Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Interview
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No laughing matter

Like a snowball that stubbornly refuses to melt, the storm surrounding the Danish cartoons has blown out of all proportions, engulfing both the Muslim world and the West in yet another chapter in the clash of civilisations. Danish Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen outlines his government's position to Assem El-Kersh, but falls short of issuing a clear apology

Click to view caption
"I think it is crucial that freedom of expression is always combined with freedom of religion and respect of religious feelings and beliefs ... My government condemns any expression and any action that offends people's religious feelings."

Drawing the line

From Damascus to Kandahar

Grapes of wrath

Double standards

Prophetic misreading

Readers' corner

Touch of hypocrisy


The cartoons issue has certainly hurt Denmark's image in Arab and Muslim countries. What is your assessment of the damage -- in both political and economic terms -- and how do you intend to deal with it?

The Danish government is deeply distressed about the grievances the drawings of the Prophet Mohamed have caused in the Muslim world. There is a long-standing tradition for good relations between Denmark and the Muslim world at all levels -- politically, economically and culturally. We cherish this tradition and will do our utmost to guard it. We are in close contact with our Arab, European and other international partners in order to find solutions to this situation just as we try to reach the Muslim public through interviews on satellite networks and the press in the region. Some days ago, the Danish newspaper apologised for the offence caused by the drawings, and I hope that this apology will contribute to a constructive solution, and restore the image of Denmark and the Danish people as a tolerant society with respect for Islam.

Can you elaborate on how the boycott has affected your economy?

First of all, I think it is much too early to make any assessment of the impact on the Danish economy. Obviously, some Danish companies trading with Arab countries may suffer from the boycott of Danish goods. Whether this will be a long-term loss or an intermediate loss we don't know. Whether the companies will find new markets, we don't know. But in the short term, of course it has a negative impact. However, the Danish economy is very strong. The economic growth rate is very high, and unemployment is low, so I feel confident that we will recover soon from this, as we have other markets. But I would like to underline that we very much appreciate our long tradition of trade with the Middle East, and would be very pleased to resume normal trade relations with Middle Eastern countries.

How helpful was the announcement by the European Commission, today, that it will take measures against those countries boycotting your products?

We very much appreciate the support we have gotten from our partners and allies. When an EU member is confronted by a boycott, this will be considered a boycott of the entire EU, and it is of course a boost for a small country like Denmark that we are supported by our 24 partners in the EU.

So you don't think it unnecessarily complicates the situation?

No, on the contrary, I think it will contribute positively to finding a solution to all this. It is in the interest of [both] Arab and European countries to find a solution, because we have striven to strengthen economic relations between the EU and the Middle East and North Africa for years now, and we wouldn't like to see severe repercussions of this crisis as far as trade is concerned. So I think a common EU position on this will contribute positively to finding a solution. And let me also draw your attention to a political aspect of this. Yesterday the EU, UN and Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued a joint statement that called on everybody to find a solution to this through dialogue and tolerance, and not through violence. I think that's very helpful. This joint statement shows that we do realise that many Muslims see these cartoons as a defamation of the Prophet Mohamed, and I am personally deeply distressed by the fact that many Muslims see it as such.

You're saying that you personally see it as defamation?

I'm deeply distressed that many Muslims have seen the drawings as a defamation of the Prophet Mohamed, and this is also the message in this joint statement. I underline it as a joint statement including the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which can provide a good basis for finding a solution to all of this.

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the impression is that the Danish government only reacted after the boycott of Danish goods took off. Why did it take you that long to respond?

We have worked hard to find a solution for several months. I addressed the issue extensively in my New Year's speech -- that is long before the calls for boycott began. I made it clear that the Danish government condemns any expression and any action which offends people's religious feelings and that we condemn all expressions that attempt to demonise people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background. Moreover, we have been in close contact with all our partners in the Muslim and Western world to seek to find a solution ever since the publication of the drawings.

Knowing what you know now, would you have handled the issue differently?

No, I don't think so. The government has been in continuous dialogue with the Muslim community in Denmark even before this unfortunate development, as well as after the publication of the drawings. The government also held meetings with the ambassadors of the countries that complained about the drawings.

It took you some time to do this though

The foreign minister had a meeting with the ambassadors. They sent me a letter, in which they asked me to take legal steps against the newspaper that published the cartoons, but according to the Danish constitution, the government has no means to take legal steps against a newspaper that acts legally within the framework of Danish legislation, and I answered politely that I couldn't take such legal steps. However, I stressed the importance of respect for religious beliefs. I stressed the necessity of positive dialogue based on mutual understanding. After that the foreign minister had a meeting with the ambassadors. The drawings were published in late September; we worked hard to find a solution, we had a good dialogue, and I addressed the issue in my New Year's speech. My message was positively received by most governments in the Middle East, so we had a clear impression that the problem has been resolved, and then suddenly the problem escalated for one reason or the other.

Paris had its race riots, now it looks to be Copenhagen's turn: is the cultural gap between the West and the Muslim world widening? Is the damage now beyond repair, and what should be done to help bridge the gap?

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. 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. For centuries, Denmark has been a firm supporter of free trade and exchange of ideas as a way to foster friendship and prosperity between all nations. Freedom of expression should always be combined with freedom of religion and respect between religions and cultures. Those are fundamental values in Danish society -- and in many other societies. The same basic values should guide relations between our nations and cultures. I believe that the free exchange of goods and ideas while -- at the same time -- understanding and tolerating the view of other people and cultures, would allow us all to benefit from today's globalised world. This philosophy lies behind the programme "Partnership for Progress and Reform" launched by my government in 2003. One of the principal objectives of this programme is to strengthen dialogue and understanding between Denmark and the Arab world.

