Copenhagen — When a would-be assassin disguised as a postman shot at — and just missed — the head of Lars Hedegaard, an anti-Islam polemicist and former newspaper editor, this month, a cloud of suspicion immediately fell on Denmark’s Muslim minority.
Politicians and pundits united in condemning what they saw as an attempt to stifle free speech in a country that, in 2006, faced violent rage across the Muslim world over a newspaper’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Since then, the newspaper that first printed the images, Jyllands-Posten, has been the target of several terrorist plots.
However, as Mr. Hedegaard’s own opinions, a stew of anti-Muslim bile and conspiracy-laden forecasts of a coming civil war, came into focus, Denmark’s unity in the face of violence began to dissolve into familiar squabbles over immigration, hate speech and the causes of extremism.
But then something unusual happened. Muslim groups in the country, which were often criticized during the cartoon furor for not speaking out against violence and even deliberately fanning the flames, raised their voices to condemn the attack on Mr. Hedegaard and support his right to express his views, no matter how odious.
The writer, who for several years edited a mainstream Danish daily, Information, is a major figure in what a study last year by a British group, Hope Not Hate, identified as a global movement of “Islamophobic” writers, bloggers and activists whose “anti-Muslim rhetoric poisons the political discourse, sometimes with deadly effect.”
That Danish Muslims would rally to defend Mr. Hedegaard, a man they detest, suggests a significant shift in attitudes, or at least in strategies, by a people at the center of a European debate over whether immigrants from mostly poor Muslim lands can adjust to the values of their new and, thanks to a long economic crisis, increasingly wary and often inhospitable homes.
“They have changed their approach,” said Karen Haekkerup, Denmark’s minister of social affairs and integration. “It is a good sign that the Muslim community is now active in the debate.”
When the news broke on Feb. 5 that Mr. Hedegaard had narrowly escaped an attack on his life, recalled Imran Shah of Copenhagen’s Islamic Society, “we knew that this was something people would try to blame on us. We knew we had to be in the forefront and make clear that political and religious violence is totally unacceptable.”
The Islamic Society, which runs Denmark’s biggest mosque and played an important role in stirring up passions against the cartoons of Muhammad, swiftly condemned the attack on Mr. Hedegaard. It also said it regretted its own role during the uproar over the cartoon, when it sent a delegation to Egypt and Lebanon to sound the alarm over Danish blasphemy, a move that helped turn what had been a little-noticed domestic affair into a bloody international crisis.
Another Islamic organization, Minhaj ul Quran International, the Danish offshoot of a controversial group in Pakistan that has taken a hard line at home against blasphemy, added its own voice, organizing a demonstration outside Copenhagen’s city hall to denounce the attack on Mr. Hedegaard and defend free speech.
“We Muslims have to find a new way of reacting,” said Qaiser Najeeb, a 38-year-old second-generation Dane whose father immigrated from Afghanistan. “Instead of focusing on the real point, we always get aggressive and emotional. This should change. We don’t defend Hedegaard’s views but do defend his right to speak. He can say what he wants.”
The response from native Danes has grown more equivocal over time, with some suggesting Mr. Hedegaard himself provoked violence with his strident views and the activities of his Danish Free Press Society, an organization that he set up in 2004 to defend free expression but that is best known for denouncing Islam.
“I think that Hedegaard wanted this conflict,” Mikael Rothstein, a religious history scholar at the University of Copenhagen, said during a discussion on Danish television, adding that “brutal words can be as strong as the brutal physical act of violence.”
Previously shunned by Denmark’s intellectual and political elite, Mr. Hedegaard, who was uninjured in the attack and is living in a safe house under police protection, has been front-page news, even in newspapers that consider him a deliberately provocative racist, which he denies.
Surfacing last week from a safe house for a meeting in the Danish Parliament organized by his Free Press Society, Mr. Hedegaard received a standing ovation after a speech in which he said, “I don’t have a problem with Muslims but do have a problem with the religion of Islam.”
Asmat Ullah Mojadeddi, a medical doctor and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Denmark, a group set up after the cartoon crisis to counter radical Muslims prominent in the news media, described Mr. Hedegaard as a mirror image of reckless Muslims who shoot off their mouths heedless of the consequences.
“There are stupid people everywhere,” Dr. Mojadeddi said. “Mr. Hedegaard is an extremist, and there are definitely extremist Muslims.”
Hoping to take advantage of the furor stirred by the attack, a tiny but vociferous anti-Muslim outfit called Stop the Islamization of Europe organized a rally Saturday in central Copenhagen. Its leader, Anders Gravers, a xenophobic butcher from the north, fulminated against Muslims and the spread of halal meats, but only 20 people turned up to show support. There were many more police officers, on hand to prevent clashes with a larger counterdemonstration nearby.
Who tried to kill Mr. Hedegaard is still a mystery. In an e-mail, he wrote, “My attacker was an immigrant or descendant of immigrants — Arab or Pakistani. He spoke Danish with no accent.”
Mr. Hedegaard described how a man dressed in a postal worker’s jacket had come to his apartment building to deliver a parcel, and, “as I was standing with the package in my hands, he immediately pulled out a gun and fired at my head,” he said. Though less than a yard away, the gunman missed and fled after a struggle, Mr. Hedegaard said.
The attack followed a failed ax attack in 2010 by a Somali Muslim on Kurt Westergaard, the artist who drew a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, and a foiled plot to behead journalists at the office of the newspaper that first published that cartoon and 11 others in September 2005.
Mr. Hedegaard and his Free Press Society championed the newspaper’s right to publish. They also railed against those in Denmark who seemed to contend that the newspaper’s lack of respect for Muslim sensitivities deserved much of the blame for the violent reaction in Muslim countries, which included attacks on Danish diplomatic missions in Syria, Lebanon and Iran.
Mr. Hedegaard has also fanned wild conspiracy theories and sometimes veered into calumny. At a private gathering at his home in December 2009, he declared that Muslims “rape their own children. It is heard of all the time. Girls in Muslim families are raped by their uncles, their cousins or their fathers.”
The comments, recorded by a journalist, later appeared online and led to legal action under a Danish law that prohibits racist hate speech. Mr. Hedegaard was convicted but later acquitted by the Supreme Court.
In an e-mail, he did not deny making the remarks that led to his prosecution but said he had not given permission for them to be published.
He said he was skeptical that Muslims had changed their attitudes, or even could shift toward greater accommodation of European norms.
“There is no such thing as ‘moderate’ Islam, and there never has been,” Mr. Hedegaard said. “There may be shades of opinion among Muslims, but as a totalitarian system of thought, Islam has remained unchanged for at least 1,200 years.”