoric of the Saudi government, which has recalled its ambassador from Denmark, the European Union warned that a boycott of Danish goods was a boycott of the European Union, the Financial Times reported earlier this week. E.U. Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said that the E.U. would take the issue to the World Trade Organization if Saudi Arabia continues to encourage a boycott.
While the economic affect of a boycott is unclear, Abdel-Aziz Ezz El-Arab, economics professor at the American University of Cairo, is disturbed by the politicization of the issue. We readily associate what the paper says with the Danish government and people, as if everyone represents everyone, says Ezz El-Arab.
Instead of a boycott, Ezz El-Arab believes the issue should be addressed through public discussion and governments should not get involved.
Denmark is unaccustomed to being in the limelight. A Danish student in Cairo, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that this makes it difficult for Danes to deal with the sudden controversy. The student explains that the public in Denmark generally agrees that Jyllands-Posten should have never printed the cartoons in the first place, but that the Danish Prime Minister is not in a position to apologize for the actions of an independent, private newspaper.
Libya and Syria joined the diplomatic standoff this week. Libya closed its embassy in Copenhagen on Sunday and the Syrian government recalled its ambassador from Denmark yesterday. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also summoned the Danish ambassador in Tehran on Wednesday, demanding an apology from both the Danish government and the newspaper.
As the controversy spreads from diplomatic quarters to the marketplace, the Muslim public is becoming restless. Protests took place in Iraq and Turkey this week and the Danish Embassy in Damascus was evacuated yesterday in response to a bomb threat which turned out to be a hoax.
But the angry reaction is not restricted to the Middle East. In Malaysia, a leading consumer association has called on its government to demand an official apology from the Danish government.
Islam prohibits any visual depiction of the Prophet. The controversy highlights the issue of cultural sensitivity between the Muslim world and Europe, and has sparked a debate about secularism and freedom of expression. Several newspapers in France and Germany republished the drawings yesterday to reassert their editorial freedom. The drawings were also published in a Norwegian magazine, although this was condemned by a high-ranking official at Norway s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.