Cartoon protests turn deadly

Protests against the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, one of the central figures of the Muslim faith, have continued to gain intensity in recent days, with some agencies now reporting as many as five deaths in violence connected to the images.

Originally published in a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, on 30 September last year, the twelve cartoons were almost immediately condemned by the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit as “[a] disgraceful act” and an insult to the Muslim faith. The cartoons were reprinted in Austrian and Norwegian newspapers in January 2006 and have since appeared in publications in France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

One South African paper, the Mail and Guardian, used one of the cartoons to illustrate an article on the protests but another, the Sunday Times, has been barred by injunction from carrying the images. The cartoons have also appeared in a Jordanian newspaper in an article urging Muslims to “be reasonable” in their reaction to the apparent attack on their faith.

Protests have not been limited to the countries where the cartoons have appeared; neither British nor U.S. papers have carried the pictures, despite pressure on the BBC to do so, but this has not prevented angry demonstrations in London last Friday and Saturday, nor an attack on the American embassy in Surabaya, Indonesia.

Anger has also been evident in Muslim countries where the cartoons have not appeared, with demonstrations in (among others) India, Thailand, Syria, Kashmir and Afghanistan – this last where the worst loss of life is reported to have occurred, with three dead when gunfire was exchanged during an attack on a police station in the Laghman province, and a further two fatalities following an attempt to force entry to a U.S. airbase in the Bagram district.

As well as the escalating violence, the row over the cartoons continues to claim high-profile scalps in the media and diplomatic arenas.

The editor of France Soir, Jacques Lefranc, was dismissed at the beginning of February following that paper’s reprinting of the original twelve cartoons alongside a thirteenth showing other leading religious figures under the caption “Don’t worry Muhammad, we’ve all been caricatured here”. The sacking has given rise to angry reaction from French journalists and politicians over the apparent threat to freedom of speech.

Meanwhile in political circles, the Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan Sabeh has resigned his post following the sacking of the Danish embassy in Beirut.

Under Muslim law images of Muhammad are forbidden, and some protestors have stressed that it is the fact of the depiction, not the content of the cartoon, that is offensive.

Papers that have printed the cartoons have stated that they are defending the right to freedom of expression and the press, and that satirical treatment of institutions such as religious faiths is both a traditional and necessary part of their role. Further, it has been noted that anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli cartoons are a common feature in Arab and Islamic publications.

Doug Brett-Matthewson


7th February 2006

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