Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Now Danes respect Muslims'

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Islamic preacher Amr Khaled tells Gihan Shahine about the results of the controversial Copenhagen conference

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Amr Khaled

Amr Khaled, the 38-year-old superstar Islamic preacher, sits back in his big armchair and smiles confidently at the criticism over the recent Copenhagen interfaith "Know- Prophet" conference, which he launched in the wake of the cartoons that lampooned Prophet Mohamed. The event was held on 9 and 10 March in cooperation with 42 prominent preachers and Islamic scholars, including Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa.

The Danish conference, Khaled's latest effort at co-existence with the West, sparked a storm of controversy among scholars, with many lambasting it as an unnecessary compromise that would potentially put an end to Muslim protests and boycotts.

The conference, which involved dialogue between 25 carefully chosen Muslim youths and their Danish peers, concluded with recommendations, including the establishment of a cultural centre in Denmark, adding some information on Islam in school textbooks and promoting di alogue with various parties.

How do you see the storm of criticism over the Copenhagen conference?

"I no longer have to give answers -- this piece of paper would sum it all."

[ Khaled is referring to an article by Islamonline on a press conference urging a Danish apology based on the knowledge of Prophet Mohamed -- "not just a written paper or an issued statement". The conference was launched by a group of Islamic scholars who organised the Bahrain conference on the support of Prophet Mohamed held on 22 and 23 March, and who were also the main critics of Khaled's "Know-Prophet" initiative. The conference seemed to end where Khaled started -- that the cartoon crisis should be invested to introduce a true picture of Prophet Mohamed.]

We found the cartoon crisis to be a golden opportunity that may not occur again to introduce a true picture of our prophet to the West, where at least five million Danes were eager, for the first time ever, to hear about Islam. We wanted to eliminate misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam and abort attempts by antagonists to Islam to attract neutral non-Muslims to their side and alienate Muslims. We also wanted to get to know the Danes and how they perceived the offensive drawings.

Some critics argued that the conference would compromise the rights of Muslims, put an end to public protests and boycotts, and abort other, perhaps more sophisticated efforts in that respect.

Without protests, we would not have had the chance to initiate dialogue, which did not stop the protests. We did not go [to Denmark] to negotiate in the name of Muslims or the Muslim world. We grabbed the opportunity to introduce our religion and foster the idea of co-existence. Our mission was informative and was not, by any means, meant to put an end to boycotts or protests.

The conference adopted very balanced and uncompromising rhetoric showing that popular protests and boycotts are legitimate and will not stop until Muslims see true signs of respect toward their religion. [Kuwaiti preacher] Tareq El-Suweidan made it clear [at the conference] that Muslims do not accept that their prophet be insulted and that freedom of speech does not mean insulting religions.

Our plan was to launch a popular initiative and a positive step that does not abort but rather integrates with the roles of governments and scholars. We wanted to reach out to people and thus we targeted youths, the media, Danish intellectuals and political parties.

As a popular initiative, the conference was hosted by the non-governmental Danish Youths Council, which involves universities and clubs including 800,000 Danish youths, and the Danish Institute for International Dialogue. Arab businessmen volunteered to finance the effort, including [the pan-Arab] ART satellite channel.

And while we were talking to the Danish public, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gole was discussing the same issue with officials from the Danish government in Austria. This is one good example of how roles and efforts integrate.

How far do you think you succeeded in your mission?

The conference was only a starting point, a practical step forward that, as has been said, complements other roles. We did not do miracles, but I would safely say that we were able to introduce Islam in a positive way that made us win 'the other' to our side.

Now I can attest to a friendly, peace-loving Danish nation which respects Muslims and is ashamed of what happened.

We managed to use modern technology to liaise with at least 800,000 youths via the Internet and get them engaged in the conference discussions while having 60 satellite channels covering the conference and having interviews with us. The conference was the first news item on Danish TV Channel 1, and I had some 35 to 40 interviews with the international press, including The New York Times, Financial Times and the BBC.

[ Khaled produced a translation of what was written in Danish and other international newspapers in support of his argument ]

It was enough for us to see the Danish daily Politican describing Islam as a religion that fosters ethics of tolerance, peaceful co-existence and respect for human diversity. The same newspaper described Prophet Mohamed as a great man and said the Danish government should do something about the cartoon crisis.

At least 800,000 young Danes heard about Prophet Mohamed from a true Islamic perspective and tuned into a debate we had with 3,000 members from the extreme Danish right- wing. The debate did not reach a certain conclusion, but I would say that the Danish participants positively interacted in the dialogue, applauded our addresses and were ashamed of what happened.

We took a taxi and, to our surprise, found the driver tuned to a live radio translation of an address by [Yemeni preacher] Al-Habib Ali relating incidents from the life of Prophet Mohamed and how his companions loved him more than they loved their sons. We were happy to find the media covering a 20-minute address by [Kuwaiti preacher] Tareq Al-Suweidan on the great ethics Islam teaches like mercy, tolerance and mutual respect. It was equally gratifying to find the Danish daily Berlingske saying the Danes had always perceived Muslims in the position of reaction, but that this time they are the ones initiating action while the Danes are reacting.

The Danish youths said good-bye with tears in their eyes, saying that now they have a different picture about Islam. They expressed regret, asked Muslim youths to forgive them and not to blame them for other people's faults.

