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Denmark Battles Muslim Backlash over Cartoons


Going back to the cartoon controversy, we're going to take a look at the fallout in Denmark, where the drawings were first published. As NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Copenhagen, Danes have been shocked by the harsh reactions in the Muslim world.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

After the cartoons were printed last September, 11 ambassadors from mostly Muslim countries asked the Danish prime minister for a meeting to discuss them. The prime minister refused, so a group of Islamic clerics took the cartoons and reportedly other more offensive depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to the Middle East and circulated them widely. That stirred up strong anti-Western sentiment and the ensuing violence and attacks on Danish embassies. Since the violence erupted, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly apologized for the offense caused by the cartoons but has not condemned their publication. At a press conference in Copenhagen today, he took a defensive stance.

Mr. ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (Prime Minister, Denmark): We are seeing ourselves characterized as an intolerant people or as enemies of Islam as a religion. That picture is false. Extremists and radicals who seek a clash of cultures and religions are spreading it. I would like to emphasize, Denmark and the Danish people are not enemies of Islam or any other religion.

MARTIN: The Jyllands-Posten newspaper has now issued an apology for any offense caused by the depictions of Muhammad. Muslims here have picked up on recent reports that the paper turned down cartoons depicting negative images of Jesus Christ a few years ago for fear they would offend readers. Abdul Wahid Pedersen is leader of the group Muslims in Dialog. He said he understands the outrage in the Muslim world, but says the violence will only fuel anti-Islamic feelings in Denmark.

Mr. ABDUL WAHID PEDERSON (Muslims in Dialog): When people go crazy in the streets of Beirut or in the streets of Damascus, the only ones who benefit are the right-wingers back here in Europe. And this is the situation, that we're up against people like this, who are setting Denmark into a position of actually not being a civilized and good, we can say, democratic country.

MARTIN: The controversy has turned into a crisis for many Danes, who pride themselves on their tolerance and their country's strong history of aid and diplomatic work in the Middle East. At a corner store in central Copenhagen, 27-year-old Lisette Olsgaard flips through the pages of a Danish tabloid filled with stories about the cartoons and their effects.

Ms. LISETTE OLSGAARD (Resident, Copenhagen): It makes me sad that other people around the world get the picture of the Danes to be that bad. I don't like being hated. And I don't think that all Danes are like this.

MARTIN: Fellow customer Mazu Hussein is a Muslim originally from Pakistan. He says while he rejects the violent reaction to the cartoons, he understands its roots.

Mr. MAZU HUSSEIN (Muslim and resident, Copenhagen): (Speaking foreign language)

MARTIN: I won't accept these drawings, he says. I don't want anyone to make a picture of our prophet. I don't care who's doing it. It's not acceptable. And any apology made by the government has come much too late.

Community leaders say the crisis could at least open more honest discussions in Denmark about religious tolerance and the freedom of speech. Abdul Wahid Pedersen says the challenge now is to try to repair people's faith in Denmark as a tolerant nation.

Mr. PEDERSEN: There are big, big gashing wounds that have to be healed. So we have to be forbearing. We have to be forgiving. But we have to also stress that we must find a way to live together.

MARTIN: Danish ministers are demanding that governments in the Middle East protect Danish embassies and citizens. Meanwhile, the prime minister says the key to resolving the conflict is dialog and improved cultural communication between the Islamic world and the West.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Copenhagen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.