Mr. Prime Minister, your minister of culture, Brian Mikkelsen, is pleased that the Danes "won the first round of the clash of civilizations" with their unwillingness to budge. Are you pleased as well?
Fogh Rasmussen: I can hardly believe what these 12 caricatures have caused in the world. We Danes feel like we have been placed in a scene in the wrong movie. But I dont see the fight as a clash of civilizations. Rather, we must focus on avoiding exactly this type of conflict. We have to return to dialogue, to mutual understanding and to an acknowledgement of freedom of opinion.
SPIEGEL: At the start of your term, you yourself announced a cultural renewal, indeed a cultural battle, in all social areas. Is this what you meant?
Fogh Rasmussen: That was a misunderstanding - at the time, for me, it was about a discussion of values in Denmark. Consensus and dialogue have always played a significant role, especially in Danish society. Of course there are basic values that must be respected, but within this framework, we are a liberal and tolerant country where everyone can live as they desire and according to their tradition. That is the Danish way.
SPIEGEL: Now the Danish flag is in flames in Arab capitals and Danes must fear for their lives in the Islamic world.
Fogh Rasmussen: At home, Danes try to resolve their problems amicably so its just surreal to see these violent pictures on TV. But as the prime minister, I cant be controlled by my emotions.
SPIEGEL: For the first time, your government is at the center of an unimaginable international crisis that spans from northern Africa to southern Asia.
Fogh Rasmussen: These protests are no longer about the 12 caricatures that were published by a free and independent Danish newspaper. Many groups with a vested interest in the Islamic world are now exploiting the situation for their own purposes.
SPIEGEL: Who do you mean exactly?
Fogh Rasmussen: Some countries such as Iran and Syria are using the commotion to distract attention from their own problems with the international community. The Palestinians, who have been deeply divided since their election, have found a common enemy in Denmark that unites them. Extremists and fundamentalists are exploiting the conflict to promote their radical agenda and win new members.
SPIEGEL: What did you personally think when you first saw the drawings in Jyllands-Posten?
Fogh Rasmussen: I do not even remember when I saw them for the first time. I had to take a sudden interest when the public debate began. That is how it was for most Danes. Nobody had really paid much attention to it.
SPIEGEL: Still, they were in the biggest Danish newspaper.
Fogh Rasmussen: Caricatures are an important part of our culture of debate. They should defuse political spats through humor and irony. It is about making a strong statement but softening it with a wink. So Danes do not get too upset about caricatures. None of us is interested in insulting Muslims.
SPIEGEL: Did you massively underestimate the problem in the beginning?
Fogh Rasmussen: At first it was a domestic debate that we took very seriously. In my New Years speech I made it clear that this government would condemn any attempt to demonize a religious or ethnic group. This message was well-received by Arab governments and we thought the situation had been resolved.
SPIEGEL: You quickly found out you were wrong.
Fogh Rasmussen: The situation suddenly escalated and we still dont know exactly why. But it is clear that some Danish religious leaders traveled to Islamic countries and that that is when the misinformation about us began to appear all over the place. Fuel was thrown on the fire.
SPIEGEL: Havent you also made mistakes?
Fogh Rasmussen: I do not think that we could have done anything differently. Even now there is still a rumor that the government refused to meet with a delegation of 11 Islamic ambassadors. Thats not true. Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller met with them way back in November. This is normal. However, the ambassadors demanded that I take legal action against the paper. And I advised them that a democratic Danish government could not and would not do that.
SPIEGEL: Then why did your Swedish colleague Goran Persson criticize you and say he would have never underestimated such a situation?
Fogh Rasmussen: First, he is not in my situation. Second, I would never get involved in any domestic issue in Sweden. And third, I am especially honored to be attacked by the Swedish Social Democrats - it is a sign that our policies are the correct ones.
SPIEGEL: The religious leader of 27 Islamic groups in Denmark has accused you of ignoring a petition from 17,000 faithful Muslims who used their signature to express their anger.
Fogh Rasmussen: That was also a misunderstanding. They suddenly appeared at my door unannounced. I wasnt even there. But I believe I have answered every letter and note.
SPIEGEL: Two years ago, when you awarded a Freedom Prize to the Dutch screenwriter of "Submission," a film by Theo van Gogh that was criticized by Muslims, you met with representatives from various foreign organizations. Why did you react differently this time?
