Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Mohammed cartoon row divides Danes

POLARIZED While Muslim immigrants raged at the cartoons' depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, most Danes seemed perplexed at what the fuss was about


Youths gather to ask for a dialogue between Muslims and the Jyllands-Posten newspaper which published 12 drawings of the Prophet Mohammed in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Thursday. The sign behind reads ``Where Did the Thread Break?''


Every conversation quickly comes round to the subject, and opinion has become sharply polarized. The majority of Danes can't see what the fuss is about -- a "storm in a teacup," said one -- while Danish Muslims are incensed by what they see as only the latest evidence of an increasingly Islamophobic country.

Such sharp divisions over Islam have become a characteristic over the last 10 years in Denmark, profoundly shaking its sense of identity as tolerant and egalitarian. What the cartoon issue has exposed to global scrutiny is the passionate and often ugly debate here about what Denmark's 170,000 Muslims have to do to integrate.

At the center of the storm over the publication of the cartoons depicting the PProphetrophet Mohammed is Ahmad Akkari. He has the role of explaining the Muslim position to an increasingly irritated Danish audience who are now seriously alarmed that this row is threatening the security of Danes in the Middle East and damaging economic interests.

"We are against censorship. We believe in free speech. Many of us fled our countries because of the lack of free speech," insists Akkari, a social worker. "But what we told the editor of Jyllands-Posten [the paper which first printed the cartoons last September] is that they had picked the wrong test case for this freedom. They've picked on one of the most marginalized communities in this country, one that has many social problems and who have been struggling against Islamophobia here."

Akkari, 28, believes the cartoons were gratuitous and tasteless. He argues that it is his right to free speech to criticize the newspaper for associating all Muslims with violence by illustrating the prophet with a bomb in his turban.

He is baffled why other European newspapers have chosen to inflame the situation by reprinting the cartoons.

"From the start, we haven't asked the government to apologize. All we wanted was a clear stand from them that Muslims' freedom of belief would be safeguarded. From the newspaper, we want a clear apology," he said.

Opinion polls indicate that 70 percent of Danes thought it was right to publish the cartoons, and every Dane prefaces their remarks with a fervent declaration of the importance of free speech. Many argue that if someone comes to their country, they must accept its values.

But those on the left fear the cartoons were the last straw for Muslims antagonized by an increasingly xenophobic attitude towards immigrants. They struggle to reconcile two conflicting principles -- free speech and tolerance.

What is now at stake is not just Denmark's reputation for tolerance and espousal of human rights but the Danes' very sense of national identity.

"I'm ashamed. As a young man, I traveled around the world and I was convinced that we had the best country and that we had found the solution to living together," says Martin Lidegaard, a member of parliament for the opposition party, the Radical Liberals. "I was very proud but I'm not now."

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