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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Caricature Leads to an Arab Boycott

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- A long-running controversy over the publication of caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed by a Danish newspaper boiled over in the past few days as a boycott brought sales of some Danish products to a halt in Arab countries across the Middle East, while Danish interests came under attack.

A diverse group of Muslim activists has stirred a consumer uproar in one of Denmark's fastest-growing packaged-foods markets in a case pitting freedom of the press against religious sensitivity, and which is playing out in the arenas of diplomacy and global trade.

In recent days, Saudi Arabia and Libya have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, protests have been staged in places like Dubai, where they are virtually unheard of, and Arab and multinational companies have placed ads in Middle Eastern newspapers to deny any connection to Danish companies.

On Monday, Denmark called for its citizens in the Middle East to exercise extra vigilance. The Danish manufacturer, Arla Foods, which normally sells $1.5 million worth of dairy products a day in the region, announced that its sales there had come to a halt. And two of its employees in Saudi Arabia were beaten by angry customers, The Associated Press reported.

"This is a public uprising," said Louis Honore, a spokesman for Arla, Europe's second-largest dairy company. "This has spread through the region like wildfire. And the boycott has been practically 100 percent."

Other Danish companies reported dramatic sales declines as well. Trade between Denmark and the Persian Gulf amounts to about $1 billion per year, said Thomas Bay, the consul general of Denmark in Dubai.

"Consumers have a lot of power today," Bay said. "I'm a little shocked we were not able to settle this issue before."

The controversy has been simmering since the September 2005 publication by the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten of 12 caricatures depicting the Prophet Mohammed, including one that shows him wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb with a lit fuse. Islam strictly forbids depictions of the prophet.

Flemming Rose, the newspaper's culture editor, said the works were not intended to offend, and were in keeping with a tradition of satirical cartoons. "These were not directed against Muslims, but against people in cultural life in Europe who are submitting themselves to self-censorship when dealing with Islam," he said by telephone.

Muslim groups in Denmark, and then across the Middle East, demanded apologies from the newspaper and the Danish government.

Late Monday, the newspaper issued an apology. "The drawings are not against the Danish law but have indisputably insulted many Muslims, for which we shall apologize," the newspaper's statement said, according to Reuters.

Danish authorities have expressed regret, but have refused to take action. "We have freedom of the press and the government can't get involved in these kinds of matters," said Bay, the Danish consul.

Muslim activists say the government had essentially snubbed them, hoping the issue would go away. But in the last few days, it has taken on a life of its own.

Cell phone text messages have zipped throughout the region calling for a boycott and demonstrations. A boycott began in Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf countries.

On Sunday, Mohammed al-Dhaheri, the Emirates' minister of justice and Islamic affairs, called the cartoons "disgusting and irresponsible," in comments published by the official news agency, WAM.

Thousands of people rallied in Gaza on Monday and Tuesday, burning Danish flags and chanting "War on Denmark, Death to Denmark," Reuters reported.

In Dubai, Mohammad Danani, walking Monday night past an empty shelf where Danish cheeses are usually on display, expressed satisfaction. "I will cut them off 100 percent because there is no respect," he said. "It's no longer an issue of apologizing. Now, they have to learn their lesson."