I was very happy to find a Danish man coming over to shake hands with me in the airport in Denmark, saying that "now Danes respect Muslims."

Isn't that enough?

But did the Danish government react positively or take any steps?

It is too early to tell because governments are usually slow in moving. But we sent the Danish government the recommendations which youths themselves agreed upon in the conference.

What's next?

The conference was only one first step [toward bridging gaps]. There are other efforts in the pipeline. A youth exchange programme with Denmark has already started and an Islamic concert will soon be held in the heart of Copenhagen University where British Muslim singer Sami Youssef will be performing.

How about receiving an official apology from the Danish government which was called for by conference participants?

It is very unlikely that the Danish government will apologise. I believe it would be useless anyway for the Danish government to provide a written apology now that one-fifth of humankind has been deeply hurt. I think the Danish government should think of other ways to heal these deep wounds, by showing true respect and passion to Islam and Muslims.

Qatar-based Egyptian Islamic scholar Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who heads the European Council on Fatwa and Research, argued that the cartoon crisis is a great opportunity for the revival and unity of Muslim nations and as such considers any initiative for dialogue now as potentially "breaking the momentum of the Muslim nation awakening for the sake of Denmark". What do you think about that?

There are two schools of thought: one that confronts attacks and one that rather focuses on building the future. Both schools are respectable, but it is my right to focus on building the future. We have to ask ourselves what we want: co- existence or conflict? What is in Muslims' best interest? Can we have a renaissance in the presence of continued, non-stop, conflicts?

Co-existence does not mean that we do not confront attacks. But the danger lies in the fact that the awakening of the Muslim nation does not occur except in the pattern of conflict. At the time of Prophet Mohamed those who adopted Islam in times of peace were many times the number of those adopting it in times of wars and conflicts. That is one proof that Islam flourishes in peace.

A serious deficit in freedom in the Arab world is what actually impedes the awakening of the Ummah (Islamic nations). Protests and boycotts were all legitimate means of expressing anger, but protests should persist only to awaken the Islamic world.

Besides, it sounds illogical that the Danish crisis -- which involved the humiliation of one- fifth of the global population -- would get bogged down in side issues or boil down to a conflict between two schools of thought. And we hope the press does not take advantage of that.

Many agree that a serious absence of leadership opened the door wide for some extremists to turn the cartoon row into violent attacks that further tarnished the image of Muslims. Why didn't you step earlier into the fray?

Well, another journalist has just been asking me why I made haste starting a debate [Khaled laughed]. I went on air right after the protests started and said 'yes' to the protests but in a positive way that would conform with Islamic teachings and please our prophet. That was before the first attack on Danish embassies.

Nations moved instinctively to defend their prophet without getting any direction from anybody. In my view, the protests were an essential factor that led to dialogue that otherwise would not have existed. Protests had to remain alive for two or three weeks to ring alarm bells that danger was around the corner. Without that alarm no one would have been ready to listen to us. And had we moved for a dialogue at that time, we would have, in that case, compromised the nations' rights to protest and aborted all efforts.

But why didn't you do anything earlier in September when the cartoons were first published?

The entire Ummah did not realise what happened until the cartoon row swelled into a crisis. I, for one, did not expect it. All I did was to present a true image about the life of Prophet Mohamed in my Ramadan programme "In the Footsteps of the Beloved".

Our Islamic world has been suffering from an accumulation of weakness, oppression, and humiliation which all blew up in the Denmark crisis. There are miseries in Iraq and Palestine and people suffer from a serious absence of freedom, justice and rights. Our Arab world is to blame for the lack of freedom while the West is to blame for the absence of justice.

Some critics, like prominent Al-Ahram columnist Fahmi Howeidi, said that dialogue includes sophisticated issues of co-existence and freedom of speech that may go beyond your role and experience as a preacher. Would you take that advice into consideration?

As an accountant I was similarly advised not to work in preaching. So with due respect to Mr Howeidi -- from whom I would like to hear more advice -- it is I who should decide what to do.

My interest in this issue [dialogue with the West] stems from my prime interest and goal in life -- to act as a catalyst for a renaissance that cannot be obtained in the presence of conflicts. I think I'm heading toward that goal through my "Life Makers" programme. The 25 youths who participated in the conference were more than presentable and we should not look down on the efforts [of youths who represent] 60 per cent of the Muslim population.

But why didn't you join forces with other efforts by experienced Islamic organisations which are based in the West or with the Muslim community in Denmark?

Simply because I'm not a member of any of these organisations. I had other scholars involved in the initiative including the Egyptian and Syrian houses of fatwa (religious edict), the Emirates-based Islamic Taba Institution, and prominent scholars like Dr Said El-Booti and Dr Abla El-Kahlawi.

I was not obliged to organise the event with the Muslim community in Denmark because I did not go as a negotiator in their name or anybody else's.

What happened was that I received many phone calls from members of different Islamic trends in Denmark asking me to join them in efforts to the exclusion of others. I did not want to take sides with anybody or drive wedges between different respectable Islamic trends in Denmark because, as a preacher, I believe I belong to all Muslims.

That said, Dr Jihad El-Ghorra, chairman of the Danish Islamic Council, heartily welcomed me and we received 1,500 and 3,000 participants from the Muslim Danish community during two consecutive events, one of which included a debate with the extreme right-wing party.

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