A second day of protests against a series of Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad unfurled across the Middle East today.
Thousands of Palestinians, corralled by the militant group, Islamic Jihad, marched through Gaza City, burning Danish flags and images of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister. The crowd chanted: “War on Denmark, Death to Denmark”, declared a boycott on Danish goods and fired bullets into the air.
The diplomatic row has intensified after Jyllands-Posten, the offending newspaper, and Mr Rasmussen both refused to offer unreserved apologies for the images, which were first published last September and reprinted earlier this month by a Norwegian Christian magazine.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Danish Ambassador in protest today, while the Iraqi Foreign Ministry issued a “condemnation of the insult and disrespect expressed by a daily Danish newspaper”. The influential Sunni Muslim Cleric’s Association encouraged Iraqis to buy neither Danish nor Norwegian goods.
In Qatar, Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani said his government “does not accept anything that ridicules Islam or the Prophet”.
Saudi Arabia has already withdrawn its ambassador in Copenhagen because of the cartoons. Libya has closed its embassy altogether.
The offices of the newspaper at the centre of the controversy, both in the northern town of Aarhus and in downtown Copenhagen, were evacuated this evening due to a bomb threat.
Islam forbids portrayals of Muhammad because they are considered idolatrous. One of the offending drawings shows Muhammad’s turban as bomb with a lit fuse. In another he turns suicide bombers away from heaven because “We have run out of virgins”. The 12 cartoons were the result of a competition, asking Danish cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they imagined him.
Last night, after gunmen threatened to kill Danes travelling through the Middle East because of the cartoons, Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, issued a statement through a Jordanian news agency to try and dampen the controversy but he refused to apologise unreservedly.
“The drawings are not against the law but have indisputably insulted many Muslims, for which we shall apologise,” the statement said.
Mr Rasmussen has also declined to apologise on behalf of the Danish government, saying the newspaper was entitled to publish cartoons according to the Danish right to free speech. Today, Magazinet, the small Norwegian magazine that reprinted the images said it “regretted if the drawings offended Muslims”.
Anthony Browne, Europe correspondent for The Times, was in Denmark today, meeting staff at Jyllands-Posten, who have been subjected to death threats since the 12 cartoons were published. He said the case has divided opinion in Demark although a poll carried out over the weekend said 80 per cent of Danes believe the government is right not to apologise.
“The people I’ve spoken to today said the cartoons just welcomed Muhammad to the beloved Danish tradition of satirical humour. They are absolutely clear they will not apologise,” said Browne. “They said the Prophet received the same treatment that Christians and Christ would get from cartoonists and that it would be wrong to treat Islam any differently from other religions.”
Despite the refusal of Jyllands-Posten to apologise fully, Islamic leaders in Denmark also tried to defuse the controversy. Some of the same groups that initially publicised the cartoons today acknowledged that the row had run out of control.
“We have from the beginning said these drawings are making Muslims angry and hurt. But we honestly never thought this case would develop to the point where Danish products in the Middle East are being threatened to this extent,” Ahmed Abu Laban, a prominent imam, said in a statement.
“We will in clear terms thank the prime minister and Jyllands-Posten for what they have done,” said Kasem Ahmad, spokesman of the Islamic Religious Community in Denmark.
Arla Foods, Europe’s largest dairy group which is headquartered in Denmark, has been hit by a systematic boycott of its goods this week, with shops across the Middle East removing its items from their shelves.
Denmark on Monday warned its citizens not to travel to Saudi Arabia amid growing tensions between Arab and Nordic countries over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have offended Muslims.
The row, sparked by cartoons published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper last September, could also turn into an international trade dispute following a warning from Peter Mandelson, the European Union’s trade commissioner, that the EU would take Saudi Arabia before the World Trade Organisation if the Saudi government encouraged a boycott of Danish products, which started last week.
Denmark, which is a member of the EU, also warned its citizens to show caution in other Muslim countries. The cartoons sparked protests on Monday in Gaza, while the Swedish consulate in Jerusalem said it had received a warning from Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades demanding the departure of all Danes and Swedes from the region.
At a meeting in Davos last week, Mr Mandelson told Abdullah Zainal Alireza, the Saudi minister of state, that “a boycott of Danish goods was a boycott of the European Union”, according to Mr Mandelson’s spokesman.
Mr Mandelson stressed that, if the Saudi government encouraged the boycott, he would have to pursue this “very serious” issue before the WTO, which Saudi Arabia joined last month.
Christine Lagarde, the French trade minister, told the Financial Times on Monday that there was “complete solidarity” over the issue among the 25 EU nations, as it concerned common principles of freedom of the press and religious tolerance. She said: “We believe in the rule of law, and so should all our international partners. Saudi Arabia very recently and voluntarily decided to join the WTO and that means that it must now abide by international trade rules. A government cannot encourage such a boycott.”
Several Danish companies warned on Monday the boycott was threatening their revenues and was spreading to countries in North Africa. Libya yesterday announced the closure of its embassy in Copenhagen.
Arla Foods, a dairy company that exports butter and cheese to the Middle East, said its products had disappeared from supermarket shelves in several Arab countries, leading to a daily loss of DKr10m (£920,000, €1.3m, $1.6m) in sales. Novo, the insulin maker, said pharmacies and hospitals had demanded the removal of Novo’s insulin from their premises.
Peter Thagesen, a senior adviser from the Confederation of Danish Industries, said: “Danish companies are being taken as hostage in a conflict in which we have no part. In this conflict, as is often the case in a conflict, there has been many misunderstandings on both sides.”
Danish exports to Arabic countries are worth DKr3bn a year, about 2 per cent of total exports. The three largest categories of exports are machinery, pharmaceuticals and dairy products.
Jyllands-Posten, one of two publications to print the cartoons, published an apology on Sunday addressed to the people of Saudi Arabia. “We are sorry that the matter has reached these proportions and repeat that we had no intention to offend anyone, and that we and the rest of Danish society respect the freedom of religion,” Carsten Juste, wrote the editor-in-chief.