Muhammad the Roundabout Dog and Jihad Jane makes the News

This weeks news was dominated by the arrest of seven persons in Ireland planning to assassinate the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Vilks became the focus of Muslim protests in 2007, when the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published his drawing of “Muhammad as a Roundabout dog”. Ever since the original publication Vilks has been receiving threats from various people and groups (claiming to be) of Muslim background. Even so he doesn’t seem that concerned. Commenting on al-Qaida’s 100.000 dollar reward in 2007 Vilks said he “appreciate that the terrorists are showing an interest in art.”

Tuesdays arrest in Ireland in general, and the now internationally infamous “Jihad Jane” a.k.a Colleen LaRose in particular, has emulated hundreds of articles, news specials, and radio shows in Sweden during the week. There has also been (unconfirmed) speculations about LaRose being in Sweden already in 2009 to assassinate Vilks.

LaRose’s face, and Vilks on the porch to his house, axe in hand, saying he regrets nothing and is able to defend himself – has dominated Swedish newspapers. “The new terrorist is blond and blue-eyed” read Thursdays headlines in the freely distributed tabloid Metro. “There’s no longer a template to follow looking for terrorists,” said David Livingstone of the Brittish think tank Chatham House in the same publication. And Dagens Nyheter knew to report that “Terrorists are now trying to recruit westerners.”

Dagens Nyheter and Expressen, amongst others, also chose to re-publish Vilks’ drawing in their printed editions Thursday March 10 (but not on the online edition). Expressen’s editor in chief Håkan Mattson says the re-publication of the drawing is “a standpoint for the freedom of speach”, and the editorial in Dagens Nyheter read that “a threat against Lars Vilks is a threat against every Swedish citizen.”

Many Swedish Muslims have (once again) felt a need to oppose the threats against Vilks. For example Imam Othman Al Tawalbeh says “We can’t let the terrorists kidnap Islam”, parliament member Nalin Pekgul defends Vilks’ right to speak his mind, and Bejzat Becirov of Islamic Center in Malmö stressed that “Vilks is allowed to draw whatever he wants, there is no excuse use violence or to threaten him.” Even so Sylvia Asklöf Fortell of Barometern writes in an editorial that it’s now time for Swedish “moderate Muslims” to speak up against the terrorists.

On national television (SVT Gomorron Sverige, March 11) and radio (P1 morgon, March 10; P3 Brunchrapporten, March 11) Historian of Religion David Thurfjell of Södertörn University, argued that Muslim indignation caused by the drawing, needs to be understood in relation to a more general experience of humiliation, the roots of which can be found in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Thurfjell argued that there is a discrepancy in the understanding of the issue at stake. Where most publicists in Sweden see the conflict as concerning the principles of free speech, many Muslims interpret Vilks’ drawing in the light of a larger political conflict. For these Muslims the oft repeated argument that newspapers now again should insult Muslims by re-publishing the drawings in order to take a stand for democratic values, echos of the American rhetoric surrounding the invasion of Iraq and other instances in which exploitation of Muslim countries have been carried out in the name of democracy.

Swedes in al-Shabaab training camps

According to the publication Dagens Nyheter, phone threats to artist Lars Vilks – who in 2007 drew a picture of Muhammad as a dog – came from al-Shabab in Somalia.

Representatives from al-Shabab have been in Sweden to recruit and collect money in mosques in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmoe. Swedish secret police (SÄPO) claim about twenty Swedish-Somalis have traveled to Somalia; some have died and at least ten are participating in al-Shabab camps and in military battles in Somalia.

Swedish-Somalia spokespersons say about 80 percent of Sweden’s Somali population is against al-Shabab, but are afraid to be open about their critique. Last week Swedish-Somali spokespersons asked for help to deal with extremist Islamist forces within the Somali group.

Muslim stereotypes in Swedish media

In Dagens Nyheter (independent) journalist and writer Dilsa Demirbag-Sten claims Swedish media is promoting stereotypical representations of Muslims, and confusing Muslims and Islam. Islam gets to be represented by what she says to be “Islamist” images, because “secular, cultural and atheist Muslims don’t show enough an interest in religion”. By letting Islamists represent Islam – Swedish politicians and media help empower non-democratic forces within society – Demirbag-Sten claims.

The same day Svenska Dagbladet (independent moderate/conservative) published a feature on Muslim diversity in Sweden. Ten Muslims of different denominations (Sufi, feminist-atheist, convert, secular, traditionalist, etc.) talk about their relations to Islam.

Svenska Dagbladet acknowledged the problem, and states that Muslim diversity needs better representation in the daily news.