- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

COPENHAGEN

Ground zero for the feared clash of civilizations appears to be a remarkably civilized place.

On the bustling, bike-thronged streets of Denmark’s capital city, it is hard to find evidence of the grim frustrations that made this tidy country the center of a global furor over freedom and faith that, at its height, threatened to pit the West against the Muslim world in a no-win debate over fundamental values.

The situation also reflected a crisis facing Denmark and other European countries struggling to assimilate large numbers of immigrants from Muslim lands — immigrants often largely isolated from the native population and suspicious of the secular, liberal culture in which they now live.

“I think we have moved beyond the cartoon controversy, but it was certainly an unusual thing for a small country such as ours to find itself the focus of such a heated situation,” Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged in a recent interview in his Copenhagen office.

But Denmark has been changed, in ways many would not have predicted a short while ago.

Mr. Rasmussen’s center-right government, the focus of considerable domestic and international criticism in handling the “cartoon controversy,” is stronger of late in the polls, while the center-left opposition Social Democrats founder. The populist Danish People’s Party, coalition partner with the prime minister’s Liberal Party, also gained because of its tough stand on immigration issues.

Yet, Denmark’s single most popular political figure is a Muslim, Naser Khader, a Syrian-born moderate member of parliament who founded a post-cartoon movement — called Democratic Muslims — to promote the peaceful fusion of Danish values, political liberty and Islam. Mr. Khader, 42, is seen as a rising star in Danish politics, and his own party recently reorganized its top ranks to give him greater visibility.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen imam whom many here blame for fanning Arab and Muslim fury last winter, just as it appeared the fires had been contained, announced May 11 that he was leaving Denmark for the Palestinian territories because of the intense criticism directed at him.

“I no longer want to be the object of [press] manipulation all the time and to be linked to terrorism while I am working day and night and with much sincerity for the well-being of this country,” Ahmed Abu Laban, of the radical Danish Islamic Community, said in a newspaper interview.

“I could have provoked a revolt, created hell in Denmark, led Muslims to react violently, but did not do so,” he said.

Soren Espersen, foreign-policy spokesman for the Danish People’s Party, argued that the domestic debate, carried out with characteristic Danish bluntness, had been a healthy exercise.

“We have always praised how most of the Danish Muslims reacted in this affair,” Mr. Espersen said. “It was only when this became a big issue with the dictatorships in the Middle East and in Asia that the world had a problem.

“This is an issue that you can’t deal with in a dictatorship, [but one] that we have proven we can talk about here in a democracy,” he added.

Soaring tensions

“The cartoon controversy” is verbal shorthand that needs no elaboration here.

The slow-motion crisis began in September with publication of a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. The most notorious caricature showed Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb.

Small protests occurred in Copenhagen over the cartoons, and Mr. Rasmussen, in a hotly debated decision, declined even to meet with ambassadors from Islamic countries who were demanding that his government take action against the newspaper over the cartoons.

Tensions soared and Muslim governments lodged protests after Mr. Laban, the radical imam, and other Danish Muslim leaders toured the Middle East in December with a portfolio of the cartoons. Critics say the radical imams misrepresented the cartoons and included clearly offensive drawings of Muhammad that had not been published.

Muslim countries announced boycotts of Danish goods — a severe blow to an economy long reliant on exports. As Islamic groups and Arab governments lodged formal protests and demanded an apology from Copenhagen, newspapers across Europe began reprinting the cartoons as an expression of solidarity and freedom of expression.

The violence began in early February, when angry mobs set fire to Danish diplomatic posts in Syria and Lebanon. Protests tied to the cartoons resulted in deaths in Afghanistan, Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, Nigeria and Egypt.

The sight of Danish flags being burned was particularly traumatic here: The Danish flag is believed to be one of the oldest in the world, a symbol of national identity dating back to the 13th century.

Psychological shock

The violence subsided, but the debate in Denmark over its effect and legacy persists.

Anne-Sophie Allorp, international spokeswoman for the opposition Social Democrats, said the government’s inflexibility in the crisis tarnished the country’s image for years to come.

“What we’ve just had is a very effective branding campaign, which has effectively labeled Denmark as an intolerant, anti-religious place,” she said.

“The government would love to make this a debate between freedom and extremist violence, but for the 99.9 percent of Muslims who were offended by the cartoons but who did not riot, we have a long way to go to repair the damage.”

