London, Asharq Al-Awsat- No one expected that a series of cartoon drawings would be transformed into a popular and political issue when they were first published in September. What happened?
Politically, the issue was first raised by the members of the Muslim community in Denmark who criticized the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten for publishing the 12 drawings of the Prophet Mohammed four months ago. The Egyptian ambassador in Copenhagen also played an important role by initiating diplomatic discussions, at a time when the government in Cairo and the opposition were engulfed in a heated election campaign. The issue disappeared from the radar until Sheikh Youssef al Qardawi, the mufti of al Jazeera TV, seized upon it and called for Muslims worldwide to protest.
Internet forums played an important role by publishing a number of stories attributed to the Queen of Denmark stating she despises Arabs and Muslims. The website alsaha.com was primarily responsible for stirring up popular sentiment. Based in the United Arab Emirates, the site is an extremist Salafi forum that discussed issues related to extremist Islam. It opposed US presence in Iraq and backed the kidnapping of foreigners. Despite the UAE government’s opposition to religious extremists, it has allowed alsaha.com to continue to incite readers through its threatening messages and al Qaeda clips. It is believed that more than 100 thousand internet users visit the site each day.
When the controversy began to gain momentum, the Qatar-based al Jazeera TV increased its coverage. Even the day after the Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared on the rival al Arabiyah channel and apologized, al Jazeera continued to state that he would not apologize. The truth is somewhere in the middle: the premier indicated he could not apologize on behalf of the newspaper, which had already issued an apology. In spite of this, al Jazeera continued to mention the Danish insult and Muslim anger.
The response to al Jazeera’s distorted coverage came in a program produced by the BBC from Doha. In a roundtable discussion chaired by Tim Sebastian, which included representatives from both al Arabiyah and al Jazeera. After a discussion of the cartoon controversy, the participants agreed that al Jazeera was inflaming opinions.
For their part, Arab newspapers reported on the drawings and the ensuing worldwide condemnations with varying degrees of objectivity. The issue and its ramifications were mostly debated in editorials and opinion pieces, with headlines containing provocative language. In addition, it is worthy to note that Jylland Posten’s apology was not reported in a number of Arab newspapers.
It is also worth mentioning that mobile phone text messages (SMS) played an important part in inflaming public opinion throughout the Arab world and circulating rumors, such as the one claiming groups intended to burn the Quran in the center of Copenhagen.
Coverage of the cartoon controversy was not exclusive to television and newspapers. In fact, the reporting included all mediums. It was more a campaign than coverage.