Danish editor tests right to violate Muslim taboos

When Flemming Rose heard last month that Danish cartoonists were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children's biography of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, he decided to put his nation's famous tolerance to the test.

The cultural editor of Denmark's largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, then recruited cartoonists to depict Islam's Prophet Muhammad and published them in the paper.

Since then, thousands of Danish Muslims, whose religion strictly prohibits depictions of the prophet, have demonstrated in protest, though some have rallied in support of the paper, too. Ambassadors from 11 Islamic countries including Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey signed a letter demanding that the Danish prime minister "punish" the newspaper. In contrast, a young Iranian woman started a petition in favor of the move.

"This issue goes back to Salman Rushdie. It's about freedom of speech and Islam," says an unrepentant Rose, who feels a culture of fear and self-censorship has taken hold across Europe since Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for criticizing traditional Islam's treatment of women.

As accusations of racism and discrimination fly amid the ongoing unrest in France, European countries are being pushed to pinpoint the causes of - and solution to - the social exclusion of their significant Muslim populations. A key ingredient to the dialogue, Rose says, is making room for a frank discussion of the compatibility of democratic principles such as free speech, and traditional Islam.

"Some Muslims are asking for an apology pointing to a lack of respect," he says. "They're not asking for respect; they're asking for subordination - for us as non-Muslims to follow Muslim taboos in the public domain."

Although Rose expected some complaints, he was unprepared for the deluge of criticism.

Among those who attacked the newspaper's lack of sensitivity was prominent Copenhagen imam Raed Hlayhel, saying "I will not tolerate this. If this is democracy, we disagree with democracy."

But despite the barrage of criticism, Rose defends his decision, which coincided with the arrest of seven Danish Muslims two weeks ago for planning a terrorist attack - the first evidence of Islamic militancy among Denmark's 200,000 Muslims. As evidence of the Islamic pressure for censorship, he points to several events in the last month. The individual who translated a new book by Van Gogh's collaborator, Dutch MP Aayan Hirsi Ali, has requested anonymity. A London art gallery removed a modern art exhibit "God is Great," which featured a Koran, for fear of retaliation. While in Copenhagen, a delegation of Danish imams asked the prime minister to force Denmark's media to supply "more positive coverage" of Islam.

For its part, the newspaper has found Muslim allies. When the controversy first broke, hundreds of Danish Muslims demonstrated in Copenhagen in support of the newspaper. Among them were refugees that right-wing, anti-immigration parties would like to see turned away at Denmark's borders.

"People have a right to say what they want without being killed," says Nasim Rahnama, the 20-year-old Iranian woman who started a petition in support of the newspaper. "These Islamic groups have to be stopped. I just can't sit down and do nothing."

So far Ms. Rahnama, who moved here from Tehran four years ago, has collected over 150 signatures from Danish Muslims who support the paper's stance but says that she would have got many more if it weren't for people's fear that Islamic groups would find out.

"I am so happy here," she says. "I have learnt the language. I have a lot of friends. I live in freedom; I love it."

But some warn that the newspaper's actions might push other young Muslims in the opposite direction by fueling their sense of persecution and obliging them to defend even the most anachronistic aspects of their religion.

"The cartoons seem to have been a deliberate move by the newspaper to provoke Muslim sentiment in a totally legal manner," says Bjorn Moller, a senior research fellow at the Danish Institute of International Studies, who says that public expressions of racism are increasing, citing one right-wing member of parliament who compared Denmark's Muslim community to cancer.

"Things which people wouldn't have been allowed to say a couple of years ago are now being said openly," says Mr. Moller. "It's becoming more socially acceptable to use that kind of language and that's bound to alienate Muslims and create fanaticism."

But already Danish voters are flocking to the right-wing Danish People's Party, which has pointed out that crime in general and the rape of Danish girls in particular are disproportionately committed by Muslim immigrants.

The party's provocative slogan "Dit Land, Dit Valg" (Your Land, Your Choice) for many people conjures up unwelcome reminders of Denmark's ambiguous role in the Nazi occupation. [Editor's note: The original version mistranslated the party slogan.]

"A growing number of people see being a Dane and being a Muslim as incompatible," says Moller, adding that the Danish Peoples' Party, the country's third largest, is behind controversial government attempts to stabilize Denmark's growing Muslim community at no more than 10 percent of the total 5.5 million population. Right now, Muslims make up nearly 4 percent of the population.

"The emphasis is rapidly becoming to keep out as many people as possible, regardless of whether they've been tortured or persecuted," says Moller.

But many Danish Muslims attempt to strike a conciliatory tone - aware that in contrast to France's rapidly increasing Muslim population of about five million - they remain a small and vulnerable minority.

"The parliament is dominated by right-wing parties," says Naveed Baig, who promotes the peaceful Sufi strain of Islam through the group Muslims In Dialogue. "They are trying to control immigrants, not facilitate them. And at the same time Muslim extremists are making things hard for the majority of Muslims who fully accept secularism and democracy."

Rose meanwhile says he is happy that he has sparked a debate about how traditional Islamic ideas often clash with Western secular and democratic ideals. He also says that the controversy has helped bring native Danes and Muslim immigrants together.

"Usually we speak about them and us, Muslim immigrants and the local population, but in this case many Danes criticized the paper while many Muslims supported the paper," says Rose. "This is actually the first time Muslims participated on a public platform alongside Danes."

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