She noted that Mr. Rasmussen and his aides were not shy in criticizing Danish dairy exporter Arla when it took out ads in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East markets trying to distance itself from the publication of the cartoons.

“If you can criticize a private dairy company, you can criticize a private newspaper, even while you defend freedom of the press,” she said.

Peter Viggo Jakobsen, a leading researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said the violent anti-Danish protests — and the tepid support initially offered by the United States and other allies before the violence began — were a psychological shock to a country that long prided itself on its generous foreign aid and support for progressive causes.

“It hurt some people here that we had not built up the good will we thought we had; but then, those expectations were unrealistic to start with,” he said.

But although critical of Mr. Rasmussen’s handling of the affair, Mr. Jakobsen predicted the long-term effect on Danish policy would be minor.

Unapologetic defense

Denmark faces many of the same issues of integration and assimilation confronting other European nations, but withdrawal from the world is not an option for a trading nation with a population of just over 5 million.

“There is no isolationist strain in Danish politics, and there’s no interest here in starting a clash of civilizations,” Mr. Jakobsen said. “Danish troops were in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places before the cartoons, and they are still there now.”

Mr. Rasmussen, in office since 2001, gave a spirited, unapologetic defense in the interview of his actions during the cartoon affair, insisting that “a lot of misinformation” characterized the controversy from the very start.

“At the end of the day, this so-called ‘crisis’ was not about 12 cartoons. It was about the hidden agendas in the Muslim world, about fundamentalists and Islamists who wanted to take advantage of this to pursue their own agendas,” he said.

Mr. Rasmussen said there were always limits on free speech, but that those limits could be defined only by the courts, not by an elected government.

“The Danish government could not interfere with a free and independent newspaper, whatever we may think or feel about the content,” he said. “My strong belief is that 12 cartoons cannot justify violence, the burning down of our embassies or threats against Danish citizens.”

Religion, he added, “cannot be exempted from the critical debate.”

Just as the controversy was dying down, however, Mr. Rasmussen sparked a fresh domestic debate with criticism of those in Denmark who, he said, had been too willing to seek a compromise with intolerant extremists.

“Now we see who are the sheep and who are the goats,” he told a Danish newspaper, the biblical imagery of his comments almost as startling as the content in this thoroughly secular society.

Mr. Rasmussen said he made the remark because “there were certain voices in Denmark that tended to advocate restrictions on freedom of speech.”

He added: “I consider freedom of speech the most precious civic right we have. We cannot compromise on basic principles. We have to be firm on that.”

Electorate split

Before the cartoon crisis, the Danish prime minister already was considered among the Bush administration’s best friends in Europe. He had joined British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi in a famous letter before the 2003 Iraq war that backed the tough U.S. stand against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Danish electorate is roughly split on the Iraq mission, unlike in much of Western Europe, and Mr. Rasmussen announced plans last month to extend the country’s deployment in southern Iraq by at least a year. He said in the interview he remains a fervent backer of strong U.S.-European ties and of outreach to the Arab and greater Muslim world.

“This whole affair has not changed our policies,” he said. “On the contrary, it will only strengthen our efforts to assist countries in reforming their societies.”

The increasingly multicultural streets of Copenhagen show little outward sign of the sectarian tensions and isolation of Muslims evident in other Western European countries. But government ministers concede the problems of assimilation and integration remain.

Human rights groups say the governing coalition has fueled popular fears of immigration to win votes, pushing laws making it more difficult for Muslim immigrants to assimilate.

The Council of Europe’s human rights body issued a report May 16 slamming Denmark’s immigration policies.

“The general climate has continued to deteriorate in Denmark, with certain politicians and a part of the media constantly projecting a negative image of minority groups in general and Muslims in particular,” the report concluded.

It said a recent toughening of immigration and citizenship laws “disproportionately restricts the ability of members of minority groups to acquire Danish citizenship … and to have access to social protection on a par with the rest of society.”

Mr. Rasmussen said the large majority of the country’s Muslims “behaved very responsibly” during the crisis.

“When we took office in 2001, unemployment among Danish immigrants was around 50 percent, and that was certainly too high,” he said. “We have strengthened our immigration policies, but also are tackling unemployment.”


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