(CNSNews.com) - More than four months after a Danish newspaper angered Muslims by publishing 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, a debate over the freedom of speech issue has finally taken off across Europe, where newspapers in at least six countries have now reproduced some or all of the sketches.
The papers' decisions pose a new challenge to Muslims and Islamic bodies promoting a boycott of Danish products. The pictures have now appeared in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway, in addition to Denmark.
They are also widely available on the Internet -- on innumerable weblogs and also on mainstream, high-traffic sites like Wikipedia.
The pictures range from a benign interpretation of the founder of Islam as a man in white with a beard, stick and donkey, to arguably the most controversial -- a man wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten said it published the cartoons last Sept. 30 to test the limits of free speech, which it saw as under threat from Islamic radicals.
The months since then have brought death threats, bombscares, protest marches, diplomatic rows, condemnations and demands for apologies from the world's top Islamic and Arab bodies, calls for a U.N. resolution carrying a sanctions threat, a fatwa against Danish troops in Iraq, and a widening Mideast boycott of Danish goods.
Jyllands-Posten this week apologized for offending Muslims, but not directly for publishing the cartoons.
A small, Christian publication in Norway last month reproduced the cartoons, but only in the last few days have mainstream media in Europe begun to give the freedom of speech aspect of the developing story prominent coverage.
A handful of major papers have now printed some or all of the 12 pictures.
German's Die Welt printed the bomb-turban picture on its front page, with the others inside, and an accompanying commentary defending freedom of expression and the "right to blasphemy" in an open society.
"The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they came across as less hypocritical," the Hamburg-based daily said, noting that no protests greeted the depiction by Syrian television of rabbis as cannibals.
(The reference was apparently to an anti-Zionist documentary series called Al-Shatat (the Diaspora), in which one episode dealt with an old blood-libel -- that Jews used the blood of gentile children to make Passover matza bread.
The Middle East Media Research Institute says the Syrian-produced series was aired in Lebanon during Ramadan 2003 and on Jordanian and Iranian TV last year.)
In Paris, France Soir printed a front-page cartoon showing Mohammed and three other figures, presumably representing Jewish, Christian and Buddhist deities, and the quote: "Don't complain Mohammad, we've all been caricatured here."
Inside, the tabloid daily reprinted the 12 Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and in an editorial declared that it would never apologize for being free to speak and think.
French Muslim groups reacted with outrage, and the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) responded by declaring it would take the newspaper to court. France has five million Muslims - almost as many as the entire Danish population.
A Dutch lawmaker published the pictures on his website, and some members of the European Parliament also spoke out in defense of free speech.
Journalists' groups also have weighed in.
The German journalists' federation appeared divided on the issue, with a spokesman criticizing the decision of several German papers to print the sketches while the chairman, Michael Konken, defended it as a necessary contribution to the forming of opinions.
The Paris-based media freedom lobby group, Reporters Without Borders, said the reaction in the Arab world showed a lack of understanding of press freedom as "an essential accomplishment of democracy."
The group also expressed concern about calls from some Arab lawmakers for the cartoonists -- some of whom have received death threats -- to be punished.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it deplored threats against the newspaper and its journalists.
"Jyllands-Posten has the right to publish these cartoons and people who are offended by them have the right to express their anger," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper in a statement. "But no one has a right to threaten violence."
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Meanwhile, the role of Danish Muslims who took their complaint around the Islamic world is again coming under closer scrutiny.
A delegation of Danish Muslims, evidently frustrated by their inability to win apologies from the newspaper or intervention from the government in Copenhagen, traveled to Arab capitals late last year to raise awareness of the issue.
They took with them a 43-page dossier containing the 12 Jyllands-Posten cartoons, but also three other sketches that were not among those published. One depicted Mohammed as a pig and the other two were of a sexual nature.
A Danish tabloid last month quoted the delegation head, Akhmad Akkari, as saying the three, which had been received anonymously by Danish Muslims, were included in the dossier to show the level of anti-Muslim sentiment in Denmark.
It was also reported that the delegation may have given the impression, intentionally or otherwise, that Jyllands-Posten was owned or controlled by the government.
In a series of questions and answers on its website the Danish foreign ministry makes clear repeatedly that the newspaper has no links to the government.
It also stresses that no picture showing Mohammed as a pig had been published by any Danish newspaper.
See earlier stories:
'Buy Danish' Campaign Aims to Counter Muslim Boycott (Feb. 01, 2006)
US-Based Islamic Group Wades Into Muslim-Danish Row (Feb. 01, 2006)
Growing Islamic Anger Over Mohammed Cartoons (Jan 03, 2006)
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