Denmark Tries to Ease Muslim Anger over Cartoons

A Denmark newspaper's publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad has continued to spark protests, despite the government's efforts to contain Muslim anger. Several thousand people rallied in Pakistan Tuesday, burning effigies of Denmark's prime minister.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's the latest on the protests against the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Several people have died in protests in Afghanistan after police fired on demonstrators, and today in Peshawar, Pakistan, several thousand people rallied in a bazaar, chanting and burning effigies of Denmark's prime minister.

We're going to be going right now to Denmark, where these cartoons were first published. That's where NPR's Rachel Martin is standing by.

And Rachel, how is the Danish government responding to all this?

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Well, they're doing what they've been doing for the last week or so, repeatedly issuing apologies of sorts. The prime minister of Denmark has apologized for the offense that was caused by these depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. However, he's been careful not to apologize explicitly for the cartoons themselves.

The newspaper in question, Jyllands-Posten, has issued a similar apology for the offense caused by the depictions of the Prophet throughout the Muslim world, but again, maintaining their position that it was well within their rights to exert their freedom of expression, and to protect the freedom of the press.

But Denmark's government is trying to reach out to its European allies, trying to shore up support for its position. Leaders of Germany and France have come out and said that there needs to be more dialogue between Islamic countries and western European countries over this issue.

INSKEEP: Rachel, it's been surprising to some people that all these protests would come up four months after the cartoons were published. What have you been able to learn about that in Denmark?

MARTIN: Immediately after the cartoons came out last year, in September, a group of Islamic clerics here in Denmark wrote a letter to the prime minister of Denmark, saying that depictions of the Prophet were reprehensible, and demanding a meeting with the prime minister to discuss this.

When the prime minister refused that request, reports say that these clerics began to circulate the cartoons around the Middle East. According to these reports, though, they were also spreading more other, more offensive, political cartoons that were actually never published in any newspaper. So, there are some speculations that this has been growing over time.

INSKEEP: And then people have been taking advantage of it, I suppose. Now several countries have severed their economic ties to Denmark. How has that affected the Danish economy?

MARTIN: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were two of the first countries to call for a boycott. Iran has also joined that momentum. There are initial reports that say if this boycott continues, it could cost Danish industry, overall, more than a million and a half dollars a day if these boycotts are sustained.

Some Danish companies have long ties in the Middle East, and this is hitting them especially hard, and they've had to lay off hundreds of employees thus far.

INSKEEP: When you look at the newspapers in Denmark today, or turn on the television or talk to people on the street, is this the main subject of conversation?

MARTIN: It is. This has really affected this relatively small, off the radar, northern European country. About five and a half million people live here, and they generally perceive themselves, Danes, as tolerant and generous people. And they're not used to being in the spotlight in the international media.

And this has all come as quite a shock. Their impression is that things have spiraled out of control to a certain degree. And there was a peace rally held here on Sunday night, many Danes saying, issuing their own personal apologies on behalf of the newspaper and the government. Moderate Muslims here have also spoken out calling for an end to the violence around the Middle East.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to NPR's Rachel Martin. She's in Copenhagen, Denmark. Thanks very much, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: This story is far from over. Consider what's happening in Iran. Attacks continue on the Danish Embassy in Tehran, and the Danish government has asked Iran to protect Danish diplomats. The Danish Foreign Minister called his Iranian counterpart and demanded that Iran do all it can to protect the Danish Embassy.

Also, in Iran, the best selling newspaper in that country has retaliated against the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. It's starting an international contest to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust. The paper says it's trying to test the boundaries of free speech, which it says is the same justification given by many European newspapers for publishing the cartoons about Muhammad.

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