Islamic Extremists and Their Western Allies on the Offensive against Free Speech in Denmark

Danish Union of Journalists advocates "respectful dialogue" with supporters of death penalty for blasphemy. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen stands firm against internal and external pressure and refuses to apologise for Muhammad cartoons.

By Helle Merete Brix and Lars Hedegaard

Danish organisations that one would have assumed would have defended free speech in connection with the row following the Danish national daily Jyllands-Posten's publication of 12 Muhammad cartoons on 30 September have instead chosen an extremely timid and apologetic stance. They have thus handed the initiative to persons and organisations from extremist Islamic milieus whose previous attacks on free speech appear to have been entirely forgotten.

Among the Danish organisations that are busy downplaying the recent death threats against the Danish cartoonists is the Danish Union of Journalists -- the trade union to which the great majority of journalists belong and which boasts a membership of more than 12.000.

Until 21 December the union's journal Journalisten had not mentioned the row over the pictures of Muhammad. But then something happened and the cover of the 21 December issue was dominated by the headline "Blæst op" - "Overblown". Inside the issue journalist Jacob Berner Moe writes about "The Reward that Vanished". His angle is that the entire affair has been blown out of proportion and that we just don't know if a price was put on the artists' heads. He is convinced, however, that "the media storm aggravated the threat against the 12 artists."

It appears from the article that Berner Moe has spoken with no source within the Pakistani community in Denmark apart from the free-lance journalist Simi Jan, who has covered the story for Politiken - a national daily that has been decidedly unfriendly to Jyllands-Posten for printing the cartoons.

Berner Moe claims that the death threats were only mentioned in a note in a Pakistani newspaper - which is untrue. The death threat and the price on the heads of the Danish cartoonists were reported over three columns on the front page of the Pakistani Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami's official newspaper, the Daily Jasarat, on 15 October. On the same day the information was disseminated by the paper's internet edition.

Berner Moe produces the following argument to support his contention that the whole affair is a tempest in a teapot: "Last but not least: The man who was supposed to have promised the reward denies that he has said it. He makes it clear that there is no reward."

The man chosen as soothsayer is the president of the infamous Jamaat-e-Islami party's youth organisation, Shabab-e-Milli - the very man to whom the Daily Jasarat had attributed the death threats. Which is odd in view of the fact that Berner Moe's own article makes it plain that the youth president makes shifting statements about the case to the press.

The article mentions none of the facts contained in our article in Sappho.dk entitled "Jamaat-e-Islami's Danish Friends". E.g. that Jamaat-e-Islami's top leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed is a frequent guest in Denmark, that the party has bases in the West, and that the Muhammad drawings were discussed at a meeting in Copenhagen a short time before public dissatisfaction with the Danish cartoons broke out in Pakistan. And that among the participants were Jamaat-e-Islami representatives from Kashmir, where the anti-Danish animosity seems to be most vehement.

Berner Moe distinguishes sharply between the Jamaat-e-Islami party and its youth organisation. But it would be unthinkable for an Islamist youth organisation to issue a death threat without the approval of the mother organisation.

Journalisten's article fits in well with the official line adopted by the Danish Union of Journalists. During a discussion on 10 December at Turbinehallerne in Copenhagen, the union's representative Kate Bluhme had this to say: "One is reminded of the Russian Vladimir Lenin. At least one cannot help getting the impression that Jyllands-Posten has used the 12 artists as useful idiots." After the meeting, however, Ms. Bluhme emphasised that she had been speaking on her own behalf and not on behalf of the Danish Union of Journalists.

Journalists demand "respect"
At the beginning of December President Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard of the Danish Union of Journalists sharply distanced himself from the death threats against the artists. In a newsletter dated 16 December he emphasised that he would not "participate in qualifying freedom of speech and that the Danish Union of Journalists considers it of decisive importance that free speech be respected by all sides."

But then he continued: "We do not create this respect through wars of declarations but through dialogue. And when the drawings of Muhammad have given rise to such turbulence throughout the Islamic world, then we as an organisation who has free speech as one of its trade marks also has a responsibility to establish a respectful dialogue."

It is possible that these statements are aimed at explaining why the Danish Union of Journalists - following the wish of the union's section for cartoonists (Danske Bladtegnere) - initiated a roundtable conference on 1 December. Among the participants were eight of the 12 cartoonists and four representatives from Muslim groups in Denmark. The participants agreed that nothing be reported to the press, and very little of what was said has in fact been leaked.

One of the Muslim representatives, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, a 23 year old social worker from Odense, said after the meeting that the participants had "opened a dialogue and reached a mutual understanding."

Ms. Abdol-Hamid was a candidate for the far-left socialist Unity List (Enhedslisten) for the Odense city council in November's municipal election. During the election campaign it became known that she would neither shake hands with men - that went against her religion - nor would she do it with non-Muslim women.

