Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Monday, September 17, 2007
The message, carried on a jihadist Web site, said the Islamic State of Iraq, a terrorist group also known as al Qaeda in Iraq, would pay $100,000 to anyone who kills artist Lars Vilks, "who dared to insult our prophet, peace be upon him," and increase the reward by 50 percent if his throat was slit, the BBC and other media reported.
It also offered $50,000 for the death of the editor of the Nerikes Allehanda regional newspaper, which last month published the sketch alongside an editorial promoting free speech.
The message was issued in the name of the group's ostensible leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, whose existence the U.S. military has called into question. It said that if the "crusaders" do not apologize to Muslims, Swedish firms would be attacked. Among several companies listed were telecom giant Ericcson and auto manufacturer Volvo.
In the same message, the group announced the launch of a new Ramadan offensive to track down and kill Sunni "traitors" who cooperate with the U.S. in Iraq. The Islamic fasting month began late last week.
Nerikes Allehanda editorial writer Lars Stroman told Cybercast News Service he penned the original piece accompanied by the drawing in reaction to a decision by Swedish art galleries not to display Vilks' sketches, which depicted a dog with the head of a bearded man wearing a turban.
The editorial, which the paper later made available in English and then Arabic, argued that the right to freedom of religion and "the right to ridicule a religion" go together in a free society.
Its publication sparked small protests by Muslims in Oerebro, the Swedish town where the paper in based, and formal complaints from the governments of Iran, Egypt and Pakistan.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) called the publication a deliberate provocation, and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt held talks with Muslim community representatives and Islamic countries' ambassadors.
As of late last week, most of the reaction was muted and diplomatic, and the issue received relatively low-profile mainstream media coverage. Stroman on Friday even predicted that fuss would now begin to die down.
Within a day, however, the murder threat catapulted the story into the headlines around the world.
Reinfeldt on Sunday told Sweden's TT news agency his government was "appealing for calm ... for reflection. We reject these calls to violence, and we reject any attempts to aggravate the situation."
The agency quoted Vilks as playing down the threat, saying while there are risks, they should not be exaggerated. Nonetheless, Swedish police have offered him protection. Radio Sweden quoted Nerikes Allehanda Editor-in-Chief Ulf Johansson as saying he was taking the threat seriously.
Swedish media rallied round, too. Dagens Nyheter, a large-circulation paper in Stockholm, reportedly reproduced the controversial sketch during the weekend in support of the smaller regional paper, and another large Stockholm daily, Svenska Dagbladet, urged the media to "wake up" and defend freedom of expression.
Some reports asserted that Islam strictly forbids the depiction of Mohammed in any form, although Islamic scholars' views on the subject vary.
A Danish newspaper's publication two years ago this month of a dozen cartoons depicting Mohammed sparked a diplomatic furor, a Mideast boycott of Danish goods and protests across the Islamic world, some of which -- in Nigeria, Libya and Afghanistan -- turned deadly.
During that episode, Danish Muslim representatives played a leading role in alerting Islamic governments to the cartoons.
By contrast, the Muslim Council of Sweden, an umbrella group, has called for the current dispute to be settled by Swedes themselves. The body's head, Helena Benouda, condemned the threats, calling them "ugly," particularly during Ramadan.
Mideast specialist Walid Phares, a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels, said the likelihood of jihadists attacking Swedish companies or individuals would depend in part on the private or public actions and statements by the Swedish government and corporations.
"Sweden has had decades of neutrality regarding many challenges in international relations, and its foreign policy wasn't comparable at all to NATO countries in their struggle against terror," Phares wrote on the Counterterrorism Blog. "However, this is the greatest litmus test yet to be addressed."
See Earlier Stories:
Islamic Bloc Says Swedish Gov't Apologized for Mohammed Sketch (Sept. 14, 2007)
Swedish Newspaper Reaching Out to Muslims After Mohammed Sketch (Sept. 5, 2007)
Swedish Artist's Mohammed Sketch Prompts Another Muslim Uproar (Aug. 31, 2007)
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