Danes, Muslims divided over cartoon crisis legacy

Copenhagen, Denmaark - A year after a Danish paper published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that sparked violent protests worldwide, more Danes have a negative opinion of Islam -- but Muslims say Danes have become more friendly.

A recent Catinet poll showed that almost one quarter of Danes were more negative toward Muslims and Islam now than before the cartoons were published, while less than 3 percent were more positive. Almost 47 percent supported the publication of the drawings, while 38 percent said it was wrong.

Leaders of the Muslim community in Denmark, striking a conciliatory note, say they see unprecedented friendliness and interest in Muslim culture from Danes.

The poll findings, and the Muslim leaders' remarks, indicate a shift from the situation a year ago, when Danes thought of themselves as tolerant and generally welcoming to immigrants, while Muslims living here often felt maligned and disrespected.

The cartoons, including one showing Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, were first published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten a year ago and later reprinted elsewhere. Muslim clerics denounced them as blasphemous, sparking protests in which more than 50 people died in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Most Muslims regard any depiction of the Prophet as offensive. Many Western observers say the crisis pitted respect for religious sensibilities against the right to free speach.

"Most Danes started to realise that Muslims are human beings like any other," said Ahmed Abu-Laban, a Copenhagen imam who helped organise a trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year to rally support among Muslim leaders for protests against the drawings.

"Many people in our congregation tell me civil servants are dealing with Muslims in a more friendly way. Muslims have their values, their backgrounds, and Danes want to learn about them."

Laban said that three times as many people as usual came to his Islamic Society's annual open house this year, an event meant to educate non-Muslims about Islam.


Naser Khader, a Danish member of parliament and leader of a moderate Muslim group, also said Danes had learned a lot from the protests provoked by the cartoons.

"Before, they thought Muslims were a homogeneous group," he said. "Now, almost everybody is saying the problem is those Islamists who combine politics with religion. A majority of Muslims in Denmark are integrated. Not a single Muslim went out and burned a Danish flag in the street."

But Jakob Feldt, a Middle East expert at Odense University, said the controversy had shown that Denmark had a long way to go before it became an immigrant-friendly culture.

Danes have become extremely critical of imams and feel that Muslim religious leaders in Denmark cannot be trusted, he said.

"They feel that they provoked the conflict and were disloyal to Denmark by agitating against Denmark in the Middle East," Feldt said. "These Muslim leaders have also noticed the polls and public feelings against them, and today they say that Denmark is a very good country for a Muslim to live in."

Mainstream Danish political culture is also absorbing a range of views on contemporary Islam, some highly sceptical.

In a new best-selling book, "Islamists and Naivists," Social Democrat commentators Karen Jespersen and Ralf Pittelkow say that Islamism is gaining ground both in the Muslim world and in Europe, threatening democratic and freedom-orientated values.

"Even though the basis of Islamism is very different from that of Nazism and Communism, they have as totalitarian ideologies some key common features," they wrote.