Sweden dragged into cartoon row

Caricatures of the prophet Muhammad on the website of Swedish far-right party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) have reportedly caused uproar in Syria, leading Swedish foreign minister Laila Freivalds to call on the party to act responsibly.

“We have freedom of the press in our country and everyone has to take responsibility in the context of freedom of the press, and I appreciate very much the responsibility shown by the Swedish media,” said Freivalds, following a meeting of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee at Stockholm’s Royal Palace.

“But there are those who still clearly want to offend and provoke in this way, and I think that they too ought to show some responsibility,” she added.

SD has invited sympathisers to send in their own caricatures of Mohammed, which will then be published on their site.

Asked whether Swedish diplomatic staff had received direct reactions to the caricature competition, Freivalds replied that she had received word of negative reactions.

“Up to now, I have only got information from Damascus, but I am afraid that [similar reactions] could come from other places.”

Freivalds did not give more specific information about who had given her information or whether the ‘reaction’ included any kind of threat to Swedish interests. She said only that “people” were upset in Damascus, where the Swedish embassy was burned out by rioters on Sunday.

“We have already noticed a reaction in certain countries, where there have already been reactions to the fact that SD have published these pictures on their website, and this could of course have extremely serious consequences for Swedes and Swedish interests,” she said.

SD writes on its homepage, on which caricatures have already been published, that more will be posted soon, but adds that it won’t show all of them, as some “are on the boundary of what is respectable.”

Laila Freivalds could not confirm US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement that Iran and Syria have “gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes.”

“I can’t judge exactly what has happened, but certain information points in that direction, although we have no such information in Sweden,” Freivalds said.

Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of the main opposition Moderate Party expressed support for Rice’s statement on Iran and Syria.

Liberal Party leader Lars Leijonborg repeated his argument that Sweden’s “clear position on freedom of speech” is laudable:

“We seek good relationships with Muslims, but a part of that is to protect freedom of speech.”

Leijonborg, Reinfeldt and Freivalds were all speaking after attending a meeting of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, which is chaired by King Carl XVI Gustaf.

During the meeting, Freivalds briefed committee members on the international row over the cartoons, and Sweden’s protest against Syria over the vandalized embassy. According to Freivalds, there was no discussion following her briefing.

In another development, a television station owned by Hezbollah broadcast a report on Thursday which claimed that Sweden had criticised the prophet Muhammad, Swedish Radio reported.

According to Johan Gärde, an expert in the sociology of religion based in Lebanon, the report was shown in prime time on the al-Manar channel, a large channel with millions of viewers in the Middle East and Europe.

One of the main claims in the report was that Sweden and a Swedish newspaper were depicting Muhammad to provoke and to show that “democracy is more important than religion,” Gärde told the Studio Ett programme.

Gärde said that the report is deeply worrying, adding that it is important that the Swedish government reacts and explains that Sverigedemokraterna do not represent Sweden as a whole.

TT/The Local