Swedish Newspaper Reaching Out to Muslims After Mohammed Sketch

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Swedish Newspaper Reaching Out to Muslims After Mohammed Sketch

(CNSNews.com) - A Swedish newspaper under fire for publishing a cartoon depicting Mohammed as a dog plans to publish an editorial in Arabic this week explaining its decision, amid simmering Muslim unhappiness over the incident.

As organizations, lawmakers and governments in the Islamic world protest the cartoon, the Nerikes Allehanda, a regional paper in Sweden, plans to carry an Arabic translation of the earlier editorial that accompanied the picture in its August 19 edition.

The editorial, which ran first in Swedish and subsequently in English, argued that the right to freedom of religion and "the right to ridicule a religion" go together in a free society.

The paper published the picture and editorial after several Swedish art exhibitions - apparently because of security concerns - declined to display three sketches by artist Lars Vilks depicting a dog with the head of a bearded man wearing a turban.

When a Danish newspaper almost two years ago published 12 caricatures of Mohammed, reaction was slow in coming. The mass-circulation Jyllands Posten ran the cartoons in September 2005, but it was not until early in the new year that response in the Islamic world reached a peak.

Although many demonstrations at the time were peaceful, hundreds of people were killed in protests and rioting in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

This time the reaction has been quicker in coming, but relatively muted. The governments of Iran and Pakistan have formally protested, as have parliamentarians and officials in Jordan and Egypt. Members of a small Islamist party in Turkey demonstrated outside the Swedish Embassy in Ankara on Tuesday.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a Jeddah-based grouping of 57 Muslim states that has spearheaded calls at the U.N. for "defamation" of religions to be outlawed, added its voice.

OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said the publication was "an irresponsible and despicable act" that was intended to "insult and arouse the sentiments of Muslims of the world."

The Swedish government should "take immediate punitive actions against the artist and the publishers of the cartoon" and issue an unqualified apology, the OIC said.

And the Muslim World League, an international non-governmental organization also based in Saudi Arabia, condemned the cartoons, with secretary-general Abdullah Al-Turki in a statement demanding that the Swedish government punish the artist and newspaper.

Ihsanoglu and Turki both urged Muslims and Islamic groups to exercise self-restraint in their response.

Apart from the burning of some Swedish flags in Pakistan at the weekend and the torching of copies of the Nerikes Allehanda in Sweden, no disturbances or violence have been reported. About 300 Muslims demonstrated outside the newspaper's offices on Friday.

Lawsuit plans

Exact numbers are not known, but about four percent of Sweden's population of nine million is Muslim, according to the Euro-Islam project at the Paris-based institute, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

The biggest organization is the Swedish Muslim Council, an umbrella group whose constituent groups claim about 100,000 members.

How Sweden's Muslims react to the incident will be closely watched. In the Danish cartoon row, the original publication drew little attention until a delegation of Danish Muslims, unhappy with the response of their government and the offending newspaper, launched an awareness-raising tour of Arab capitals in late 2005 with the stated intention of "internationalizing" the issue.

Swedish Muslim Council secretary-general Sheikh Zuhri Barhamon told Islam Online this week that imams have urged Muslims to send petitions to the newspaper, artist and politicians.

The group has also lodged a criminal complaint against the Nerikes Allehanda and the artist.

In an online interview, Jonas Otterbeck of the School of International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Sweden's Malmo University, noted that Sweden has not had a general blasphemy law since the late 1940s, and that pictures portraying or ridiculing religious figures have been commonplace.

"It has not been a part of our historical legacy to protect the religious symbols or persons, including Jesus or even God for example, from pens or pencils of the artists," he said. Sweden does, however, have a criminal offense of agitation against a group.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt held talks Tuesday with Swedish Muslim representatives at a Stockholm mosque and said in a statement afterwards he was sorry if people had taken offense.

"I personally would never intentionally act in a way that could be perceived by other religions as provocative or offensive," he said, but stressed that freedom of the press and expression "is an inalienable part of our country and our democracy."

"Sweden is a country where people of different faiths can live together side by side," Reinfeldt said. "The willingness to provoke should not overtake the willingness for dialogue."

Nyamko Sabuni, a government minister whose portfolio deals with migration and integration, said the cartoon row would be good for Sweden's integration process.

"Since freedom of speech is part of our democracy we are fully entitled to say, write and express whatever we want," Sweden's The Local newspaper quoted her as saying in a statement. "It is part of the dialogue that is necessary if we are to be able to develop and to gain an understanding and a sense of respect for each other."

In an editorial, Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende said Sweden was now starting to learn the lesson Denmark faced two years ago.

"It's only natural to feel offended. But that doesn't give one the right to curtail or annul others' freedom of expression," it said. "Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of democracy. Without it, free citizenship and the free society die."

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