PARIS, (Reuters) – Newspapers in France and Germany reprinted Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed on Wednesday, saying press freedom was more important than the protests and boycotts the cartoons have sparked across the Muslim world.
The Danish embassy in Damascus was evacuated after a bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax and Syria recalled its ambassador from Denmark in protest against the cartoons, one of which shows the Prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb.
In Copenhagen, security police met Islamic leaders in a bid to calm reactions there. Muslims consider images of prophets distasteful and caricatures blasphemous.
Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council, denounced the publication of the drawings as a “provocation”.
Burhan Kesici, a leader of Germany’s Turkish community, said they reduced Islam “to two or three terrorists”.
Two large Danish companies reported their sales falling in the Middle East after the incident led to protests in the Arab world and calls for boycotts.
“Enough lessons from these reactionary bigots!” France Soir editor Serge Faubert wrote in a commentary explaining why his newspaper had printed the cartoons.
“Just because the Koran bans images of Mohammed doesn’t mean non-Muslims have to submit to this.”
Germany’s Die Welt printed a similar piece to accompany the cartoons.
“There is no right to be shielded from satire in the West,” it said. “Christianity has been the object of ruthless criticism … being able to make fun of the holiest things is a non-negotiable core tradition in our culture.”
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said France supported press freedom, which “should be exercised in a spirit of tolerance and respect for beliefs and religions”.
Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons last September, has apologised for any hurt they may have caused. The Danish government says it cannot tell free media what to do.
Danish police said in a statement they had told Denmark’s imams they were “highly aware of the risks of an escalation of the case, including the calls to burn the Koran, which these days flourish on the Internet and via SMS (phone messages)”.
Such calls could be attempts by right-wing extremists to exploit the conflict and divide society, police said.
Boubakeur, who is also rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, called France Soir’s decision to reprint the cartoons “a genuine provocation towards France’s millions of Muslims”.
Thousands of Palestinians protested against Denmark this week, and Arab ministers called on it to punish Jyllands-Posten.
Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Copenhagen and Libya has closed its embassy. Qatar condemned the cartoons.
The Danish-Swedish dairy product maker Arla Foods, with annual Middle East sales of almost $500 million, said it might have to cut 140 jobs due to the boycott.
“We are losing around 10 million Danish crowns ($1.8 million) per day at the moment,” a spokeswoman said.
The world’s biggest maker of insulin, Denmark’s Novo Nordisk , said pharmacies and hospitals in Saudi Arabia had been avoiding its products since Saturday.
A Norwegian Christian publication called Magazinet printed the cartoons in January. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg expressed regret but made no outright apology.
“We cannot apologise for something written by newspapers in a country with freedom of expression like Norway,” Norway’s NTB news agency quoted him as saying in his first public comment.
The world press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders, based in Paris, defended the newspapers. “Freedom of the press also exists for viewpoints that shock the majority of the population,” RsF head Robert Menard told France Soir.
Sohaib Bencheikh, a moderate French Islamic theologian, said Western press freedom had overstepped its bounds. “The West has lost the sense of the transcendent and the sacred,” he said.