An Apology for the Danish Cartoon Crisis
By: Lars Hvidberg, Guest Blogger
One of the leading forces in the 2005–06 prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy, Danish Muslim activist Ahmed Akkari, now regrets his role as agitator and reveals a larger, more deliberate, and more vicious conspiracy behind the crisis than previously known.
“Denmark became a victim and that has been a cause of much agonizing and soul-searching for me ever since,” he said when I spoke to him in April, just after the publication of his tell-all book, My Farewell to Islamism.
The crisis began on September 30, 2005, when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of Muhammad, including the notorious drawing of the Muslim prophet with a bomb in his turban. It culminated in February 2006 with protests and riots across the Muslim world that left 150 to 200 people dead. The Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus were destroyed (and a number of other Western facilities attacked), leading Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to call the moment the worst international crisis for Denmark since the Second World War.
But, as Akkari explains in his book and a number of interviews he has given since last summer, the protests and mayhem were not spontaneous reactions from the Muslim community. Instead they were produced by a calculated conspiracy between a group of Danish imams and ambassadors from various Muslim countries, who decided not only to appeal to influential Muslim states and clerics in order to put pressure on Denmark, but also to call on brute force from terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. The latter alliance probably led directly to the destruction of the embassies in Beirut and Damascus.
Akkari was the spokesperson for the “working group” of Islamist imams based in Denmark, but he now calls himself a religious skeptic. He has apologized publicly—in person and on camera—to the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the “bomb-in-a-turban” cartoon and is still high on jihadi hit lists, as well as to Fogh Rasmussen, who was the imams’ nemesis during the crisis.
What is most surprising—and chilling—in Akkari’s book is how willing the Danish Islamists were to escalate the situation, with no qualms about the possibility that it could result in violence. They deliberately played a double game with the Danish and international community, pretending to work for peace and reconciliation while covertly taking actions that could only lead to more confrontations. For the imams, a “clash of civilizations” was something to be cherished, not avoided, even if the violence became far more extreme than they had expected.
“The fact is that both the working group and the ambassadors wanted the crisis,” Akkari told the daily B.T. in April. “We wanted to use it to punish Denmark for the treatment of Muslims and to get better conditions for Islam. The ambassadors used it to market themselves as protectors of the Prophet and the faith in their home countries.”
Akkari firmly states that the imams’ public embrace of “nonviolent” protests was purely tactical and rhetorical, never moral or ethical. In their worldview, violence was clearly justified as a response to a perceived insult to Islam. The question was whether it would benefit the cause.
It was only after the whole project backfired that the imams started working for a peaceful solution, finally recognizing that instead of creating more respect for the cause of Islam, they were creating contempt and anger. The Danish public (and large parts of the Western world) now saw the imams as two-faced villains, which, according to Akkari, was exactly what they were. As the spokesperson of the group, Akkari himself was probably the most hated man in Denmark during 2006.
The working group of 10 to 11 imams was the cornerstone of the campaign against Jyllands-Posten. The group was formed almost immediately after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, which the imams saw as the “last straw” in a series of humiliations coming from the newspaper, known for critical articles and op-eds about Muslims, and from the larger Danish society. Jyllands-Posten, however, claimed that the purpose of the cartoons was not to humiliate Muslims but to test certain reports of self-censorship and fear among artists regarding Islam. Eventually, 27 Danish Muslim organizations backed the working group’s actions in some form or another, allowing it to claim that it represented “all” Muslims.
The crisis became international early on, with the involvement of the Muslim ambassadors in Denmark. While the working group initiated the contact, the envoys from Egypt, Pakistan, and Palestine were especially eager to use the conflict to improve their “Islamic profile” at home. That is why they decided to put pressure directly on Fogh Rasmussen, sending him a letter on October 12 to call for a meeting and for government action against the newspaper. In a move that became infamous in the Danish debate, the prime minister refused to meet with the ambassadors. Many commentators saw this refusal as the spark that ignited the crisis, and maintain that if Rasmussen had met with the diplomats and explained patiently why the Danish state had no power over the free press, much of the crisis could have been avoided.
But Akkari firmly denies that a meeting with the ambassadors would have made any difference. Nothing Fogh Rasmussen could have said or done could have satisfied the envoys, who of course knew full well that Danish prime ministers have no leverage over the press. They asked deliberately to get a “no” that would legitimize further escalation.