Do you believe you have done enough? How far do you think your government understands the anger over the cartoons?

It is evident that cultural differences have played a role here. Due to our tradition of seeing satire as a harmless tool in the public debate, I think it has taken the Danish public by surprise to see the reactions of the Muslim world to the drawings. As I said, there was never an intention to offend anybody, and both I, the Danish paper in question and many, many Danes are deeply saddened by the fact that an event in Denmark has caused this kind of distress among Muslims all over the world. 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. Since the drawings were published, we have been in close contact with our partners in the Muslim world and in Europe and elsewhere to find a solution. The foreign minister and I are in continuous dialogue with our partners to find a constructive and swift solution to this issue. We are also conducting a close dialogue with the Arab public through satellite networks and the printed press to assure the Muslim public that Denmark and the Danish people hold a deep respect for all religions, including Islam, and want to strengthen our political, economic and cultural ties with the Muslim world. We are working around-the-clock to restore our relations with the Arab and wider Muslim world. As a matter of fact we have for some time been planning to organise a government-sponsored festival in 2006 called "Images of the Middle East". The aim of this festival is to create the platform for innovative dialogue and cultural cooperation with the Middle East. Thus, both cultural events and mutual visits are elements we are considering, just as continued Danish political and economic support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state is an element in our efforts.

With waves of mounting fury sweeping through the Arab and Islamic worlds, an expression of goodwill or regret on your part does not seem enough to placate the Muslim public. Are you willing to address the apology question in a way that calms the storm?

The Danish government will do its utmost to restore good relations with the Muslim world. We will continue to engage with all parties concerned -- governments in the region, political and religious leaders and the Arab public -- to reestablish the dialogue. The Danish newspaper has decided to apologise for the offence caused by the cartoons, and we hope that this apology will contribute to a constructive solution.

Perhaps it's time to activate the Danish law -- frozen for over a century -- banning the incitement of religious passions?

Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of a blasphemous or discriminatory nature, and offenders can be brought before court. In the case of the 12 drawings of the Prophet Mohamed, a complaint has been lodged. This complaint is currently under investigation by the director of public prosecutions.

So you are saying that freedom of speech is not unlimited in Denmark?

Well, that's correct -- we do have some limitations of the freedom of speech. According to Danish legislation, racist and blasphemous expression is not allowed. But in a country like Denmark, based on rule of law, it's up to the courts to judge whether the law is applied or not. It is not up to the government, which has no means to interfere with the media. But if people feel offended, they can bring the case to court, and then it is up to the court to decide whether the law has been violated or not.

My understanding is that the law was frozen because of the stand taken by some rightist parties that are actually in your government's coalition...

No, this is very old legislation. It has not been changed. So the rules have been in Danish legislation for generations now.

Would you support a formula that commits the media to a "responsible approach" regarding other people's sensitivities?

I think it is crucial that freedom of expression is always combined with freedom of religion and respect of religious feelings and beliefs. I have stressed that the government condemns any expression and any action that offends people's religious feelings, and that we condemn all expressions that attempt to demonise people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background. It is important for me to stress that the government has no authority to control or interfere with the press. However, as part of the Partnership for Progress and Reform we already have a very important media-twinning programme, where journalists and filmmakers from Denmark and the Arab world are cooperating, and in this way learning more about each other's worlds.

This crisis has inspired a debate about the border between freedom of speech and the necessity of protecting the sacred. Would you support a move to issue a United Nations resolution protecting the sacred?

Well, I haven't seen any concrete proposal, but of course we will protect religions, and we're strong believers in the freedom of religions, including respect for all faiths [in the] course [of finding] the right balance between freedom of expression and religious beliefs.

The Arab world is curious about the potential public reaction to the publication in Danish papers of anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli material, such as, for example, a denial of the holocaust?

When people are depicted in caricatures in Denmark, we do not consider it an attack. There is no intention to offend anybody. 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 an offence, even though this was really not the intention. Personally, I would never depict religious figures in a way that would hurt other people's feelings, but I think it is crucial to understand this cultural difference. In Denmark we have a strong tradition of free and open debate in which we use drawings and caricatures. But I believe it is crucial that freedom of expression is always combined with freedom of religion and respect of religious feelings and beliefs.

What would you say are the most important lessons to be drawn from this unfortunate incident -- for you personally, for the media, and for Muslims the world over?

I think the most important lesson is that mutual understanding and mutual respect are crucial values and very important. Mutual understanding and inter-cultural understanding are very important. In our societies, we have a tradition of wide ranging freedom of expression, and in my country we speak freely and openly and straightforward[ly], and we are used to doing that without offending each other. We use drawings and cartoons, and we don't consider them an offence. On the contrary, we very often consider cartoons -- for instance cartoons of a politician -- a big honour. Very often drawings and cartoons are used to convey a message in a more modified way; that's how we think. But politicians are very different from prophets, I would say, of course, and this is the other side of it. I think we have to understand that members of religious communities may feel offended by such drawings and cartoons. I think one of the lessons is that we must be very careful to exercise freedom of expression in such a way that we don't hurt people's feelings. It is always a balance. As you know, freedom of expression is a cornerstone in our society, but freedom of religion is also a cornerstone. And freedom of religion implies respect for religious beliefs.

But the way you're reacting might not be having the effect you want. Yes, we understand there have been many attempts made, but people are angry and probably feel your moves were insincere. Words like regret or sorrow are not really apologies, after all. A sincere, clear, and deeply felt statement that shows that you don't condone what happened might make more of a difference.

I would very much like to make this statement in writing to your readers, but of course you understand that neither the government, nor the Danish people, can be held responsible for what has been published.

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