Cartoon Controversy Interviews Hit Danish Stores | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.10.2006
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Cartoon Controversy Interviews Hit Danish Stores

A new book examines how a series of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed led to violent anti-Danish protests in many parts of the Muslim world. But who was really at fault?

Demonstrators protest in front of the Danish embassy in London

The cartoon controversy raised ire across the world

Most Danes were shocked by the hostility that flared up last year at caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, which were first published by a Danish newspaper. Muslim protesters attacked Danish embassies and businesses in various countries -- and some 50 people died in clashes between demonstrators and police. Now author Per Bech Thomsen takes a look back at the origins of the conflict and the issues involved.

"The Mohammed Crisis: What Happened, What We Have Learned," which hits Danish bookstores on Tuesday, features interviews with some of the principle figures, including Denmark's prime minister and the artist who made the most controversial drawing.

Picture of the author

Per Bech Thomsen author of "The Mohammed Crisis"

In the book, Kurt Westergaard, who depicted Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse, says he was making a political statement.

"The idea with my drawing was to illustrate that terrorists get their spiritual ammunition from the fundamentalist part of Islam," Westergaard is quoted as saying. Islam forbids any visual depictions of its main prophet.

Freedom of speech or media campaign?

In Thomsen's book, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen says that, although some Muslims found the drawings deeply offensive, the issue was one of freedom of expression.

"I am not a Muslim and am not bound by the depiction ban," Rasmussen told Thomsen. "I must take note of the fact that there were many Muslims who could take offense. It doesn't mean that we should give in to their points of view."

Danish Prime Minister on Arab-language television

Denmark's Prime Minister appearing on Arab-language TV

But some Danes say the caricatures, first published by the conservative Jyllands Posten newspaper, were only intended to stir up trouble.

"The newspaper presented this as being about the fight for free speech," Danish Islamic studies expert Jörgen Baeck told DW-RADIO. "That became problematic. Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen picked up the theme and for months maintained that freedom of expression was the real issue. So publishing these drawings can be seen as a conscious provocation."

Thomsen said he hopes his book will stimulate further dialogue.

"I think both sides, Christians as well as Muslims, have learned something from this," Thomsen said on the eve of the book's publication. "When someone like me speaks to all the participants, whether editors, imams or journalists, the nuances become clearer and we get a better understanding of different points of view."

Skepticism about dialogue

In Germany, too, many people hope that talking about differences will help resolve conflicts. Last week German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble hosted the country's first-ever "Conference on Islam," in an effort to improve the government's interaction with Muslims living here.

German Interior Minister with representatives of Muslim community

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble at Germany's first-ever "Conference on Islam"

But cultural conflicts continue. The debate over Pope Benedict XVI's citation of a text critical of Islam and the cancellation of a Mozart opera in Berlin because of fears of a Muslim backlash are only the two latest examples that the tension described in Thomsen's book is still alive.

Some say the problem is with Islam itself. In an article for a mass-circulation newspaper this weekend, the secretary general of the governing Christian Democrats, Ronald Pofalla, wrote: "Certainly it is painful for many Muslims that their religion is misused for violence…But the problem of religiously motivated violence is today almost exclusively a problem of Islam."

And some German Muslims criticize Europeans for failing to stick up for their secular values. In an interview published on Wednesday in the online version of the news magazine Der Spiegel, political scientist Bassam Tibi said: "Muslims stand by their religion entirely. It is a sort of religious absolutism. While Europeans have stopped defending the values of their civilization. They confuse tolerance with relativism."

Per Bech Thomsen's "The Mohammed Crisis: What Happened, What We Have Learned" reconstructs how a series of cartoons could have led to the spectacle of burning Danish embassies. But the question of what, if anything, was learned from the controversy remains very much open.

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