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If nothing else, the editors of Jyllands-Posten--a right-of-center newspaper based in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city--knew that publishing cartoon images of Muhammad would get them attention. That was the point: last September the paper's culture editor, Flemming Rose, invited 40 Danish cartoonists to submit caricatures of the Prophet in a deliberate attempt to provoke a debate about what Rose perceived as the stifling of coverage of issues related to Islam and Denmark's 200,000 Muslim residents. A leading Danish religious historian, Tim Jensen, warned that some Muslims would take offense at the images, citing a widely, although not unanimously, observed taboo against physical representations of the Prophet. But the paper published the 12 submissions it received anyway, on Sept. 30. To a neutral observer, the drawings ranged from puerile to mildly provocative: one shows Muhammad as a Bedouin flanked by two women in burqas, another with a bomb in his turban. Fatih Alev, an imam in Copenhagen, says he "wasn't particularly incensed" when he saw the cartoons in the paper but suspected it would anger some local Muslims. "Many Muslims in Denmark are not used to reading long articles. Many don't even read Danish," says Alev. "All they saw were cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering caricatures. It was a recipe for disaster."
Still, the initial reaction remained muted. Two weeks after the appearance of the cartoons, Muslim leaders organized a mostly peaceful demonstration of 3,500 people in Copenhagen, demanding that the paper issue an apology for the drawings. The paper rebuffed the demand. But the tempest might have remained a largely local dispute had Prime Minister Rasmussen not compounded the editors' intransigence by refusing to meet with the ambassadors of 11 Muslim countries to discuss the cartoon flap. "This was a major mistake," says Denmark-based Bashy Quraishy, president of the European Network Against Racism. "I have never in my long political career heard of a group of diplomats asking for a meeting on such an important subject and being refused."
In response to Rasmussen's slight, Muslim activists in Denmark embarked on a provocative campaign of their own. In mid-November, Abu Laban, the country's most radical imam, made arrangements on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Faith to send a delegation of Muslims to the Middle East to publicize the cartoon issue. They brought with them a 43-page dossier that contained the 12 cartoons and three even more inflammatory drawings, not published by Jyllands-Posten but allegedly sent to Danish Muslims in the wake of the initial protests. (One of the images, purportedly showing Muhammad with a pig's nose, was a photograph of a costumed contestant at a pig festival in France.) In December the delegates showed the entire dossier to journalists, religious and political leaders in Cairo, Lebanon and Damascus. Within days, the contents were being circulated on the Internet and condemned by Muslim bloggers, even though the most derogatory images in the dossier had never even been published. Says Quraishy: "I don't think these representatives knew what they started."