A Danish experiment in testing “the limits of freedom of speech” has backfired – or succeeded spectacularly – after newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed provoked an outcry.
Thousands of Muslims have taken to the streets in protest at the caricatures, the newspaper that published them has received death threats and two of its cartoonists have been forced into hiding.
Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s leading daily, defied Islam’s ban on images of the Prophet by printing cartoons by 12 different artists.
In one he is depicted as a sabre-wielding terrorist accompanied by women in burqas, in another his turban appears to be a bomb and in a third he is portrayed as a schoolboy by a blackboard.
The ambassadors of 11 Muslim countries called on Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister, to take “necessary steps” against the “defamation of Islam”.
But Mr Rasmussen, the head of a centre-Right minority coalition dependent for its survival on support from an anti-foreigner party, called the cartoons a “necessary provocation” and refused to act.
“I will never accept that respect for a religious stance leads to the curtailment of criticism, humour and satire in the press,” he said.
The Danish debate over how to integrate Muslims has raged for years, with nursery school menus and women-only opening hours for swimming pools particular battlegrounds. But the cartoons satirising the Prophet have injected a dangerous new element into the controversy.
“This is a pubescent demonstration of freedom of expression that consciously and totally without reason has trampled over the feelings of many people,” said Uffe Ellemann Jensen, a former foreign minister and member of Mr Rasmussen’s party.
Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, spurned demands that he apologise, saying he “would not dream” of saying sorry.
“To demand that we take religious feelings into consideration is irreconcilable with western democracy and freedom of expression,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that we want to insult any Muslims.”
Juste commissioned the cartoons after learning of the difficulties a children’s writer, Kare Bluitgen, had in finding an illustrator for his book on the Koran and the Prophet’s life. Bluitgen said all the artists he approached feared the wrath of Muslims if they drew images of Mohammed.
Many cited the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist as a reason for refusal.
Juste said he wanted to counter growing “self censorship” and see how many cartoonists would be “bold enough” to draw the Prophet.
One artist, Franz Fu”chsel, said he intended no offence. “But I live in 2005, not 905 and I use my quill in the way that Danish law allows me.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch MP famous for her criticism of Islam and author of the screenplay for Mr Van Gogh’s film Submission, supported the paper. “It’s necessary to taunt Muslims on their relationship with Mohammed,” she said.
“Otherwise we will never have the dialogue we need to establish with Muslims on the most central question: ‘Do you really feel that every Muslim in 2005 should follow the way of life the Prophet had 1,400 years ago, as the Koran dictates?’ “