Publish Muhammad Cartoons in School Books, Urge Danish Parties

Muslim protesters hold placards during a demonstration against Swedish artist Lars Vilks, whose sketch had shown the Prophet Mohammad with the body of a dog, outside the Swedish embassy in Kuala Lumpur March 26, 2010. Bazuki Muhammad/REUTERS

A Danish political party has sparked controversy after announcing that cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad should be included in school textbooks. The cartoons were initially published in a Danish newspaper in 2005, sparking protests by Muslims across the world.

The proposal, announced by right-wing opposition party, the Conservative People's Party, has drawn condemnation from Muslims within the country, as well as the former head of the Danish intelligence services.

According to a spokesperson for the Conservative People's Party, the proposals would involve students between the ages of 13-16 being taught about the so-called "Muhammad cartoons crisis" as it is referred to within the country, as part of Danish history lessons.

The controversy over the images occurred in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, some of which depicted the Prophet as a terrorist with a bomb. The images sparked protests around the world, Danish and Norwegian embassies were attacked across the Middle East, and the newspaper received death threats.

"The crisis was a major event in Danish history and it should be taught in history classes," says Benny Damsgaard, head of communications for the Conservative People's Party. "In this regard it is only natural that you show the drawings that caused all this commotion." However, Damsgaard emphasised that it would be up to individual teachers to decide whether or not they wished to teach their students about the event, and whether or not to show the images.

The proposal has divided opinion in Denmark. Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen, who was chief of the intelligence services at the time of the crisis, believes that such a policy could potentially lead to more terror attacks. "There is that risk, there is no doubt about that. There is no doubt in mind that by showing these cartoons you are assisting the radicalisation process and potentially causing more terrorists. It is not necessary to shows these cartoons again and again and for them to be used as a tool in daily life."

Bonnichsen says that following the publication of the cartoons, every terrorism case he dealt with as chief of the intelligence services was rooted in the crisis, and believes that February's deadly shooting was "not a random attack", but linked to the those which occurred at the Parisian offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January.

In February, a gunman opened fire on people attending a free-speech debate in a Copenhagen cafe, killing one person. Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who drew the original caricatures and was due to be speaking at the event, is thought to have been the target of the attack.

Imran Shah, spokesperson for the Islamic Society in Denmark, also condemns the proposal, accusing the Conservatives of a "cheap" policy designed to sway voters in the run-up to the elections, due to be held in September. "We don't see these images as cartoons or caricatures, we see them as a derogatory political signal, and one that is designed to split society from within," he says. "The elections are coming up, and the Conservatives have absolutely no policy on the economy, or the rising percentage of unemployed people. Any party in a crisis will throw the card of immigration and radicalisation into the debate. It is a very cheap way of conducting election points."

Shah continues: "Muslims will always condemn any images of the Prophet Muhammad, that is a fact and it will always be that way. We have just been through a terror attack. It is very irresponsible and while everybody in society tries to gather the pieces and return to the common ground reassuring our coexistence, we have these politicians who act way below statesmanship to continue to divide and sow the seeds of disharmony."

But the policy does have its supporters. "We have a terrible crisis on our hands," warns Søren Espersen, deputy chairman of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, another party which believes that showing the cartoons in classrooms should be mandatory. "An obvious discussion needs to take place here, because what happened to Denmark is important."

"There's no point teaching about the crisis without showing the cartoons; that would be absolutely ridiculous - you might as well not teach it at all. It would be like teaching about the pyramids without showing a picture of them. If you don't print these cartoons, then they will become even more mythical to children. But they are actually very harmless and funny."

"If you don't teach anything, then you won't offend anyone. But is that what you want?", Espersen continues. "The cartoons haven't become part of our history yet, but as you make new school books you have to include the cartoons. Everyone will agree that the crisis was an important moment in Danish history."

The Association of Religious Education Teachers also wants the cartoons to be incorporated into teaching materials "sooner rather than later".

The Conservatives were shown to have 5.3% of voter support in a poll this week, meaning it would be the second smallest party in parliament if elections were held today. The Danish People's Party was ranked third by the same poll, with 19.6%.