Ms. Abdol-Hamid is the spokeswoman of 11 Islamic organisations that have started court proceedings against Jyllands-Posten for having published the drawings. Among the dissatisfied Muslim organisations is The Islamic Community (Det Islamiske Trossamfund). Its religious adviser, imam Ahmed Abu Laban, is one of the Danish Muslims who have been travelling to Muslim countries to gain support for their case against Jyllands-Posten.

In an interview published on the popular international Islamic website www.islamonline.net, imam Abu Laban has announced that the dissatisfied Danish Muslims plan to meet with Yussuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the global Islamic organisation The Islamic Brotherhood. Qaradawi has his own TV programme on the Arabic channel Al-Jazeera. In a fatwa disseminated as part of his programme Qaradawi has legalised the murder of American soldiers in Iraq and he supports the death penalty for homosexuality and the right of Muslim men to beat their wives.

The Death penalty for offending the prophet
In 1990 Abu Laban in his capacity as leader of The Islamic Community received "the blind sheik" Omar Abdul Rahman as his guest in Denmark. (Kristeligt Dagblad 19 September 2001. The sheik is now imprisoned in the US for 240 years for his part in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In a Friday prayer a few days after the second attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 Abu Laban praised the Taliban as people who were trying to build a country in Afghanistan. (Kristeligt Dagblad 19 September 2001). He has also spoken highly of Osama bin Laden, who he has lauded for his ascetic life style.

On 21 August 1994 Abu Laban was interviewed in Jyllands-Posten following a bloodthirsty massacre committed by the Algerian terrorist organisation GIA that led to the murder of among others seven Christian Monks and a number of foreign tourists. He wouldn't answer clearly whether or not it was a good thing to kill. Finally, however, pressure from the journalist did elicit a sort of statement:

"Perhaps the tourists are spreading AIDS in Algeria just like the Jews are spreading AIDS in Egypt."

After 9/11 Rohan Gunaratna, the author of the book Inside Al Qaeda and affiliated with the prestigious Centre for Terrorism and Political Violence in Sct. Andrews, Scotland, characterised Ahmed Abu Laban as an Islamic extremist. He also accused him of giving political and economic support to al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian radical group that is part of Osama bin Laden's network. Imam Abu Laban threatened Rohan Gunaratna with a lawsuit, but nothing seems to have come of it.

Another organisation behind the lawsuit against Jyllands-Posten is Muslims in Dialogue, which is an offspring of the Minhaj ul-Quran movement that has its international headquarters in Pakistan. Minhaj's Danish branch became famous in 2001 when a group of its young members attempted to make political careers in the Danish Social Liberal Party, Det Radikale Venstre.

The previous year young people from Minhaj had arranged a cultural conference in Copenhagen. Among the members of the panel were Minhaj ul-Quran's Pakistani leader Tahir ul-Qadri and the Social Liberal Minister of Culture Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, who has sharply criticised Jyllands-Posten's stand on the cartoons. At the conference Minhaj ul-Quran was selling one of ul-Qadri's books, Islam and Christianity. The book contains this statement: "The act of contempt of the finality of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is a crime which can not be tolerated whether its commission is direct or indirect, intentional or un-intentional. The crime is so sanguine that even his repentance can not exempt him from the penalty of death."

Naturally this point of view has led Minhaj ul-Quran to support both the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and Pakistan's rigorous blasphemy laws. The Pakistani blasphemy legislation constitutes a deadly threat against the country's Ahmadiyya Muslims, who deviate from orthodox sunni islam. Like they did in 1989, when they protested against the death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Danish Ahmadiyyas have sharply distanced themselves from the death threats against the cartoonists. However, no Danish newspaper or electronic media has found the Ahmadiyya press release interesting enough to mention.

Immigrants condemn Islamists
The Danish press has also paid very little attention to the representatives of a group of 80 immigrants who have expressed their support of Jyllands-Posten. A statement by the group placed on the internet carries the caption "We must condemn Islamist threats against free speech." It goes on to accuse the Islamists of "viewing any criticism or any making fun of the Islamic religion as an affront and an insult to Muslims. In this way they want to prevent any human being from questioning the Islamic religion and its holy book and the prophet Muhammad. ... With the same argument Islamic regimes and other forces in the Middle Eastern and Arabic countries have killed thousands of people and issued fatwas against authors, journalists and artists."

Compared to this unambiguous statement the reactions from the Danish Union of Journalists appear downright timid.

In the newsletter to his members mentioned above, Union President Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard announced that on 16 December the Danish Union of Journalists would meet with a number of other organisations - International Media Support, Danish PEN, the Danish Writers Association and its special section for cartoonists - to plan the further dialogue, to which the Journalists' Union would invite "a broader circle from the Islamic religious community."

Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard considers it "an obvious task for the trade union of journalists to contribute to the abatement of conflicts in society." He is also in favour of "each individual journalist and each individual media assuming the task of building bridges between the parties and opposite poles in our society by giving the population a fair and honest account of the parties' points of view."

Dansk Kunstnerråd (The Danish Council of Artists), which is an umbrella organisation for 23 Danish artists' organisations, has issued the following statement: "Dansk Kunstnerråd clearly distances itself from death threats and other forms of sanctions against artists because of their artistic expressions, whatever their ethnic background. This is also true of the 12 Danish cartoonists whose lives have been threatened. In the immediate future Dansk Kunstnerråd will work to further dialogue and understanding between Danish and Muslim culture and thus towards establishing a larger degree of mutual respect."

Among the member organisations of Dansk Kunstnerråd is the Danish Writers Association, whose President Frants Iver Gundelach has expressed concern that Danish writers and cartoonists may impose censorship on themselves as a result of the Muhammad row.

The President of the Group of Illustrators, which is a subgroup under the Danish Writers Association, Tove Krebs Lange, is rather sparing of words. In response to Sappho's request for a comment, she has sent the following mail: "The Group of Illustrators does not wish to make comments on the issue of the 12 Muhammad drawings to www.sappho.dk."

Tasteless provocation
During the Rushdie Affair in 1989, the then President of the Danish Writers Association Jesper Jensen issued a protest against the fatwa to the Iranian embassy. But the Association's members' journal did not devote a leading article to Rushdie's death sentence. At least they consider the Muhammad affair worth writing about. The November issue of the journal has a leading article with the headline "Feet, faces and other body parts", but neither the cartoonists nor Jyllands-Posten can derive much comfort from it. The editor Trisse Gejl, who is also a fiction writer, makes it clear that "Freedom of expression is beyond dispute. It must not be breached. It is the foundation stone of our democracy. It is holy." She continues: "And so is Muhammad's face to some. But we happen to be in Denmark. And by God, we have the right to draw the prophet's face in the paper. Still it may be seen as bad integration to deliberately provoke the smallest minorities by [attacking] their most sensitive values. As in the current case with Jyllands-Posten, which commissioned and published 12 cartoonists' versions of the prophet Muhammad's face."

Trisse Gejl also mentions the case of the Danish author Kaare Bluitgen, whose unsuccessful attempt to find an artist who would depict the prophet from the front caused Jyllands-Posten to commission and publish the 12 Muhammad cartoons. If Bluitgen's book had created a conflict following its publication, she thinks there might have been a point in discussing the issue. But according to Ms. Gejl, Jyllands-Posten "did what it could to precipitate the discussion." "What discussion, what debate," she asks, "is Jyllands-Posten inviting people to take part in when it, without any other cause than the cause itself, prints 12 drawings which it knows will be an affront to the country's Muslims? One must welcome the desire to debate sensitive issues, but might the invitation have been of a more appropriate nature?"

The Danish Writers Association has refrained from issuing a statement in support of the artists. However, on 21 December in the daily Politiken, a unanimous board and approximately 250 of the Association's members expressed their support of 12 authors who had strongly condemned the tone of the Danish immigration debate a few days before. The supporting statement noted that many artists and writers are "sick and tired of the lack of simple decency that characterises the immigration debate in this country." It continues: "The best way to meet the world we are living in is to try to understand that which is different from one's own. Regardless of what scare scenarios one tries to impose on us."

Fogh Rasmussen defiant
In sharp contrast to these tendencies to blame the death threats against the cartoonists on the "tone" of the Danish debate or on a Danish failure to understand why Muslims feel hurt, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been firm in his refusal to shift the blame from the would-be attackers to their intended Danish victims.

He has caused great anger in the Arab and Islamic world by refusing to meet with 11 ambassadors from Muslim countries who had asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister in order to complain about the Muhammad cartoons and to make him intervene with the Danish press to make it refrain from further insults to Islam and Muslims. In a letter dated 21 October Mr. Fogh Rasmussen told the 11 Muslim diplomats that "Freedom of speech is the very foundation of Danish democracy. Freedom of speech is far reaching and the Danish government has no means of influencing the press." The Prime Minister also stated that according to the Danish constitution, complaints against statements in the press are matters for the courts.

Subsequent attacks on the Prime Minister by the leaders of the opposition parties, the Social Democrats, the Socialist People's Party and the Radical Liberal Party, by 22 former Danish ambassadors and even by former Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, who is a member of Fogh Rasmussen's own Liberal Party, have failed to make him change his decision not to meet with Muslim diplomats. In a statement on 24 October the Prime Minister reiterated his position: "It is a matter of principle. I will not [meet the ambassadors] because it is so self-evidently clear what principles Danish society is based upon that there is nothing to have a meeting about."

