25th Oct 2016

Gaza gunmen drag EU into Danish-Muslim blasphemy clash

Controversial drawings of the Muslim prophet Mohammed published last autumn by a Danish newspaper have led the EU into a spat with parts of the Muslim world, with gunmen gathering before the Union's Gaza headquarters on Monday.

The caricatures, picturing the Prophet as seen by twelve Danish cartoonists, also made it on to the agenda of EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (30 January).

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  • Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik expressed solidarity with the Scandinavian countries (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

On Monday morning, some ten masked men armed with grenade launchers and assault rifles gathered outside the EU office where they fired their arms in the air.

"We warn the citizens of the above-mentioned governments to take this warning seriously because our groups are ready to implement it across the Gaza Strip," one of the gunmen read out from a prepared statement, before burning Norwegian and Danish flags in the street.

On the same day, a fax sent to the Swedish consulate in Jerusalem accused the governments of both Denmark and Sweden of denigrating the prophet.

In the fax members of the al-Aqsa brigades claim that "the Danes and the Swedish, protected by their government, have put up posters insulting the prophet Mohammed."

"Within 48 hours, all Danes and Swedes must have left Palestinian ground, or else..." read the fax.

A European issue

Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik said after the foreign ministers gathering in Brussels, that the EU "strongly rejects" these threats.

"We have expressed a spirit of solidarity with our northern colleagues, as well as our belief and attachment to the freedom of press and the freedom of expression as part of our fundamental values, and the freedom of religious beliefs," she said, adding that she hoped that the matter would be solved through "dialogue between the involved parties".

The Danish foreign minister Per Stig Moller said he is "satisfied with the reaction from colleagues as expressed by Ms Plassnik."

His Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet, told Danish media, that the case had become a European case.

"This is no longer a Danish case. It can hit us all, and may have far-going consequences for the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world. Therefore, we must seek to prevent it from escalating."

French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy announced that "You can never put question marks around the freedom of speech in any European country, and therefore we have all declared our solidarity with the Danes."

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also repudiated the threats, but underlined that the EU had never aimed at demonising Muslims.

Denmark will not interfere with press

It was in September that Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published drawings of the prophet Mohammed, as "a test of whether fear of Islamic retribution has begun to limit freedom of expression in Denmark."

In an act of support on freedom of speech - and of Jyllands-Posten - the Norwegian weekly Magazinet earlier this month published the same drawings, causing immediate annoyance among Muslim groups in Norway.

In one of the drawings, the prophet Mohammed appears with a turban shaped like a bomb with a burning fuse strapped to his head.

The caricatures have caused outrage in Muslim communities around the world, with Islamic countries and Turkey calling upon the Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to offer an official apology, as the Koran forbids all visual depictions of the prophet.

But Mr Rasmussen has persistently said that freedom of expression is the very foundation of Danish democracy and that his government has no means of influencing the press.

A spokesman for the European commission on Monday backed this stance.

"A public debate on the pros and cons of the views expressed is the right form of reaction in a democratic and pluralistic society, and pressure not to exercise these freedoms is unacceptable," he said.

Justice commissioner Franco Frattini in December however described the publication of the cartoons as "thoughtless and inappropriate", saying the cartoons fomented hostility against Islam and foreigners.

Food boycott against Denmark may make it to WTO

Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections last week, has urged Islamic countries to take "deterrent steps against idiotic Danish behaviour".

"We call on Muslim nations to boycott all Danish products because the Danish people supported the hateful racism under the pretext of freedom of expression," the group said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Denmark and Saudi religious leaders have urged a boycott of Danish products.

The move made EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson raise a warning finger against governments who deliberately create a situation where EU goods are faced with unfair treatment.

At a meeting with a Saudi minister in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos on Sunday, Mr Mandelson urged the minister to "convey the seriousness of this issue to his government," his spokesman said.

"Any boycott of Danish goods would be seen as a boycott of European goods," Mr Mandelson's spokesman said, adding that if any government was proven to have supported a boycot of EU goods, he would be forced to bring the case up before the WTO.

Spain's Socialists ease Rajoy's path to power

The Socialists agree to abstain in a confidence vote later this week, meaning conservative leader Mariano Rajoy should be able to form a minority government after 10 months of deadlock.

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