The State Department yesterday condemned as “offensive” cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Muhammad but defended the paper’s right to publish them as a fundamental principle of democracy.
It also urged Muslims, who have been staging mass protests against the cartoons and their reprinting in newspapers in Europe, to express outrage when they see anti-Christian or anti-Semitic publications.
“We find them offensive,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of the cartoons. “While we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view.
“Freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy, and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend, and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Mr. McCormack’s remarks at his daily press briefing were more balanced than the department’s statement earlier in the day, when it appeared to be siding with the Muslims and said that “inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable.”
He urged Muslims to “speak out with equal vigor” when “they see similar views or images that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic.”
“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief,” he said.
Some of the 12 cartoons, which the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper first published in September, depicted Muhammad as a terrorist. They sparked protests and a boycott of Danish products in most Arab nations, but the uproar reached mass proportions only in the past several days.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen finally broke his government’s silence on the issue this week, saying he was sorry if Muslims had been offended. But he defended the newspaper, saying he was sure “defamation” of the prophet was not its intention.
Several European newspapers also published the cartoons this week to make the point that freedom of speech is greatly cherished on the continent.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group, also defended Jyllands-Posten and expressed concern about a bomb threat against it.
“We deplore the bomb threat against this newspaper and its journalists,” said Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Jyllands-Posten has the right to publish these cartoons and people who are offended by them have the right to express their anger. But no one has a right to threaten violence.”
The protests against the cartoons in the Muslim world continued yesterday.
In Indonesia, about 100 members of the hardline Front of the Defenders of Islam stormed the Danish Embassy, chanting, “Let’s go jihad. We’re ready for jihad.” One of their banners said: “Let’s slaughter the Danish ambassador!”
They broke through security into the building’s lobby, smashing lamps and throwing eggs, but they were quickly forced out by police and some of the group’s leaders.
East African Muslims vented their outrage during and after Friday prayers, with imams and worshippers denouncing the drawings as attacks by the Western press on their religion and advocating death for the newspaper editors.
“The enemies of Islam are using editors to publish articles to tarnish Islam and insult the prophet,” said Abdullah Hussein, the imam at the main Jibril Mosque in Stone Town, Tanzania.
Protests took place in London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and other cities around the world yesterday.
No British and only one American newspaper, the New York Sun, had printed the cartoons as of yesterday, although some had provided links to them on their Web sites.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also weighed in, calling the continuous publishing of the caricatures in the European press “inflammatory.”
“I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary,” he said in London. “It has been insensitive. It has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports