"Behead the one who insults the prophet," read one placard a Muslim protester held at a weekend demonstration here against cartoon depictions of Islam's prophet Muhammad. "Butcher those who mock Islam," and "Be Prepared for the Real Holocaust," read other signs. One demonstrator wore a mock suicide vest, seven months after four suicide bombers killed themselves and 52 other people in London.
These protesters are now at the center of an impassioned debate here about whether British police should arrest them for inciting violence. Moderate Muslim leaders have joined in condemning the extremists and calling for their arrest.
"Let us be clear," David Davis, a leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said Monday. "Placards carrying the slogans calling for people who insult Islam to be 'beheaded' or 'massacred' or 'annihilated' are direct incitements to violence." Davis added, "I do expect that action should be taken against those who have clearly incited violence, and taken soon."
A police spokeswoman said Monday that police officers have to consider the effect on public order that immediate arrests could trigger. She also said that police have videotape of the protests held Friday and Saturday and that if arrests are made they would be done at "the appropriate time."
But while some people praised Scotland Yard for judiciously avoiding violence by not arresting extremists on the spot, others said they feared that police are so worried about Muslim violence they are backing off enforcement of the country's laws.
"Of course there is a double standard," said Phil Edwards, a spokesman for the anti-immigration British National Party, whose leader was put on trial and acquitted of charges of inciting racial hatred for calling Islam a "wicked, vicious faith." Edwards said while its people were prosecuted for saying such words, the Muslim protesters "say they are going to kill us all and the police do nothing. It's pathetic."
Many of the national newspapers entered the fray Monday. "Nick him," screamed the Sun's front page, saying the police should arrest Omar Khayam, a 22-year-old protester who dressed as a suicide bomber.
After being initially quoted saying, "I can't make any apologies for it," Khayam stood outside his Bedford home Monday, under mounting pressure, and apologized. He said the cartoons of the prophet Muhammadwere "deeply offensive," but that "by me dressing the way I did, I did just that, exactly the same as the Danish newspaper, if not worse."
The cartoons were first published in Denmark and more recently in newspapers in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and other European countries.
Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen by phone to lend support, according to his spokesman, who by tradition is not identified in the news media.
"The attacks on the citizens of Denmark and the people of other European countries are completely unacceptable, as is the behavior of some of the demonstrators in London over the last few days," a statement from Blair's office said. It also said the Danish government "has done everything it reasonably can to handle a very difficult situation."
Many moderate Muslims denounced the extremists in the demonstrations. They noted that only a small number carried hateful signs such as "Europe, your 9/11 will come." Some protesters also chanted "Bomb USA, Bomb UK" and "We want Danish blood."
Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said in an interview that "there was no doubt" that some protesters had crossed the line to "a clear incitement to violence." He said the police acted responsibly in not arresting them immediately because it deprived the radicals of the chance to "declare themselves as martyrs in defense of the prophet."
‘Genuine sense of hurt’
He said it was a shame that extremists "exploited" the protest that was an expression of "a genuine sense of hurt and distress" caused by the cartoons. Bunglawala said a positive step to calm the violence would be for the newspapers that published the cartoons to issue a joint statement that "recognized the hurt" they caused. "While not illegal, it was an error of judgment," he said.
Asghar Bukhari, chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, called the protesters holding the offending placards "a bunch of thugs." He said in an interview that police should take action against them: "I can't believe they haven't broken the law." A real tragedy, he said, would be for non-Muslims to believe that these radicals represented most Muslims and come away thinking "these barbarians don't understand our way.
"Then, those who would like a clash of civilizations will have had their day," he said.