A step closer
A year after the Danish cartoon crisis, the debate rages on but, as Gihan Shahine found out in Denmark, efforts to bridge gaps are underway
The day we arrived in Denmark, freezing weather notwithstanding, we were met with a surprisingly hearty welcome. "It was so warm and sunny only yesterday," the taxi driver noted as he drove us to Copenhagen city centre, from airport to hotel. His voice was warm too. "We never had that kind of conflict before those stupid cartoons appeared," he observed of Danish-Muslim relations (some four per cent of the Danish population are Muslim). "We've all had to pay the price." A year after the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons ridiculing Prophet Mohamed, one of which portrayed him with a bomb in his turban, the wounds have yet to heal. Two weeks ago, a controversial, government-supported poll with a sample of 1,000 Egyptians over 18 years of age, in fact, found Denmark the worst enemy of Egypt, after Israel. Many Danes take similar issue with their Muslim counterparts on the grounds that a daily newspaper should enjoy freedom of expression, however critical of the cartoons they might be.
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A wave of protests in Turkey and Egypt in the wake of the Danish cartoon crisis a year ago; Imam Ahmed Abu Laban, director of the Muslim Faith Society in Copenhagen, preaching to Muslims living in Denmark
Toger Seidenfaden, Executive Editor-in- Chief of Politiken, one of Denmark's leading daily newspapers, says, "We defend [the cartoonists'] right to do it, but we don't support it because we have [different] values." He went on to say that, "underneath, Danish society is very divided over the cartoon crisis, though the majority think what the Jyllands-Posten did was not bad". A recent court ruling found the chief and cultural editors of Jyllands- Posten not guilty of racism for publishing the cartoons on 26 October; the Danish attorney general had previously decided not to press criminal charges against the daily under racism and blasphemy laws; the latter have largely not been in use in a secular society, but it remains questionable whether charges of racism could be so readily dismissed, especially in the light of the editorial accompanying them, which stated that they were meant to be provocative. Non-official sources explained the logic of the verdict: the offence was directed at "a historical personality" rather than a group of people, ignoring the fact that Mohamed with a bomb in his turban played to the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist. Indeed many Danish Muslims see the ruling as biased -- an effective green light to those who want to insult Islam. According to Seidenfaden, while "nobody has been condemned for blasphemy since 1938... because our society became so liberal and permissive people don't get angry about anything", the fact that "[the Jyllands-Posten ] wouldn't do the same to Christians or Jews" is proof that the cartoons reflected a growing Islamophobia. Indeed the cultural editor responsible claimed he would publish anti-Christian and anti-Semetic cartoons the following day, but within two hours the chief editor had declared, "We'd never do that."
The crisis also triggered a heated debate on the condition of immigrants and immigration laws. "A lot of people have various degrees of prejudice against Islam," Seidenfaden said matter-of-factly. Apart from lack of knowledge, "the fact that the largest group of immigrants come from Muslim countries and with that much talk about Islamic fundamentalism and war on terror, a lot of people would say yes, it is a war with Islam, a clash of civilisations". The media, in Seidenfaden's view, is largely biased in a negative direction, but Muslims, he insisted, "had also undermined their case with all the flag and embassy burning which would immediately prove claims that Islam is a violent religion". Indeed many Danes were particularly critical of Muslim "overreaction". Seidenfaden noted that [Muslim] people acted very reasonably in the first two weeks of the crisis, when they organised peaceful protests and boycotts, "creating very great pressure on the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen," who had refused to apologise for the cartoons, "leaving him very isolated with almost nobody supporting him". But when some protests turned violent, "at this exact moment, when he [the prime minister] was in big trouble, he was saved as people started to think there was no reason why they should support Muslims any more." Having said that, Seidenfaden realises why Muslims -- suffering discrimination and bad treatment -- should be "too sensitive".
For his part Zubeir Hussein, spokesman for the Muslim in Dialogue NGO, confirmed such prejudice, saying that being a Muslim in Denmark is a "stigma": "It means you are a foreigner who needs to integrate, an enemy rather than an asset to society." Hussein is 32 years old, born and bred in Denmark, but he says he is still sometimes made to feel "a foreigner" -- something the crisis threw into relief. "Why bring religion into it," he exclaimed. "If society wants to be secular, they should leave us to ourselves." Hussein concedes that there are "bad Muslims" who misrepresent Islam, but questions the media focus on "the bad apples when both Muslim and non-Muslim societies have the same share of bad apples. The media, for instance, will focus on the veil issue, saying it is oppressing women and discussing whether it should be banned in schools as is now the case in France. If this is a society that supports freedom, then let me have the same freedom as every Dane. I'd be the first to support the freedom of speech, but I see a huge importance in using that freedom responsibly. Abusing freedom of expression is the real threat to its existence".
