COPENHAGEN–The cartoon that just would not die is starting to haunt anew. And this time it comes much to Denmark’s chagrin.
Most Danes thought the worst of the fallout from incendiary cartoon renderings of the Prophet Muhammad had long since petered out – until last month, when the most controversial image was republished by a brace of Danish newspapers in solidarity with cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose life is thought to be in danger.
This second moment of defamation in the name of free speech sparked a slower burn that the original, when riots swept the Muslim world in September 2005.
But now, as then, a boycott Denmark movement is taking hold in the Middle East.
Then, last week, a new audio tape from Osama bin Laden timed to the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war placed the cartoon issue uppermost in its laundry-list of grievance, urging his followers to inflict Europe with a “reckoning more severe” for republishing the image.
Unbeknown to Westergaard, his hand-drawn piece of political kryptonite struck yet again this week, appearing in the Internet-only release of a wildly controversial anti-Qur’an film by right-wing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders.
Kurt Westergaard is an unfortunately common name in Denmark and Dutch security officials acknowledge there have been threats to more than a few of the 81 Danish men whose passport identifies them as such.
As for the real Kurt Westergaard, he yesterday served notice of intent to sue Wilders.
“The use of the drawing in Wilders’ film is a serious violation of copyright,” said the Danish Union of Journalists, acting for Westergaard. “We strongly deplore that the drawing is being used for political propaganda.”
Danish politicians, too, have been squirming to distance themselves from Wilders. Yesterday, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller said Wilders’ film unfairly brands the whole of Islam with the terrorist label.
“You cannot say 1.3 billion Muslims are potential terrorists,” said Moller.
Beneath it all, Danish opinion has shifted firmly against the entire cartoon saga, with a majority of 58 per cent disapproving of the republication, according to a poll conducted by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper.
The opposite held true two years ago, when two-thirds of Danes supported publishing the cartoons in the name of free expression.
“Regret is the wrong word, because Danes never felt that they were in any way accountable for what was essentially a badly drawn cartoon in a stupid little right-wing paper that most people had never heard of before,” said Camilla Slot, a Copenhagen Business School professor of politics and philosophy who has been conducting research on the cartoon controversy.
“But it is true that most Danes are sick of the whole story.
“People think it is ridiculous that the newspapers published it a second time because there seems no point in it except to provoke. The first time, there was an argument for free expression. This time, people aren’t buying it.”
Danish sensitivities over the cartoon’s unwelcome revival come amid new warnings of a spike in domestic extremist activist, according to PET, the Danish intelligence agency.
“I can’t say how many people or groups we’re talking about as it changes all the time,” agency chief Jakob Schart told Politiken newspaper last week.
“But … our investigations show that there are increasing numbers of young extremists who have the ability and will to participate in terror activities.”
Danish state prosecutors this week brought charges against two of eight men rounded up anti-terror raids last September and set the other six free.
The two men, age 22 and 21, were charged with “preparing one or several bombs for use in a terror act” and for making the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP) in a home laboratory.
A third defendant, 23, was charged with inciting the abduction of Danish nationals in foreign countries in order to secure the release of the two. None of the defendants has been identified.
“The reality is that all the tensions that have come out of the cartoon saga remain a mystery to Danes,” said Slot.
“The initial fuss struck them as ridiculous, not because of Islamophobia, but simply because Denmark is such a completely secular country it doesn’t see religion as something it takes seriously.”
“And here it is, escalating again. I don’t think the cultural gap has changed at all. Danes still see this as a fuss about nothing. What is different this time is how unwelcome it is. People just want it all to go away.”