Fogh Rasmussen: At the time it was not about religion but rather integration - about immigration and asylum policies. Even then there were significant differences of opinion between religious and political representatives. But some religious leaders have two faces - in English or Danish they send messages of understanding, but in Arabic they do the opposite. There are even fake drawings circulating through the Islamic world that were never published in Denmark. This is not in the interest of the broad majority of moderate Muslims in Denmark.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel the international community is offering enough support?
Fogh Rasmussen: I cannot complain. All of our partners - the European Union, NATO and the US - have demonstrated their solidarity. This is important. The Islamic world must realize that we are not isolated. Its not about caricatures, its about democratic values.
SPIEGEL: Are you happy that newspapers in other countries have printed the caricatures out of solidarity?
Fogh Rasmussen: That is up to the papers themselves. At least it has sparked a discussion about the different interpretations of freedom of opinion and solidarity between journalists around the world. I can only continue to emphasize that the drawings were not published by the government but by an independent newspaper. So neither the government nor the Danish people can be held responsible.
SPIEGEL: Do you expect a powerful reaction from the EU to the economic boycott of the Arab countries?
Fogh Rasmussen: EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson made it abundantly clear that a boycott of one member-state is a boycott of the entire EU. It is one thing to take on little Denmark, but it is quite another to take aim at a powerful community of 25 countries that represent the worlds biggest economic power. And it underscores the fact that the EU is a community with common values.
SPIEGEL: Solidarity alone wont end the boycott. What still has to happen?
Fogh Rasmussen: Im pleased that the EUs chief diplomat, Javier Solana, is going on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East this week to meet not only with governments but also with Islamic religious leaders. This will help. At the same time, we are trying to defuse the conflict bilaterally. And there are some signs that tensions are easing.
SPIEGEL: Your government launched an ambitious program two years ago to strengthen the dialogue and ties with Arab countries that has now failed. How are you going to revive this program?
Fogh Rasmussen: It is a paradox: we were one of the first countries to start such a partnership program and we are among the largest net contributors to, for example, the Palestinians. And now we have to watch as the Danish flag is burned and violent demonstrations against us are organized. The Arab initiative was supposed to accelerate economic and social reforms in the region so its now a shock to be so severely criticized. At the time, we felt we were at the forefront of modernization.
SPIEGEL: Now some are calling for a drastic reduction in economic support to, for example, the Palestinian Authority.
Fogh Rasmussen: We wont change our policies. Its now time to calm the waters, not cut funds. In the long-term, it would be in our own best interest to rebuild our good relationship with the Arab world.
SPIEGEL: Will you also be able to convince your political partners in the Danish Peoples Party, who are critical of Muslims in their xenophobic attacks?
Fogh Rasmussen: Xenophobic is your word. The Peoples Party has a firm stance on immigration and crime. In other areas, such as social policy, its further to the left than my party and even the Social Democrats. Its not a classical right-wing party.
SPIEGEL: For Denmark and its liberal tradition, offering a number of citizens police protection is completely foreign. According to some statements, terrorists are even targeting Denmark.
Fogh Rasmussen: We have taken the necessary security precautions. But the threat is nothing new. Its been a fact for the whole world since September 11, 2001. But its true that Denmark has now gained a kind of sad notoriety.
SPIEGEL: In light of the increased attacks on Danes and the threats to Danish installations, you have suddenly begun sounding almost apologetic. Isnt this surrender in the face of violence?
Fogh Rasmussen: Nobody can deny that the caricatures insulted the beliefs of many Muslims. And its right to show understanding for this. The government doesnt have any interest in insulting Islam or any other religion. But all of the protestors must understand that the Danish government has no means of controlling a free press. This is the main problem: we are all talking at cross-purposes.
SPIEGEL: Can this miscommunication cause the clash of civilizations Samuel P. Huntington has always warned us about?
Fogh Rasmussen: I have thought much about that, but we cant allow ourselves to lose sight of that risk. Unfortunately, there are signs that this is whats brewing - it cant be denied and I regret it. But it only underscores how important our Arab initiative was as a policy of détente two years ago. We have to be honest with ourselves that there are extremists who want precisely this clash of civilizations.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Claus Christian Malzahn, Mathias Müller von Blumencron und Manfred Ertel.