Danes Weather Muhammad Cartoon Controversy

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Cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, first printed in a Danish newspaper last September, continue to stoke furor in Islamic communities across the globe. Madeleine Brand speaks with Julian Isherwood, reporting from Copenhagen for the BBC, about reaction in the Scandinavian nation to the growing controversy.


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a spat with co-workers can get uncomfortable, especially when the co-worker is a fellow U.S. Senator. John McCain versus Barack Obama. Dueling letters.

BRAND: But first the ongoing controversy about those Danish cartoons of Muhammad that have incensed millions of Muslims around the world. Denmark's Prime Minister today said protests over the drawings constituted a global crisis, and he appealed for calm.

CHADWICK: But in India today, outraged protesters threw stones at police during a demonstration in Srinagar against the cartoons. In recent days there have been similar protests in several Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, which imports about $280 million dollars worth of goods each year from Denmark. Iran now has severed trade relations.

BRAND: Joining us now from Copenhagen is BBC reporter Julian Isherwood. And Mr. Isherwood we have trade boycotts of Danish goods, Danes being advised to leave Muslim countries for their own safety, international denunciations of the Danish press. How are people there in Denmark reacting to this?

Mr. JULIAN ISHERWOOD (Reporter, BBC): Well, I think Danes have become very bemused about this, to be quite frank. First of all, I think they're very afraid. I think Danish industry is very worried. But I think Denmark in general is rather bemused. I mean these were 12 cartoons that would, under normal circumstances, be a perfectly normal part of the Danish debate. They were not, it wasn't expected that they'd go abroad, and they were part of a very local domestic debate. The fact, I think, that the whole issue has developed as it has, has made the Prime Minister, and I think most Danes would agree, think that this has now become an international crisis of a clash of cultures between the Muslim countries and the West that has gone far, far beyond the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

BRAND: So do most people now support the publication of the cartoons or do they think maybe they should never have been published?

Mr. ISHERWOOD: Well, I think this is on two levels, you see. On the one hand there's complete freedom of expression in Denmark, unless, of course, you break the law, the blasphemy laws, which caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad do not actually come under. So on the one hand, Danes absolutely, and a vast majority of them, 80, 90 percent, support the fact that Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper, had the right to publish these cartoons. On the other hand, I think in the light of what has gone on, they probably feel, and the latest polls suggest that they feel that this was not the right time in international affairs, with the things going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and places like that, this was probably not the right time to publish precisely these cartoons.

BRAND: Now these cartoons were first published way back in September and they came to prominence internationally because of a group of Danish Islamic clerics. Tell us what happened. Tell us about their role in this.

Mr. ISHERWOOD: Well, basically I think they felt, there are some relatively extreme Imams in Denmark. And when they saw these, when they saw these caricatures, they felt that as part of an integration debate, there's a rather large debate on integration in Denmark regarding the Muslim community being integrated into Danish society. And they felt that this was really the last straw and that they wanted an apology from the newspaper.

Over and above that, we have the situation where 10 or 11 Muslim ambassadors wrote to the Danish Prime Minister and said, Look, this is going to develop, this issue, we need to speak to you, we want to talk to you to figure out how we're going to get out of it. And the Danish Prime Minister refused to meet them. And I think these two things together meant that the ambassadors went back to their governments and said, Look, the Danes, the Danish Prime Minister refuses to meet us.

And these Muslim clerics traveled to Egypt, among other countries, to sort of raise a campaign against these caricatures. And I think that prompted then the Saudi Grand Mufti, the sort of top priest, to say Denmark had to do something about this, they had to censor the newspaper, which of course the government couldn't do.

BRAND: And we see it continuing to play out in the Muslim world and elsewhere. Julian Isherwood, a reporter for the BBC in Copenhagen, thank you for joining us.

Mr. ISHERWOOD: Pleasure.

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