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.

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