On the direct initiative of the Egyptian ambassador to Denmark, Mona Omar (who is now Egypt’s envoy to the African Union), the imams made two trips to the Middle East in December 2005. The goal of the trips was twofold: to spread the outrage over the cartoons, and to call for help in escalating the conflict. While violence was never explicitly demanded on the trip, it was implicit in everything the imams presented, says Akkari. Why else would they meet with organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Amal militia in Lebanon?
On the trips, the imams presented a package that included the 12 published cartoons as well as three others that had nothing to do with Jyllands-Posten but had presumably been sent by an anonymous racist to various Danish Muslims. The last three images were much more offensive than the published ones, and Akkari says he doesn’t know how they ended up in the package. But they clearly served the purpose of the trips: To portray Denmark in the worst possible light.
No attempt was made to explain the issue in a fair way, and the official Danish position of support for freedom of the press was communicated as sympathy for the desecration of Islam. The Danish public as a whole was described as “enemies of Islam.” This version of reality was eagerly taken up by Middle Eastern imams and influence makers like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who never made an effort to ask any difficult questions, but eagerly poured oil on the fire in sermons that were broadcast internationally.
Western countries that are normally steadfast in their support of freedom of speech and freedom of the press tried to tread a narrow line between standing up for their principles and not antagonizing what was seen as “the Muslim world”—apparently conflating a certain number of violent rioters with the hundreds of millions of Muslims who continued to go peacefully about their business.
It was not until after the embassy burnings, on February 6, that the United States, Britain, and NATO came out with full-throated support for both Denmark and freedom of speech.
While Akkari at the time was very happy with the international reaction to the crisis, he now thinks that the Western world made a mistake by giving too much weight to the “feelings” of an undefined mass of Muslims and ignoring the obvious manipulations of the Danish imams and the leaders of Muslim states. This approach effectively allows extremists to speak for all Muslims.
Commenting on the U.S. position, Akkari now says:
“If the U.S. from the beginning had said to Denmark—without reservations—‘we 100 percent support your right of freedom of the press’—and in that way supported the American tradition of freedom of speech—things might have turned out differently. They could have put much more pressure on the Muslim countries. The Egyptians especially would have reconsidered their actions. What was missing was somebody who could stand his ground and draw the line without reservations.”
While some commentators have questioned Akkari’s motives and accused him of self-promotion, it is hard to see how much Akkari can gain from his revelations. He has alienated his circle of Islamist friends, who now call him a traitor and liar, and spawned a burst of death threats that have forced him to live under permanent police surveillance. He says that he is revealing all this because he wants to clear his conscience and repair some of the damage he has caused. Also, he had become incredibly disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the Islamist organizations he had been involved with for 15 years, having been recruited as a 16-year-old refugee from Lebanon.
“The one divine path I had preached and tried to find all these years, was an illusion and nothing else. I had spent many years of my life living a lie,” he says.
“At times the consequences can be daunting,” Akkari writes at the end of his book. “Still, I have no regrets. I am doing what my conscience bids me, and perhaps the situation for me and other critics of Islamism illustrates better than anything else, why my message is important. Now, I have to live in hiding. But I do not mind living in hiding, as long as it is as a free man.”
Lars Hvidberg is a writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and tweets at @whiteberg.
Photo Credit: http://www.chaaban.info/2006/02/05/denmark-embassy-in-lebanon-beirut/
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
The recent claim that the Charlie Hebdo killings helped motivate the murder of Boris Nemtsov suggests that opponents of democracy will continue to sow discord over free speech issues.
Excerpts from a conversation with the editor in chief and the film critic of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
In 2006, in the midst of the furor over the publication of Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Freedom House issued a statement that declared:
At the heart of the cartoon controversy is the right, now and in the future, of an independent and uncensored press—and artists and writers in other venues—to comment on the issues of the day without interference from the state or threat from discomfited or aggrieved groups.
We now find ourselves embroiled in yet another uproar over freedom of expression and the sensitivities of the Muslim world. While the level of violence provoked by the Innocence of Muslims thus far has been notably lower than was the case with the Danish cartoons or, especially, the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the response of the world’s political leadership has often been more disturbing than in the previous episodes.