The worldwide campaign at street and diplomatic level against European newspaper publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed yesterday assumed ever more serious proportions.
In Damascus, thousands of Syrian demonstrators set fire to both the Danish and Norwegian embassies, badly damaging the buildings, and only the firing of water cannon dispersed them as they moved on the French embassy. 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 Mirkaz- emi to study stopping "economic contracts with countries starting this hateful action".
Yet, as smaller-scale protests continued, in London among other cities, it is a sobering thought to realise that the whole sagabegan 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. 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 …