So far the Prime Minister has also refused to bow to pressure from a number of international agents such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and The Arab League.

In clear contrast to the line chosen by the leaders of the Danish Union of Journalists, the Danish Writers Association and most other members of Denmark's politically correct commentariat, Fogh Rasmussen has flatly refused to condemn the tone of the Danish debate on immigration and integration. He can find nothing wrong with the way these issues are being discussed and he has gone as far as stating that other European countries might do well to emulate the free debate that has survived in Denmark.


Free Speech under Attack

  • 30 September 2005:
    The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten publishes 12 satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad as a reaction to author Kaare Bluitgen's difficulties in finding an artist who would illustrate a book on Muhammad.
  • 7 October:
    Muhammad cartoons are discussed at a meeting in Copenhagen between high-ranking leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and Danish supporters (see separate article "Jamaat-e-Islami's Danísh Friends").
  • 12 October:
    Ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries complain about the cartoons to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and ask for a meeting.
  • 15 October:
    Jamaat-e-Islami's official newspaper, the Daily Jasarat, announces on its front page that a price has been put on the cartoonists' heads.
  • 21 October:
    The Prime Minister sends the 11 ambassadors a written reply: "Freedom of speech is the very foundation of Danish democracy. Freedom of speech is far reaching and the Danish government has no means of influencing the press."
  • 23 October:
    The Social Democrats, the Socialist People's Party and the Radical Liberal Party ask Fogh Rasmussen to meet with the ambassadors from the 11 Muslim countries.
  • 24 October:
    Fogh Rasmussen again refuses to meet the ambassadors with the following explanation: "It is a matter of principle. I will not [meet the ambassadors] because it is so self-evidently clear what principles Danish society is based upon that there is nothing to have a meeting about."
  • 16 November:
    During a discussion organised by the Danish daily Politiken, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan sharply criticises the Danish government's position of the Muhammad cartoons.
  • 18 November:
    The prominent Danish imam Ahmed Abu Laban tells IslamOnline.net that Denmark's Muslim minority wants to "internationalise" the issue of the cartoons.
  • 7 December:
    The national daily Berlingske Tidende reports that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has written a letter to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which had complained about the cartoons. "I would like to emphasise that I deplore any statement or act showing a lack of respect towards other people's religion," she stated in her letter. Louise Arbour informed the OIC that she had appointed two UN experts in the areas of religious freedom and racism to investigate the matter. "I'm confident that they will take action in an adequate manner," the High Commissioner said in her letter.
  • 10 December:
    In a statement signed by Grand Imam Sheik Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, the prestigious Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy expresses its intention "to protest these anti-Prophet cartoons with the UN's concerned committees and human rights groups around the world." Al-Azhar urges the Danish government to reconsider its position before this "affects the interests of Denmark and its people and undermines cooperation between Danes and Arabs and Muslims." The statement follows a meeting between Sheik Tantawi and a delegation representing 21 Islamic organisations in Denmark. The delegation's spokesman Mohamed al-Khalid Samha espresses his hope that "Support from Arab and Muslim countries will help our demand for an official apology from the Danish government and a promise such violations would not be repeated." (Quoted on IslamOnline.net, 16 December).
  • 14 December:
    The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers discusses the cartoons at a meeting in Strasbourg and issues a statement warning Denmark against "a seam of intolerance" that is noted in certain Danish media.
  • 15 December:
    In a statement printed on the front page of Politiken 12 well known Danish authors lambast the government for its restrictive immigration policies and for allowing a bad tone in the public debate on immigration.
  • 20 December:
    22 former Danish diplomats publish a letter in Politiken criticising Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for his refusal to meet with the 11 Muslim ambassadors and Jyllands-Posten for having published the cartoons. Former Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen supports the action of the 22 former diplomats.
  • 21 December:
    Former Social Democratic Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen strongly criticises his successor Anders Fogh Rasmussen for his refusel to meet with the Muslim ambassadors. A group of priests in the Danish Lutheran Church criticise the tone of the Danish discourse on foreigners. 200 priests say that they will devote their Christmas sermons to an attack on the government.
  • 27 December:
    According to the Danish daily Information, Abdul Aziz Othman al-Twaijri, who is General Secretary of The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, ISESCO - a subsidiary organisation under OIC, The Organisation of the Islamic Conference - has stated on the Arabic TV channel Arabiya that "he will ask the organisation's members to boycot Denmark both economically and politically unless Denmark offers an official apology for the cartoons that have offended the world's Muslims."
  • 29 December:
    The Arab League's 22 foreign ministers express their "surprise, anger and disappointment" over the Danish government's handling of the case.


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