Danish Muslim Unrepentant for Sparking Cartoon Riots

Assaf Uni
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Assaf Uni

NORREBRO, Copenhagen - The young Muslim Dane, whom most Danish citizens blame for the anti-Danish riots that erupted throughout the Muslim world, is not contrite.

Ahmed Akari said he would have done the exact same thing again.

Here at a shawarma restaurant in the center of Norrebro, an immigrant neighborhood in Copenhagen, the spokesman for the Islamic organizations in Denmark vindicated his campaign in the Middle East to persuade leaders and imams that the Muslims in his home country are under attack.

Some 180,000 Muslim immigrants live in the Scandinavian nation, whose population is 5.4 million. Most of them arrived in the 1980s, when the social-democratic government loosened immigration laws due to a labor shortage. They arrived from the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, Iran and Somalia to a homogenous, liberal, secular Danish society. The boundaries between the two societies are preserved to this day. Most of the Muslims in Copenhagen live in this neighborhood, and only immigrants work in its vegetable stores, kiosks and restaurants.

Akari's mosque is also located here. It is run by Imam Abu Laban, who was born in Jaffa and emigrated to Denmark 20 years ago. Abu Laban and Akari are at the center of a public uproar. The Danes - both Muslims and Christians - accuse them of sending delegations to the entire Arab world with caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Among them were a number of provocative caricatures that had never been published in Denmark - Mohammed with a pig's snout, a dog having intercourse with a praying Muslim and the prophet as a pedophile. One delegation, headed by Akari, presented these pictures to the leaders of the Muslim Conference in Cairo in December. In response the conference denounced Denmark for their publication.

The Danish media also discovered that several imams had gone to Saudi Arabia last month and distributed a booklet displaying the caricatures and pictures to pilgrims in Mecca. Gulf television networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya dealt with the issue constantly. The prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for a "Muslim day of rage" against Denmark and for the boycotting of its exports. Text messages spread throughout Saudi Arabia urging people to avoid purchasing Danish products. The monarchy also recalled its ambassador from Copenhagen.

Then European newspapers published the caricatures, triggering off the riots in the Muslim world.

"I see no connection between our activity and the riots," Akari told Haaretz yesterday, "Therefore I see no need to apologize. We only tried to demonstrate that a Danish newspaper offended Muslims by deciding to publish caricatures of Mohammed."

Akari was born in Lebanon and emigrated to Denmark in the 1990s. He says Muslims are still waiting for the newspaper's apology.

"They spat on us, and now it's only polite that they apologize," he said.

However, the Muslim community is at odds over the efforts of the two to make the newspaper apologize.

"They planned the outburst of Muslim rage on Denmark," Nasser Khader, a Muslim parliament member for the social-democrat opposition told Haaretz yesterday. "But in fact they don't represent a single Muslim here."

Khader said the two are "ignoramuses" and "alien to all that Denmark represents. Most Danish Muslims are peace lovers and don't want to see the Danish flag burned all over the world."

The feeling on the street is that the two have gone too far. "They don't represent me," said Gawad, a vendor at a vegetable shop in the center of town. "They have only damaged the relations between the Danes and the Muslims."

He said he does not need anyone to represent him as a Muslim. "I'm a Dane, " he said, "and I'll vote for the party that helps me as a Dane, not as a Muslim."

Another vendor objected to the two for different reasons: "They're Sunni, I'm Shi'ite. Like all Sunnis they're too radical and do not represent me."

In an effort to prevent a rift, Khader has set up a new umbrella organization called "the Democratic Muslims," which denounces the violent protests and calls for open discourse. Yesterday Khader met Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in an attempt to advance the dialogue between the communities.

"Within one week we've become one of the largest Muslim organizations in Denmark," said Khader, "and I believe it represents the public's stand against the extremists and for dialogue."

Akari said he and Abu Laban are not extremists. "People expect us to act like Al-Qaida, but we're not. I condemn any kind of violence and always have."

Abu Laban also tried to downplay his role in the riots' outbreak. "People attribute far greater importance to me than I really have," he said in an interview to the BBC. "I condemn every kind of violence."

Last week he told Danish television that he denounced the boycott of Danish products and called for its cancelation. One hour later, however, in an interview with Al-Arabiya, he said he was "pleased" with the boycott.

Since then the Danish media has not ceased to delve into Akari and Abu Laban's past. Apparently, the Imam was deported from Egypt due to his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. Other reports said Abu Laban sheltered Al-Qaida members in his house, including the organization's No. 2, when they were driven out of Egypt in the 1980s.

What appears to frighten Danes the most is the "enemy within." A recent poll shows that 80 percent of Danes believe a terror attack will take place in Denmark following the caricature storm.

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