A clash of cultures over a dozen caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper is escalating – with protests in London, an eruption of fury in the Middle East and Asia, and European newspapers reprinting the cartoons in support of freedom of expression.
The debate is moving from the fringes of European and Islamic society to the middle – with liberal-minded editors championing a provocative means to make a point about democracy, and many mainstream Muslims torn between their faith and the Western values of places where they live.
The Islamic reaction in Europe has been relatively muted compared to the scenes of rage in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
But many here wonder how long the calm can last – and are concerned that the controversy could stoke cultural tensions between Europeans and the Muslim minority in their midst that has been recently aggravated by the July bombings in London and the wave of riots in France.
In London, hundreds of Muslims converged on Denmark’s Embassy and burned the country’s flag today to protest the caricatures. Women wearing headscarves chanted and held banners proclaiming: “Kill the one who insults the Prophet.”
“The only way this will be resolved, is if those who are responsible are turned over so they can be punished by Islamic law, so that they can be executed,” said Abu Ibraheem, 26, from Luton.
“There are no apologies ….Those responsible would have to be killed.”
In Norway, Mullah Krekar, a radical imam living in Norway, was quoted today by the Dagbladet daily as saying: “These drawings are a declaration of war.”
And members of Croatia’s large Islamic community have announced plans for their own demonstration.
As if to sum up the cultural rift between Islam and the West, outspoken imam Ahmed Abu Laban told worshippers at Friday prayers in a Copenhagen mosque: “In the West, freedom of speech is sacred; to us, the prophet is sacred.”
Meanwhile, Western intellectuals have taken up the cause of the caricatures - responding to Muslim anger not by calling for the expulsion of immigrants as many right-wing groups have done in recent weeks but by sending out a message about democracy: The right to offend is enshrined in free societies.
Robert Menard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, told The Associated Press that he was surprised by the “deafening silence” of the Arab press concerning their own freedom.
“The Arab press often complains about the censorship practised by their own government, and they were the first to set their own limits. They were unanimous in supporting their governments’ appeal to punish the Danish newspaper,” said Menard.
“What we are seeing is that many (Muslims) have no idea how democracy works,” he said.
More than a dozen European newspapers – including Germany’s Die Welt and Spain’s El Pais – have published the caricatures or their own drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.
However, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw – whose government was forced by parliamentary defeat this week to water down a bill banning incitement to religious hatred – on Friday criticised European media for republishing the caricatures. Straw said that while freedom of speech should be respected, “there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.”
Fundamentalist Muslim groups have been expressing outrage ever since the drawings were published in September in the Jyllands-Posten, but the recent flare-up has forced many mainstream Muslims to weigh their own response to the issue.
In Denmark, a group of moderate Muslims – upset both by the cartoons and the strident tone of many of the protests – plans to meet Saturday to form a nationwide network.
“The only voices that have been heard so far are those of the orthodox and the imams,” meeting organiser Naser Khader said in a statement, referring to the Islamic Faith Community group whose leaders toured the Middle East to publicise complaints about the drawings.
For many of Europe’s Muslims, the controversy is a double blow – to their religious devotion and to their civil beliefs. “Muslims in Norway feel violated twice in this case – first through the caricatures and then by the Norwegian flag being burned,” Norway’s Islamic Council said in a statement.
Others felt that fellow Muslims in the Middle East have taken the wrong tack in their protests. “I’m not in favour of the boycott against European products. That’s an excessive reaction where the innocents pay for the sinners,” said Felix Herrero of the Spanish Federation of Islamic Religion Organisations.
Authorities are worried the controversy will galvanise extreme rightist and anti-immigrant forces in Europe. The radical right-wing Dansk Front Network has called a demonstration for Saturday to protest the burning of Danish flags in the Middle East – the first large-scale plans for a rightist demonstration in the country in a half-decade.
“The right extremist forces in Denmark are trying to … create a conflict situation and contribute to an increased polarisation,” Denmark’s Security Intelligence Service warned in a statement.
In France – which with an estimated five million Muslims hosts Europe’s largest Islamic population – many Muslims brushed off the controversy. Hakan Demineroz, proprietor of a halal kebab restaurant in Paris, dismissed one of the caricatures not because it was bad religion – but bad art.
“That’s not Muhammad,” he opined. “That man’s features are Pakistani or Indian.”