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It didn't take long to find out. At a meeting in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, leaders of the world's 57 Islamic countries issued a joint statement that "condemned the desecration" of the image of Muhammad. In late January an imam at the Grand Mosque of Mecca declared that "he who vilifies [the Prophet] should be killed." The Saudi government withdrew its ambassador to Denmark in late January as groups throughout the Middle East organized a boycott of Danish goods.
At each juncture, attempts by some parties to defuse the crisis were overwhelmed by those intent on escalating it. Even as Jyllands-Posten apologized on its website for offending Muslims with the cartoons--though not for publishing them in the first place--media outlets in France, Germany and Spain ran some of the drawings in a defense of press freedom. Many Muslims say the republications exacerbated their belief that the cartoons' sole purpose was to humiliate them. Meanwhile, the most violent reactions in the Arab world came after a Copenhagen cleric appeared on al-Jazeera in late January and mentioned rumors that Danes planned to burn copies of the Koran in Copenhagen's City Hall Square. No copies were burned. In early February, almost three months after refusing to meet with the 11 Muslim ambassadors, Rasmussen summoned the entire foreign diplomatic corps in Denmark to explain his position. But by that time, says Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, "this was no longer a government issue but one of the masses."
Could the crisis have been avoided? By missing or ignoring opportunities to contain the controversy at an early stage, the editors of Jyllands-Posten, Muslim leaders and Danish politicians all contributed to the notion that the dispute was the product of irreconcilable cultural differences. The most obvious centered on the Islamic taboo on images of the Prophet: devout Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet blasphemous. But the Danish cartoons stirred outrage among moderate Muslims less because the cartoons depicted Muhammad than because of the way in which the Prophet was portrayed. "Eleven of the series were problematic but not outrageous," says Antoine Basbous, director of the Observatory of Arab Countries in Paris. The cartoon that showed Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, however, "was simply far beyond the pale. The direct link between him, and Islam, to terrorism acted like a bomb among Muslims."
That may be true. But why did it take so long to detonate? It's worth noting that reaction to the cartoons among Muslims in Europe and Asia, while negative, has been largely peaceful. In the Arab world, the cartoons were accessible as early as October, when three Egyptian magazines and a newspaper published them to call attention to what it perceived as a distorted Western view of Islam. No one noticed. "We attacked the cartoons and said that this deepens the culture clash and does not resolve it," says Adel Hamouda, 55, editor of al-Fagr, a liberal Cairo-based weekly that ran the cartoons. "Those who saw the cartoons did not react, and those who reacted are the ones who did not see them."