Denmark and the Cartoon Conflict: Legoland Is Burning

By in Copenhagen

While Danish flags are being burned and embassies attacked in Islamic countries, Muslim immigrants and Danes are coming closer together. Following the intense international scrutiny over Muhammad caricature affair, many are hoping to send the world a message of peace.

Denmark wants to go back to times of peace.

Denmark wants to go back to times of peace.

Many people in Copenhagen find it difficult to understand why their small country has suddenly become the center of global attention. "I would never have imagined that this would create such an uproar. The Mohammad cartoons are now the only topic of conversation, even in Denmark," says 50-year-old Knut M. as he stands at a sausage stand in Copenhagen, rubbing his hands together in the cold.

It's raining in the Danish capital and the wind howls through the narrow streets in the neighborhood near Copenhagen's main train station. The TV images flickering behind the windows of apartment buildings show Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the building housing the editorial offices of Jyllands-Posten and scenes of angry Muslims in Afghanistan. On a newspaper stand in front of a kiosk, the cover of B.T. paper depicts a young girl asking her father: "Why do the Muslims hate us so much?" The Danes are afraid, writes the paper, afraid of attacks and afraid of war.

Until now, this small Scandinavian kingdom in northern Europe enjoyed a tranquil, happy and untroubled existence. Lego used to be the country's biggest claim to international fame, but Legoland has apparently burned down. In the Islamic world, the response to the cartoons printed in Jyllands-Posten depicting Muhammad might have been blown out of proportion, but they have been interpreted as a general assault on the honor of Islam. People in Copenhagen, however, are speechless over the reactions they have triggered worldwide.

Arab shops line Vesterbrogade, a main street in downtown Copenhagen. Muhammad, who, like many of the foreigners here, prefers not to give his surname, runs a travel agency specializing in travel to North Africa and the Middle East. "Denmark has never experienced anything like this," he says. Wearing a long black coat, he sits in front of a wall of travel brochures. "The whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. Why should they ruin everything? We're such a peaceful country," he says. For Muhammad, "they" are both the people who deliberately offend religious sensibilities and those who resort to violence, attacking Danish embassies and burning flags. "It hurts me," he says.

He might as well take down the light blue flyers in his window advertising tours to Damascus and Beirut, he says. He's hardly sold a ticket in days. "I'm just waiting for all the excitement to blow over."

Tired of the dispute

Denmark, a small country of only 5.3 million inhabitants, has been the center of global attention for the past two weeks. But many Danes are weary of the debate over the cartoons. After all, they say, Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest-circulation newspaper, published the now-scandalous cartoons back in September 2005.

Mefid, a 22-year-old taxi driver with a shaved head, doesn't want to talk about the cartoons anymore. "You know, here in Denmark we've been talking about this for almost half a year now. Up and down, back and forth. And now, all of the sudden, the rest of the world has noticed us," says Mefid, whose parents are Palestinian immigrants.

Disgruntled Muslim protesters gather on City Hall Square in Copenhagen, Denmark Saturday Feb. 4, 2006.
AP

Disgruntled Muslim protesters gather on City Hall Square in Copenhagen, Denmark Saturday Feb. 4, 2006.

Mefid has harsh words for the violence in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. What's happening there, he says, is a disgrace. "I apologize for the radical Muslims," he says. Then, after a brief pause, he adds: "No one has the right to do these things."

Ali, whose family emigrated to Denmark from Afghanistan, is also ashamed of the fact that Danish interests are being attacked, flags burned and foreigners in Arab countries threatened, all in the name of his religion. He sits, smoking, with a Danish friend on a bench in front of a shopping center and says: "I'm shocked by the images." His friend nods.

Nevertheless, Ali, like many other residents of Copenhagen, believes that Jyllands-Posten printed the cartoons "because they wanted to provoke." "Why else wouldn't Jyllands-Posten have printed the Jesus cartoon?" asks Mikkel Velstrup, sitting with friends in a Copenhagen café. He's referring to a series of cartoons depicting Jesus that an illustrator offered the paper in 2003, but that an editor rejected on the grounds that readers probably wouldn't like them. "Something isn't quite right there," says Mikkel Velstrup. But, he adds, he has also noticed that people have been especially courteous to one another in Denmark lately -- Pakistanis, Turks, Afghans and Danes -- Christians and Muslims.

"They were all lies"

"It was tasteless, the fact that the papers printed them," says Muhammad, the man from the travel agency. "Especially these days, when the populist, right-wing People's Party is so strong and is already trying to stir up bad feelings about Muslims." Knut M. also hopes that the affair doesn't produce the wrong impression about Danish Muslims. "After all," he says, "most Muslims who live here are very moderate."

He has absolutely no sympathy for people like Ahmed Akkari, an imam in the central Danish city of Aarhus, who has only added to the controversy over the cartoons. "He traveled to the Middle East and showed people the wrong cartoons, cartoons that were far worse. They were all lies," explains Knut M. But there aren't many of "those kinds of Muslims" in Copenhagen, he adds.

But Knut M. is convinced that in Denmark, at least, the cartoon affair could have a positive outcome once all the excitement subsides: "Perhaps we'll talk with one another more -- immigrants and Danes." He disapproves of the fact that Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen long refused to meet with ambassadors from Muslim countries. "I don't want to question freedom of the press, but when the feelings of a religious community are hurt, we have to talk to one another and communicate," he said.

Knut M. believes that the recent demonstration against violence and in favor of dialogue on the square in front of Copenhagen's city hall shows that the only thing everyone here wants is peace. "And just a bit of normality once again."

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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