On Friday, in a remarkable reversal of roles, the British government condemned the publication of Muhammad cartoons while Berlin and Paris opposed demands of Muslim fanatics that they pressure the German and French press. In Denmark, meanwhile, the group of moderate Muslims who oppose their radical imams is growing.
Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, condemned the decision by European newspapers to republish some of the Muhammad cartoons as “disrespectful.” He added that freedom of speech does not mean an “open season” on religious taboos. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Interior Minister, however, firmly dismissed calls that the German government intervene after two German newspapers, Die Welt and Berliner Zeitung, published the Muhammad cartoons. “Why should the government apologize for something which takes place under the process of freedom of the press?” Herr Schäuble asked. He added that if the state were to interfere it would be the first step towards limiting freedom of the press. On Thursday Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, had praised Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for his defense of freedom of expression. “Freedom of expression is not an issue for negotiation and I see no reason to give one religion a special treatment,” Mr Sarkozy had said.
Meanwhile a network of moderate Muslims has been established in Denmark. Naser Khader, a member of parliament for the Social Liberal Party (Radikale), brought together a group of moderate Muslims. He hopes that his group will contribute to creating a Danish form of Islam as a counterweight to the Danish imams inciting the Islamic world against Denmark. On Thursday morning 175 moderate Muslims attended a gathering where the network was formally founded. Mr Khader said that the Danish imams who have incited people against Denmark should take their responsibility and help ease tensions.
Two moderate Danish imams, Fatih Alev and Abdul Wahid Pedersen, defended Danish values in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Arab News, urging for a settlement in the cartoon affair. The imams stressed that Jyllands-Posten, the paper that first published the controversial cartoons, had apologized for offending Muslims, that the Danish press is not under government control, that Muslims in Denmark are generally well treated, and that the boycott of Danish products in the Middle East also harms Danish Muslims. The Danish People’s Party wants to seriously consider the possibility of expelling imams who do not have Danish citizenship and who have harmed Danish interests in the Middle East by feeding the Arab media with false information. The initiative is backed by the Liberal Party (Venstre), the party of Prime Minister Rasmussen.
Another moderate Muslim voice could be heard in Iraq. On Friday Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s top Shia Muslim cleric, condemned the publication of the cartoons, but added that militant Islamists were partly to blame for distorting the image of Islam. Ayatollah Sistani criticized Muslim extremists for distorting the view of Islam in the West through their violent actions. Ayatollah Sistani is one of the top 3 ayatollahs in Shiadom. [The statement on Sistani’s website is in Arabic only. The English version usually follows a day or two afterwards].
Unfortunately, however, terrorist threats continue to be directed at Denmark and Europe from fanatics all over the world: “This is an open letter to the Danish government and all those who have considered insulting the most honorable prophet. We say to them: Your security is in danger and the coming days will mean a bloody war and series of attacks against you. And to the Danish people: Your opposition to Islam and Muslims, and that you make fun of the prophet, is the road to your grave which you dig with your own hands. You will only see your own blood as an answer and that will be the revenge from our prophet.” This is the message the terrorist group Abu Hafes al-Masri published on Friday on the London-based Arabic website Al-Quds.
On Friday morning an angry mob stormed the Danish embassy in Jakarta. The Indonesian police estimates that some 200 people took part in the operation, which lasted for two hours. So far, however, no Danish products have been boycotted in Muslim countries in Southeast Asia. The Danish Foreign Ministry warned Danes against travelling to Gaza or the West Bank. The cartoon war is also being fought on the internet. Websites of more than 200 Danish organizations, businesses and individuals have been attacked by hackers, according to the Danish newspaper ComON.
Prime Minister Rasmussen summoned the ambassadors from Muslim countries to his office on Friday to explain the position of his government. Last October the ambassadors twice asked for a meeting with Mr Rasmussen where they intended to demand a Danish apology for the publication of the cartoons. On both occasions Mr Rasmussen refused. This time the meeting was at Mr Rasmussen’s initiative. As before an apology was out of the question. Mr Rasmussen, however, urged the ambassadors to cooperate with Copenhagen to find a solution to the issue. On Thursday the Danish Prime Minister appeared on the Arab TV station Al Arabiya to explain his government’s position and call for a common solution. This is reported to have received mixed reactions in the Muslim world.
The Danish Journalist Association has spoken out in support of freedom of expression and Jyllands-Posten’s right to publish the cartoons, thereby joining the journalist associations of Norway and Germany as well as the Paris-based organization Reporters Sans Frontières. More Danish media are now considering publishing the cartoons, including some of those who had previously critized Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons are spreading rapidly around the world, including as far as Greenland, where the paper Sermitsiaq published three of the cartoons.