How cartoons fanned flames of Muslim rage
Embassies burning. Riots and demonstrations across the globe. Journalists in hiding. Presidents and preachers joining the furious debate. But just how did a series of second-rate cartoons buried deep inside the pages of a small Danish newspaper produce such an incendiary dispute?
Jason Burke in Paris, Luke Harding in Berlin, Alex Duval Smith in Copenhagen and Peter Beaumont in Ramallah
Sunday February 5, 2006
If the consequences are global, the source is almost farcically local. You reach number 3 Grondals Street by taking the number 9 bus to the outskirts of the Danish city of Aarhus and getting off by the red post box half way up the hill. The modest single-story yellow brick building is the head office of Jyllands-Posten, a national newspaper with a circulation of 150,000. It is where Flemming Rose, the arts editor, decided that publishing a page of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad would provoke a debate on multiculturalism and spice up a paper whose daily highlight for many readers is the diamond wedding listing on page 18.
This weekend, the fallout from that editorial whim six months ago has left half the globe reeling. A week of violent rhetoric and action, of statements by scores of heads of states, of commercial boycotts and diplomatic intervention, of strife and anguish and emotion, has exposed deep tensions and fissures at the heart of the modern world, tensions between the Islamic world and the West, between religion and secular society, between journalists and politicians, between different conceptions of the role of faith and a free press in society, tensions that look unlikely to disappear soon.
Jan Lund, the Jyllands-Posten's foreign editor, said there was little discussion when the decision to run the cartoons was taken. 'I don't remember anyone raising any objections. The idea seemed good. The intention was to provoke a debate about the extent to which we self-censor in our coverage of Muslim issues.'.
Rose said the exercise had been inspired by a conversation with Danish comedian Frank Hvam, who said he did not dare make fun of the Koran. Rose added that children's writer Bent Blüdnikow, who had written a book about the Prophet Muhammad, had lamented the fact that all the illustrators he approached wanted to work anonymously.
Rose said that last autumn's Danish theatre season included three productions in which President George W Bush was either criticised or ridiculed, but not one featuring Osama bin Laden.
The result was 12 cartoons published on 30 September on page 3 of the second section of the paper. One showed the prophet with a bomb as a head, another with either horns or half a halo growing out of his head, a third showed a ragged line of suicide bombers arriving in heaven to be greeted by an anxious-looking prophet telling them: 'Stop stop, we ran out of virgins!'.More: How cartoons fanned flames of Muslim rage