The pen & the sword: The inside story of the newspaper cartoons that inflamed the Islamic world

Flag-burning, mobs on the streets, attacks on EU personnel, another editor sacked: the backlash over the Mohamed cartoons rages on. And the man who unwittingly started it all looks on in horror, as Stephen Castle in Copenhagen and David Randall report

In Damascus, thousands of Syrian demonstrators set fire to both the Danish and Norwegian embassies, badly damaging the buildings. In Palestine, dozens of youths attacked the European Union's officer in Gaza, and, in Jordan, the state prosecutor ordered the arrest of the sacked editor of a tabloid weekly who reprinted the cartoons.

But, in potentially the most far-reaching consequences of the row, Iran announced it has formed a committee to consider cancelling all trade ties with countries that have published the cartoons, which are deemed to insult the prophet. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the caricatures showed the "impudence and rudeness" of Western newspapers, and asked commerce minister Masoud Mirkazemi to study stopping "economic contracts with countries starting this hateful action". A boycott of Danish goods is already widespread in the Muslim world.

Yet, as smaller-scale protests continued, in London among other cities, it is a sobering thought to realise that the whole saga began as the liberal idea of just one well-meaning man.

And yesterday, he sat with The Independent on Sunday in his modest flat in Copenhagen and spoke of his feelings at the conflagration he has unwittingly started. He is Danish author Kaare Bluitgen who, last summer, conceived a children's book on the Prophet Mohamed. The intention, since Bluitgen's children attend schools with a majority of Muslim children, was to contribute to integration.

"These children must learn about Danish heroes and Danish children should learn about Muslim heroes," he said.

He asked three artists to illustrate it, but they declined, and word of this reached Politiken newspaper, which, on 12 September, ran a story asking if, out of fear of reprisals, self-censorship was at work. The paper's rival Jyllands-Posten then had the idea of asking cartoonists to depict the prophet. A dozen obliged, and, crucially, one showed Mohamed with a bomb for a headpiece. The man who drew it, now in the US, is in his late sixties.

All the cartoonists would have known that to draw the Prophet would be a direct and provocative challenge to Islam's prohibition on depictions of Mohamed. Local imams duly protested, both the paper and three cartoonists received death threats, and 5,000 Muslim demonstrators took to the streets. The Danish government, instead of acting as referee between its free press and Muslims, came down firmly on the side of the paper's right to publish. In mid-October, ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries complained to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, but he declined to meet them.

His attitude was not altogether surprising. Denmark, which has 500 troops in Iraq, has long been resolutely Protestant, has a long tradition of vigorous, satirical cartooning, and a Muslim population of only 160,000. Copenhagen has no purpose-built mosque, and one of the country's most influential radical Muslim leaders, Ahmad Abu Laban, said, as he drove to Friday prayers, "in Denmark there has been an extreme sense of Islamophobia ... There is a 'teacher-pupil' relationship. Some Danish people - and the media as well - started to treat Muslims [as] 'sit down keep quiet, listen to your teacher and behave yourself'."

In the autumn, events began to move beyond Denmark, albeit unnoticed by Western media. On 14 November, there were protests in Islamabad, Pakistan. And, at some point (the timing is unclear), imams went to the Middle East to lobby leaders there, taking with them the cartoons, reportedly supplemented by far more inflammatory, but mysteriously unsourced, cartoons showing the prophet in acts of bestiality and paedophilia.

In December, as Danes were warned not to travel to Pakistan for fear of reprisals, the UN expressed its concern and asked officials to investigate. On 1 January, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference representing 57 Muslim states, issued a statement accusing the Danish government of "indifference", and saying members had been asked to boycott a cultural project in the Middle East, part-funded by the Danes. Just over a week later, the cartoons were published in Norway by 5,000-circulation Christian weekly Magazinet.

Still, however, the story had not caught fire internationally, but that was about to change. On 26 January, Saudi Arabia recalled its envoy to Denmark and started a boycott of Danish goods. Next day the cartoons were widely condemned during Friday prayers. Last Monday, masked gunmen protesting at the cartoons stormed the EU offices in Gaza. Then, on Wednesday, France Soir published the bomb cartoon (with a commentary that included the words: "Enough lessons from these reactionary bigots!"), as did Die Welt in Germany. Syria recalled its ambassador from Copenhagen and the offices of Jyllands-Posten, despite its apologising for any offence, had to be cleared following a bomb threat.

By Thursday the story had gone global. Swiss, Hungarian, Spanish, and even an Indonesian paper ran the bomb cartoon; France Soir fired its editor; Libya closed its Copenhagen embassy; the Danish produce boycott spread; Danish flags were burnt; gunmen surrounded the EU's offices in Gaza; and Egypt and Iran joined the now generalised condemnation from Muslim states. Extremist voices joined in, with steadier heads trying to inject a little calm. "It is discouraging," said Palestinian-American Ramzy Baroud in Egypt's English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, "that the collective energy of the Muslim world is consumed punishing a small European country over a drawing, while US military bases infest the heart of the Arab world."

By this weekend, with widespread protests continuing, the undeniable offence felt by millions of Muslims and the nervousness of Westerners who felt free speech under attack was in danger of being swamped by the antics of extremists. Protesters in London took to the streets with banners demanding "Butcher those who mock Islam". And, having had 25 death threats, Magazinet editor Vebjoern Selbekk, said he regretted publication.

Mr Rasmussen, meanwhile, was not blinking. After meeting with Muslim envoys in Copenhagen, he said his government could not apologise. "This," he added, "is basically a dispute between some Muslims and a newspaper." Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, responded: "This means the whole story will continue and that we are back to square one again."

Mr Bluitgen yesterday was not backing down: "It is very important to have this kind of political satire. You cannot have any ideology or religion that claims there is a border beyond which you cannot criticise. When you can laugh at each other that is when you have integration and togetherness."

Some idea; and, this weekend, some hope.

A DAY OF PROTEST

LONDON: A protester posing as a suicide bomber joins other demonstrators outside the Danish embassy in Knightsbridge. Two men were later arrested after police found leaflets, including cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed.

WEST BANK: Outraged protesters chant anti-Danish slogans in Nablus as they demonstrate against the publication of depictions of the Prophet Mohamed in several newspapers across Western Europe.

COPENHAGEN: City Hall Square filled with demonstrators yesterday. More than 150 people were detained across Denmark as protests grew in the country where the cartoons were first published.

TURKEY: Islamic protesters burn a large makeshift Danish flag at a protest in Istanbul yesterday. Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has condemned the images as an attack on Muslim spiritual values.

DAMASCUS: The Danish embassy is set on fire by crowds, one of whom carries a banner that reads: "We demand the dismissal of all ambassadors who dared to offend the messenger of God." The Norwegian embassy was also set on fire.

NAZARETH: A street full of banner-waving protesters demonstrate in the northern Israeli-Arab town as the disturbances spread across the Middle East.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin