Barely a year after Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a sponsor of terrorism led to a worldwide controversy and violent anti-Western riots across the Middle East, a new cartoon affair is quietly developing. The current crisis began when Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilk published a drawing of the Prophet as a dog in the newspaper Nerikes Allehanda on August 18. Muslims generally view visual representation of the Prophet as blasphemous and consider dogs to be impure animals. Salafi-Jihadi organizations have seized on the new drawing as yet more proof that the West is arrogantly waging war against the world’s Muslims by disrespecting Islam and blaspheming its Prophet. Consequently, these organizations have carried out a virulent web campaign against Lars Vilk, Ulf Johansson (the editor-in-chief of Nerikes Allehanda) and Swedish companies.
The campaign reached a pinnacle when the amir of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a reward for the killing of the cartoonist and the paper’s editor. In a speech released on September 19, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi said: “We provoke to spill the blood of the caricature artist, Lars, who dared to insult our Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, and announce in the month of Ramadan a generous award of $100,000 [for killing] the infidel criminal; a prize of $150,000 if he [is slaughtered] like [a] sheep. We announce a reward of $50,000 to those whom can get the chief editor of the newspaper that published the news. O Muslims, you will get the reward with Allah in his life and the eternal by killing these two unbelieving infidels.”
Al-Baghdadi’s call for murder has been relayed in various jihadi web forums and generated favorable responses from members who expressed much bravado in the face of what they consider as the gravest offense. Several members argued that the call for murder is justified based on their own interpretation of the Prophet’s own decisions. They use the Prophet authorizing the killing of Ka’ab Ibn al-Ashraf to determine the morality/legality of Lars Vilk’s killing. Some have enthusiastically defended the call for murder, calling it necessary to restore Islam’s honor and to show the West Islam’s grandeur and strength. One member goes as far as suggesting the best tactics, in his view, to carry out Baghdadi’s order. Writing on a French jihadi website, the forum member argues that the operation should be carried out in Sweden to avoid killing fellow Muslims alongside him.
In addition, jihadis are calling for a boycott of Swedish companies. The rationale for launching a commercial boycott is to hurt the Swedish economy enough to force the country’s politicians, publishers and citizens to exert better judgment and show more respect toward Islam. Various messages have called for jihadis to mobilize all Muslims against Swedish companies. Other messages give out practical information to empower people to carry out the boycott. For example, they list the names of 116 Swedish companies to indicate the brands to avoid. They give out the addresses and contact information of major Swedish companies operating throughout the Middle East, such as Volvo, Electrolux, Scania, Ericsson and Ikea.
Meanwhile, the Swedish government quickly worked to defuse tensions with Arab and Muslim countries in order to avoid a lengthy and violent crisis, such as the one that erupted after the publication of the Danish cartoons last year. In the aftermath of the publication, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt formally complained to Sweden. In response, the Swedish prime minister met with 22 Arab ambassadors a few days after the publication. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said he regretted that the publication of the cartoon had hurt Muslim feelings, but he also made it clear that his government could not apologize for it was not responsible for the drawing and it could not, under the country’s laws, prevent its publication. Meanwhile, according to a Pakistani statement, “the Swedish diplomat had said his government fully shared the views of the Muslim community and termed the publication as unfortunate.” The Swedish government could not confirm the accuracy of that statement (BBC News, August 31).
Some Arab and Muslim countries and organizations have been receptive to the Swedish government’s outreach efforts. Iran’s ambassador to Sweden, whose country has formally protested to Sweden, praised the Swedish government’s response to the incident. Meanwhile, the UK-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe told the BBC that “Muslims in the West had to live with the local laws on freedom of expression.” The organization, however, has not issued any official reaction. The same is true with the French Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), even though a French Salafi-Jihadi forum carried out and discussed threats against Vilk’s life.
Other countries and organizations were less swayed by the Swedish government’s position. The Pakistani government, facing a grave political crisis, partially supported the Islamists’ view that freedom of expression should not apply to the Prophet: “The Pakistani Foreign Ministry expressed sorrow at what it described as a growing tendency among some Europeans to mix the freedom of expression with an outright and deliberate insult to 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide” (BBC News, August 31). The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) also sided with the Islamists’ view. In a press communiqué released on August 30, the OIC qualified the publication of the drawing as “irresponsible and provocative” solely designed to “insult and arouse the sentiments of Muslims of the world” and called on the Swedish government to punish the newspaper while urging Muslims to show restraint (see: http://www.oic-oci.org/press/English/2007/08/caricatur.htm).
The Swedish government’s efforts, however, cannot undo the bounty placed on Lars Vilk’s head by the ISI. Out of precaution, the Swedish police, calling the threat “very serious,” took Vilk to a secret location for his own safety. His website has been disabled and his e-mail address changed. Since only one person is needed to act on the hate incitement of the Salafi-Jihadis, Lars Vilk is condemned, at least for a while, to an underground life. This is the third time, in less than a year, that European writers and cartoonists have been forced underground by the pressure of a few.