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Rage Over Cartoons Perplexes Denmark

Reaction to drawings of Muhammad forces the nation to examine its self-image of tolerance.

February 09, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

COPENHAGEN — This diminutive nation with an offbeat sense of humor and a strong self-image of cultural tolerance is not accustomed to having its flag burned, embassies stormed and coat of arms pelted with eggs.

But Denmark has become a target for the Muslim world's outrage at cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.

The scope and intensity of the violence ignited by the caricatures, first printed in September by the country's right-leaning Jyllands-Posten newspaper and reprinted more recently in other Western publications, have left this country bewildered.

"A lot of Danes have problems understanding what is going on and why people in those countries reacted this way," said Morton Rixen, a philosophy student, looking out his window at a city awhirl in angst and snow. "We're used to seeing American flags and pictures of George Bush being burned, but we've always seen ourselves as a more tolerant nation. We're in shock to now be in the center of this."

On Wednesday, four people were killed and at least 20 wounded in a fresh round of protests in southern Afghanistan, and demonstrators in the West Bank city of Hebron attacked the offices of international observers, forcing their evacuation. President Bush spoke out about the protest for the first time, saying, "We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press."

Danes suspect that the furor over the cartoons has been co-opted by the wider anti-Western agenda of Middle East extremism. Yet they believe the media images of fury over the drawings have cracked the veneer of their nation and exacerbated a debate about immigration, freedom of expression, religious tolerance and a vaunted perception of racial harmony often disputed by immigrants.

Denmark is a small portrait of Europe's struggle to integrate a Muslim population that has doubled since the late-1980s and dotted the continent with head scarves and back-alley mosques. The cartoons were sketched in an atmosphere of rising Muslim discontent, a surge in strength for the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, a commitment to keeping Danish troops in Iraq and the arrests here of suspected militants with reported ties to Al Qaeda.

Some worry that anti-immigrant political parties are exploiting the burning of Danish embassies in Lebanon, Syria and Iran to promote a xenophobic agenda. "Racism is suddenly popping up in this country," said Merete Ronnow, a nurse who worked in Danish relief efforts in Lebanon and Afghanistan. "I'm stunned by this. It's like now Danes can express exactly what they feel. My colleagues are saying, 'Look, this is how a Muslim acts. This is what a Muslim does.' "

Recent polls reveal a country of torn emotions and doubt. The Danish People's Party has gained 3 percentage points, but so has its nemesis, the Radical Left Party. A newspaper headline this week blamed President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for not supporting Denmark through the ordeal. And nearly 80% of Danes believe a terrorist attack looms.

"I don't know what to do. It's amazing to see the Danish flag being burned," said Michael Hansen, an engineer. "It's not fear, it's more anxiety. There have been terror attacks in the U.S., Spain and in Britain. We are the logical fourth. If they forgot about us, they've remembered now."

Hansen's roommate, Martin Yhlen, said: "The whole cartoon thing was a ridiculous provocation. The newspaper knew before they published it that people would be extremely upset. You do have freedom of speech, but with that comes a moral obligation. It doesn't benefit integration in Europe. It widens the divide."

Even Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen seems baffled. "We're seeing ourselves characterized as intolerant people or as enemies of Islam as a religion. That picture is false," he said Tuesday during a news conference.

"We're facing a growing global crisis that has the potential to escalate beyond the control of governments and other authorities," he said. "Extremists and radicals who seek a clash of cultures are spreading it.... These are trying times for the Danish people."

*

Flemming Rose is not sleeping well these days. His cellphone glows with incoming calls. Cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, Rose commissioned the caricatures. In an interview one recent night, Rose said he was trying to correct what he viewed as a troubling self-censorship in the media and arts over depictions of Islam. His decision to print the caricatures came after a Danish children's book author could not find an illustrator to draw Muhammad because Muslims believe any depiction of God or the prophets is sacrilege.

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