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Caricature Row: Western Governments Protest As Embassies Burn

  • Breffni O'Rourke

An Islamic flag seen through the shattered window of the burning Danish Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. (epa) Western governments condemn Syria for failing to stop the torching of their embassies, as Denmark's mission in Lebanon becomes the latest to be set ablaze.


PRAGUE, 5 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As anger in the Muslim world about the publication of a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad continues to flare, political leaders across Europe and the United States have condemned Syria for failing to prevent protestors from setting fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus.


Syrian riot police later used tear gas and water cannons to prevent protesters from storming the French Embassy.


"Syria's failure to provide protection to diplomatic premises, in the face of warnings that violence was planned, is inexcusable."


U.S. State Department


Syria's Minister for Islamic Endowments Muhammad Ziyad al-Ayubi had tried, in vain, to convince the protestors to disperse. "Children of this dear nation, you have expressed yourselves more than enough," he said through a loudspeaker. "Go back to your homes, empty these squares, keep our country as it has always been -- in peace and security."


However, European ministers believe the Syrian authorities should have done more. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said that it "is completely unacceptable that the embassy was not protected by the Syrians."


A similar note was struck by Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds, who expressed "serious concern" and condemned the Syrian authorities for "[allowing] these protests to escalate in this way" and for "not [fulfilling] their responsibility to protect our foreign service staff."


Sweden's diplomatic mission was in the same building as the Danish Embassy.


The EU presidency, which is currently occupied by Austria, on 4 February called the attacks "utterly unacceptable."


The United States also joined the condemnation. A White House spokesman said "Syria's failure to provide protection to diplomatic premises, in the face of warnings that violence was planned, is inexcusable."


The series of 12 cartoons that sparked the anger of Muslims around the world, originally published in a Danish newspaper, directly challenge Islam's ban on any depictions of the prophet.


The cartoons not only pictured Muhammad; several depicted his turban as a bomb.


Other European papers recently reprinted the cartoons, arguing that press freedom was more important than religious taboos.


The Protests Continue


The protests continued on 5 February in a range of countries.


In the Lebanese capital Beirut, demonstrators set fire to the Danish diplomatic mission, and at least 10 people were reported injured as the protesters rampaged through a Christian section of the city.


In the Palestinian territories, protesters burned tires and threw rocks at offices of the European Union, and a leader Hamas reportedly called for the those responsible for the cartoons to be killed.


In Afghanistan, more than 1,000 Afghans took part in a peaceful protest march.


Iran said on 5 February it has recalled its ambassador to Denmark in protest.


The Roman Catholic Church on 4 February added its voice to those condemning the decision to publish the images.

Clash Of Cultures

Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie (epa file photo)

The furor raised by the publication in Europe of cartoons believed by many Muslims to be insulting to Islam is far from being the first time that Western notions of freedom of expression have clashed with Islamic sensibilities. Below are a few of the major incidents in this long-running tension.

2005: London's Tate Britain museum removes from exhibition the "God Is Great #2" sculpture by John Latham for fear of offending Muslims, citing the "sensitive climate" after 7 July suicide bombings in London. The sculpture piece consists of three sacred religious texts -- the Koran, the Bible, and the Talmud -- embedded in a sheet of glass.

2004: Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered after release of his film "Submission" about violence against women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of Dutch parliament who wrote script, plans another film about Islam's attitude to gays. She has also received death threats.

2002: Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel incenses Muslims by writing in "This Day" newspaper that Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the "Miss World" contest and might have wed a beauty queen. Muslim-Christian riots in northern city of Kaduna kill 200. Daniel flees Nigeria after a fatwa urges Muslims to kill her.

1995: An Egyptian court brands academic Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid an apostate because of his writings on Islam and annuls his marriage on grounds that a Muslim may not be married to an apostate. Abu Zaid and his wife move to the Netherlands.

1994: Taslima Nasreen flees Bangladesh for Sweden after court charges her with "maliciously hurting Muslim religious sentiments." Some Muslims demand she be killed for her book "Lajja" (Shame), banned for blasphemy and suggesting free sex.

1989: Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls on all Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Dutch Immigration -- The Death Of Multiculturalism

Report Says No Anti-Muslim Backlash In Europe

Vienna Conference Ends With Appeals For Understanding, Tolerance


A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.
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