TUNIS — Interior Minister Prince Naif yesterday called on Arab and Islamic countries to take a decisive stand on the issue of cartoons denigrating the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
“It’s certainly insulting to all Muslims,” Prince Naif told reporters about the 12 cartoons published by a Danish newspaper last September and reprinted in a Norwegian magazine in January. “Saudi Arabia’s stand on this matter is very clear,” he said. The Saudi Cabinet had earlier denounced the sacrilegious cartoons.
Denmark has defended the Jyllands-Posten newspaper’s right to publish the cartoons that a Norwegian paper later ran. Muslims have reacted angrily, calling for goods boycotts and demanding an apology. Saudi Arabia has recalled its envoy from Denmark, Libya has closed its embassy, Kuwait said it would recall its ambassador and thousands of Palestinians marched in protest yesterday.
Denmark warned its citizens in the Middle East to be cautious and companies worried about lost business. Masked gunmen briefly seized a European Union office in Gaza City to protest the cartoons and the Denmark-based dairy group Arla Foods said a boycott of its products in the Middle East was nearly total. The Danish Red Cross said it was evacuating two of its employees from Gaza and one from Yemen. The Norwegian People’s Aid group also said it was withdrawing its two Norwegian representatives in Gaza after threats.
Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen briefed European Union colleagues about the matter yesterday in Brussels. He has repeatedly rejected calls to intervene, saying the government has no say over media.
But Arla’s executive director urged the Danish government to take action. “I urgently beg the government to enter a positive dialogue with the many millions of Muslims who feel they have been offended by Denmark,” Peder Tuborgh said in a statement.
“Freedom of expression is an internal Danish issue but this has a totally different dimension,” Tuborgh said. “This is about Denmark having offended millions of Muslims.”
Villy Soevndal, leader of the small opposition Socialist People’s Party, said Denmark “cannot be a country where the prime minister goes into hiding while Denmark loses export money, Danish citizens are being threatened and Danish flags burned.”
An Arla official, food products division manager Jens Refslund, said in a statement that “all Arla’s customers in the region have canceled their orders, and sales have come to a standstill in almost all markets.” Arla Foods products have been removed from shop shelves in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The company has a 2.6 billion kroner ($430 million) in annual sales in the Middle East and about 1,000 employees in the region, its main market outside Europe.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson warned Saudi Arabia that the bloc would take action at the World Trade Organization if the government supported the boycott of Danish goods, the European Commission said.
Mandelson told a Saudi official that any Danish boycott would be a boycott of the European Union. “He made it clear that if the Saudi government had encouraged the boycott, Commissioner Mandelson would regret having to take the issue to the WTO,” said EU spokesman Peter Power.
The Saudi official told Mandelson that the government had not encouraged the boycott.
Published January 31, 2006, Arab News