Drawing the line
Danish Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen was sounded out on the Danish cartoon controversy in an interview by Al-Ahram Weekly Editor-in-Chief Assem El-Kersh
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly on where the lines should be drawn in the simmering debate over freedom of expression and reverence of the sacred, Danish Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen expressed a "sincere wish for friendship, dialogue and co- operation between our cultures". He explained his government's position in the wake of the crisis that erupted after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published offensive cartoons of Prophet Mohamed one of which depicted him as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban.
"I am deeply distressed that many Muslims have seen the drawings as a defamation of Prophet Mohamed."
Rasmussen called for the revival of dialogue between Europe and the Arab and Islamic worlds. He expressed grave concern about the repercussions of the printing of the offensive cartoons, but he also acknowledged that there was a cultural divide between the Muslim world and the West.
The Danish prime ministe, in his first encounter with an Arab paper, called for restraint and counseled mutual respect and understanding of the values and traditions of all cultures. In the interview, which was conducted both on the telephone and by e-mail, Rasmussen told Al-Ahram Weekly that his government strongly rejects any deliberate attack on Muslim sensibilities. "I addressed the issue extensively in my New Year's speech -- long before the calls for boycott began. I made it clear that the Danish government condemns any expression of any action, which offends people's religious feelings and that we condemn all expressions that attempts to demonise people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background."
He explained that the cultural divide must be bridged. "It is evident that we are dealing with core values in democracies and religious societies. The real challenge is to avoid a clash of values and cultures," he said.
"We all have a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. It is my firm belief that the only way ahead is a dialogue that allows us to strengthen our insight and understanding of each other. Mutual understanding is a must in today's globalised world."
The international controversy over the offensive Danish cartoons has intensified. According to reports, the Danish paper had previously turned down cartoons of Jesus because they were deemed too offensive.
Iran has embarked on a nationwide "holocaust cartoon" competition. And, an editor of a Danish newspaper said that he will publish the cartoons in the Iranian contest.
Rasmussen said that many "Danes are deeply saddened by the fact that an event in Denmark has caused this kind of distress among Muslim all over the world."
The Danish prime minister said that the consequences of the cartoon were a complete surprise. "In fact, the chief editor of the paper in question has announced that he would not have allowed the printing of the pictures had he been able to foresee the reactions we are now witnessing."
He explained that in Denmark cartoons are part of the culture of openness and political satire. He said that cartoonists typically make fun of everyone, but that no offense is intended.
"When people are depicted in caricatures in Denmark we do not consider it an attack. Satirical drawings are part of our tradition. What we have realised, however, is that people with other religious and cultural backgrounds may consider such depictions as an offense, even though this was not the intention.
"I think it is crucial to understand this cultural difference."