How the Muhammad Cartoon Controversy Spread

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Andrew Higgins of The Wall Street Journal, talks to Michele Norris about what prompted the publication in a Danish newspaper of the controversial cartoons of Muhammad at the heart of recent protests. They discuss how reaction to the cartoons, which began in Copenhagen, spread across the Muslim world.


So how did the Danish newspaper come to publish these cartoons in the first place? To find out, we called Andrew Higgins. We spoke to him in Copenhagen, where he is covering the story for The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. ANDREW HIGGINS (The Wall Street Journal): Well, this started last fall in sort of September. There had been a series of incidents in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe where publishers or comedians had sort of -- were seen to have shied away from issues relating to Islam because it caused offense. And the editor of a local newspaper here in Copenhagen decided that he was going to do something about this and address the issue head-on.

So he invited the Danish cartoonist society to draw cartoons of how they see Muhammad. And this is a fairly, they have quite a few members, and only twelve replied and they did drawings. And some of them had nothing to do with Muhammad at all; in fact one of them was mocking the newspaper, calling it a reactionary provocateur. But there were a number of the twelve that also did sort of poke fun at Islam.

NORRIS: Andrew, did the newspaper or the editor, Flemming Rose, advise the cartoonists about this prohibition against depicting the Prophet Muhammad?

Mr. HIGGINS: No, I don't think he really had any awareness of it at all.

NORRIS: He didn't know about this?

Mr. HIGGINS: Well, I think that, whether it's actually a blanket prohibition is under some debate. I mean, I think in the Sunni mainstream tradition, yes, you do not have depictions of Muhammad. But in Tehran, you can certainly find depictions of Muhammad, respectful, indeed. But he's not an Islamist scholar; he's a newspaper editor, so he's not really aware of the ins and outs of Islamic taboo.

NORRIS: The cartoons were first published in September of 2005. What was the original reaction?

Mr. HIGGINS: On the first day he got a phone call from a very angry news vendor who said he was appalled by these cartoons and would refuse to sell the paper that day. And he got a call, a crank call, from someone who threatened to kill him, but this guy was then arrested and turned out to be mentally ill.

And things calmed down for a few days. Then after the following week, some local clerics used their Friday prayer sessions to attack the cartoons and sort of, basically, get the ball rolling for what became a massive campaign.

NORRIS: Well, that was back in the fall. How did the reaction to the cartoon shift from a protest against the newspaper to a protest against the entire country and its companies and its exports?

Mr. HIGGINS: Well, what happened here in Copenhagen is, the local clerics formed a committee, so they sent delegations to various countries in the Middle East, starting off with Egypt. And, they then went on to Lebanon, and one of them also went on to Syria, which is fiercely opposed to Islamist movements and is regularly arresting anyone who espouses Islamist doctrines.

I mean, that's one of the curious things here, you find these governments that are strongly opposed to, sort of, hard-line Islamist currents, and yet they embrace this cartoon issue. I think largely to sort of burnish their credentials as good Muslims. And possibly, you know, either control what they thought might be a very dangerous issue or to use it for their own political purposes. So the cartoon themselves, I think, at this point, are really not the main issue.

NORRIS: Well there's some question about those cartoons, because along the way, protesters circulated a dossier that included the original cartoons as well as other pictures. Was there an effort to mislead the public about what had been originally published in order to stir up protest?

Mr. HIGGINS: The people who prepared the dossier were these clerics, mostly hard-line clerics. And they've made a clear distinction between the twelve cartoons that had been published in this newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. And then, in the back of this dossier, which is over 30-pages long, they also included pictures which have not been published anywhere. I mean, some of these pictures are really pretty revolting, involving bestiality, Muhammad as a pig. Far, far more offensive than anything that appeared in the newspaper.

But there's actually, in the dossier, and I've seen it, there's nothing to explain this distinction at all. And some of the articles that appeared in the Arab press certainly suggest that people were mislead about what was actually published and what wasn't published.

NORRIS: Andrew Higgins is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He spoke to us from Copenhagen, Denmark. Mr. Higgins, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HIGGINS: You're welcome.

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