The seven Islamic organisations that filed the lawsuit against Jyllands-Posten will appeal the ruling in a higher court, but the very meaning of democracy will remain the bone of contention, both within societies and between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. On both sides of the divide, many Danes agree that "journalists should be responsible and professional, using that immense power in their hands in a way that would conform with reality and thus not inflict disintegration and create sectarian strife", as Aiden White, chairman of the International Federation of Journalists, told a conference held in the city of Nyborg on 5 November. Muslims, according to prominent Islamic scholar Tareq Ramadan, "are not used to laughing at religion, our own or anybody else's", and so "the average Muslim and not just radicals will immediately regard the cartoons as a transgression against something sacred, a provocation against Islam". For many Danes, nothing is holy as to be immune to criticism. And ignorance of Islam in Denmark has only widened the gap. A fortnight ago, however, the first authoritative Danish translation of the Qur'an appeared: "A lot of Danes are eager to know about Islam, for good or bad reasons, and although the cartoon battle should be over, there are so many incidents that push it up again," Seidenfaden says. The problem, in the view of both Seidenfaden and Hussein, is that there are those politicians who are trying to use these issues to their political advantage. "They create an enemy and mobilise the people to fight it," Seidenfaden explained, warning that "indulging in the politics of the enemy contains danger." He has a far more apposite suggestion: "We should talk about actual problems instead..."
On the public level, both Muslim and non-Muslim Danes seemed keen on maintaining a warm relationship. Katrine, the owner of a shop in Copenhagen's Vestebro Street, where many Muslim immigrants live, attested to such warmth saying that Muslim and non-Muslim Danes "are friends and neighbours and there is no room for conflict" in the area where she lives. Her friend Bianca nodded her approval: "We were surprised by the Muslim rough reactions because we are used to saying whatever we want here and we don't have anything holy, but now I understand Muslims felt angry because for them a holy religious symbol was ridiculed." An optimistic Imam, Ahmed Abu Laban, the religious director of the Muslim Faith Society in Copenhagen, similarly shrugged off cultural differences as resolvable since "it is always in our capacity as human beings to overcome disputes and bridge gaps". Abu Laban mentioned many incidences in support of his argument. Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen, who had announced he cannot control independent media, was quick to denounce a recent video display by the Danish People's Party ridiculing Prophet Mohamed as "unacceptable" footage that "in no way represents the way the Danish people view Muslims or Islam". He further organised a meeting with 12 Muslim ambassadors he had previously refused to meet. A recent public poll by the Danish government has also revealed a retreat in the popularity of the far-right party which, according to poll estimates, is expected to lose at least seven mandates in the coming parliamentary elections. "In the past two days we saw seasonal winds and today we see things are back to normal," Abu Laban said with a confident smile. "We shouldn't let any broker exhaust our feelings in a negative way and rather try to overcome prejudices."
But who that broker is remains an open question. In fact, the cartoon crisis seems to have provoked a spate of conspiracy theories on both sides. Many analysts speculated that some hidden powers had escalated the crisis and mobilised the Muslim public against Denmark in search of some political gains; others pointed out that protests did not erupt except four months after publication. Like many Arab analysts, Christopher Bollyn of the American Free Press suspects a Zionist conspiracy intended to drive a wedge between the West and the Muslim world, so that Arab countries would lose a Scandinavian ally; they built the theory on the fact that Jyllands-Posten cultural editor Flemming Rose is a colleague and fellow of the Zionist Neo-Con Daniel Pipes. Others accused Arab regimes of manipulating the crisis to regain long lost popularity among their peoples. Secularists like Ibrahim Ramadan, a board member of the Democratic Muslim in Denmark, insist that Abu Laban and his Islamist allies from the international Mulsim Brotherhood and Jihad, have manipulated the case to boost their popularity and attain political gains. For his part Seidenfaden is more upset with the Danish government, insisting that the crisis would not have exploded if not for the prime minister's refusal to meet the 12 ambassadors: "What was required was very simple. The prime minister should have simply made it clear that the cartoons do not represent the values or policies of Danish government or society; because deliberately offending religious symbols couldn't be the policy of any government." Abu Laban, however, insists on seeing the crisis as "a cultural issue with no political winners -- the natural development of a unilateral culture that has largely quit the church and clung to secularism, and as such, is weary of any Islamic intrusion. Europeans are now allergic to religion, they don't like to talk about it and consider it a personal matter," he went on. Still, the crisis has had some positive results: "The Danes expressed their support for freedom of expression and we expressed our great love for our Prophet."