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How a meeting of Leaders in MECCA set off the cartoon wars around the world

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How a meeting of leaders in Mecca set off the cartoon wars around the world
By Daniel Howden, David Hardaker in Cairo and Stephen Castle in Brussels
Published: 10 February 2006
A summit of Muslim nations held in Mecca in December may have played a key role in stoking outraged protests across the Islamic world against a series of caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed.

A dossier of the cartoons, which was compiled by Danish Muslims, was handed around the sidelines of the meeting, attended by 57 Islamic nations including leaders such as Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Saudi King, Abdullah.

The meeting in Islam's holiest city appears to have been a catalyst for turning local anger at the images into a matter of public, and often violent, protest in Muslim nations. It also persuaded countries such as Syria and Iran to give media exposure to the cartoon controversy in their state-controlled press.

Muhammed El Sayed Said, the deputy director of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an independent studies centre, said the Mecca meeting was a turning point in internationalising the cartoons issue. "Things started to get really bad once the Islamic conference picked it up," he said. "Iran and Syria contributed to fomenting reaction. It came to the point where everyone had to score a point to be seen as championing the cause of Islam."

The emergency summit of the Organisation of the Islamic conference (OIC) on 6 December was originally called to address terrorism and sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims, but came to be dominated by the cartoons, originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September.

The OIC issued a condemnation of the cartoons: "[We express our] concern at rising hatred against Islam and Muslims and condemned the recent incident of desecration of the image of the Holy Prophet Mohamed."

The communique went on to attack the practice of "using the freedom of expression as a pretext for defaming religions".

After the expanded media coverage in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, the violent protests began. At least 10 people have been killed across the Islamic world as a result of these protests.

Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at the American University in Beirut, said the cartoons had provided Arab governments under pressure from the West for democratic reforms with an opportunity to hit back in the public opinion stakes.

"[Demonstrations] started as a visceral reaction - of course they were offended - and then you had regimes taking advantage saying, 'Look this is the democracy they're talking about'," he told The New York Times.

Ahmed Akkari, a Lebanese-born Dane and spokesman for a group of Danish Muslims, said the Mecca summit had been the culmination of campaign to publicise the offending cartoons.

The group assembled a 43-page dossier that included several unpublished caricatures. However, Mr Akkari denies allegations that the second set of cartoons - which were faxed to Muslim groups by far-right extremists after they protested against the original images - were presented to Muslim leaders without distinction.

The published cartoons in the dossier were in colour and the unpublished ones were clearly marked and in black and white, Mr Akkari said.

After a number of failed attempts to highlight the issue to Muslim ambassadors in Denmark, Mr Akkari was part of a delegation that flew to Cairo in early December where they met the Grand Mufti and the Foreign Minister, Abdoul Gheit.

"We thought we would mobilise influential people so that they could give us their voice in Denmark," he said.

Ahmed Abu Laban, a radical cleric and leading critic of the cartoons in Denmark, said the purpose of the delegation to the Middle East was to raise awareness, not to stoke anger.

"We have been addressing the issue with a cool head; we were trying to seek academic and religious help from the Middle East. We are not professional enough to know what would be the response of media, nor the interest of politicians there," he said.

Mr Akkari said that the violent fallout was not their intention when they compiled the dossier. "We did not expect it to end up in such a situation, and with violence and for people to use it politically. This has now gone further than we had expected."

Image that launched 1,000 protests

* 17 SEPTEMBER 2005: Danish newspaper Politiken reports a writer failed to find an artist for a book about Mohamed because of fear of reprisals.

* 30 SEPTEMBER: Twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed are published in Jyllands-Posten as a protest against self-censorship.

* 2 OCTOBER: Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, hears complaints from 10 Arab ambassadors.

* 14 OCTOBER: 5,000 people march through Copenhagen to protest against the cartoons.

* 21 OCTOBER: Mr Fogh Rasmussen refuses to meet the 10 ambassadors, saying his government is unable to interfere with press freedom.

* 27 OCTOBER: Danish Muslim groups file a criminal complaint against Jyllands-Posten.

* DECEMBER 2005 - JANUARY 2006: The coalition of Danish Muslim groups travels to the Middle East. Delegates at the Islamic Conference in Mecca talk of boycotting Danish goods.

* 7 JANUARY: Prosecutors decide there is no case to answer against Jyllands-Posten.

* 10 JANUARY: Norwegian Christian magazine Magazinet reprints the cartoons.

*27 JANUARY: Saudi Arabia calls for a boycott of Danish goods and recalls ambassador.

* 28 JANUARY: Danish-Swedish dairy giant Arla places adverts in Middle Eastern papers to calm the row.

* 29 JANUARY: Libya recalls its envoy.Jyllands-Posten prints an Arabic editorial saying the cartoons were printed as a test of public expression.

* 30 JANUARY: Editor of Jyllands-Posten apologises as masked gunmen briefly storm the EU's offices in Gaza.

* 31 JANUARY: Denmark advises its citizens not to travel to Saudi Arabia.

* 1 FEBRUARY: Seven newspapers across Europe republish the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten.

* 2 FEBRUARY: Jordanian paper Shihan becomes the first in the Arab world to reprint the cartoons saying its decision was made to show their readers "the extent of the Danish offence". The editor is fired.

* 3 FEBRUARY: As 50,000 people protest in Gaza, a small group of Muslim radicals hold a demonstration in London.

* 4 FEBRUARY: Violent protests spread to Damascus.

* 5 FEBRUARY: Danish embassy in Beirut set alight as Iran recalls its ambassador in Copenhagen.

* 6 FEBRUARY: Protests spread to Indonesia, Malaysia and Afghanistan.

* 7 FEBRUARY: Denmark's embassy in Tehran is attacked.

* 8 FEBRUARY: George Bush accuses Iran and Syria of exploiting the cartoons.

This article is from Independent Online Edition

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