After the Danish Cartoon Controversy

Pernille Ammitzbøll & Lorenzo Vidino. Middle East Quarterly. Volume 14, Issue 1. Winter 2007.

On February 5, 2005, at the height of the tension following the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim protesters torched Denmark’s embassies in Beirut and Damascus. While many in the West looked on with bewilderment, protests spread across the Muslim world, and stores in Muslim areas removed Danish products from their shelves. Even as the cartoon crisis captured headlines around the world, most people outside Denmark remain unfamiliar with the forces propelling it. Like the Salman Rushdie affair before it and the furor over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks at Regensburg University after it, the cartoon controversy had less to do with genuine outrage over the depiction of Islam’s prophet and more to do with the ambitions, first, of a small group of radical imams and, later, of jousting Middle Eastern powers. Now that the dust has settled, what is the legacy of the crisis, not only for Denmark but also for the Western world?


Beginning in the late 1960s, a small Muslim population of Turks, Lebanese, and Somalis began to settle in Gellerup, a Western suburb of Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. Gellerup, known to most locals as “the ghetto,” suffers not only lower income, poorer education rates, and a higher crime rate than the rest of the city but also physical isolation. Its high-rises, which 28,000 Gellerup residents call home, are surrounded by a thick ring of public green and large boulevards. Designed in 1968 to house blue-collar workers and students from the local university, within two decades, Gellerup had become the destination of thousands of foreign immigrants who had moved to Aarhus to work in the city’s food industry. By the mid-1990s, few ethnic Danish residents remained in the development.

As immigrant isolation grew, few Danes, wrapped in the political correctness common across Scandinavia, were willing to talk publicly about the problems simmering among the population; officials and commentators labeled those who did as racists and “Islamophobes.” By 2001, attitudes began to change. In November, the center-right Liberal Party ended more than seven decades of left-of-center Social Democratic rule. In order to cement a coalition, the Liberal leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen reached out to the People’s Party, a nationalist party that had also made significant gains. The new conservative government introduced a series of measures affecting immigrants, ranging from cutting state benefits to raising the threshold required to obtain Danish citizenship. Such measures, especially in the wake of 9-11, triggered an intense public debate over the once taboo topics of immigration and integration.

While some politicians and commentators embraced an extreme tone, as when a People’s Party spokesperson compared Muslims to cancer cells, much of the debate was constructive.

For the first time, newspapers began to report crimes committed by gangs of teenage immigrants and honor killings of young Danish Muslim women. Politicians detailed overrepresentation of immigrants in benefit abuse and criminal activities. For example, in 2004, Danish authorities pressed charges against five times as many second generation immigrants than against ethnic Danes. In Copenhagen, three in four minors arrested is of immigrant background.

Journalists also began to focus attention on the activities of some of Denmark’s most radical imams. These clerics, for their part, did not hesitate to supply the media with headline-making statements. In 2004, one Copenhagen imam, for example, said in a televised interview that Danish women who do not wear the veil “were asking for rape;” other clerics recommended that Denmark adopt the tribal concept of blood money.

Enter Jyllands-Posten

At the forefront of Denmark’s new openness toward discussion of Muslim integration was Jyllands-Posten, the country’s largest circulation newspaper. Conservative but respected for independent reporting, in 2005, Jyllands-Posten won the “To Multiplicity, against Discrimination” award from the European Union for its positive coverage of successful cases of Muslim immigration in Denmark. At the same time, though, the paper began to run a series of stories on radical imams in the Aarhus area with particular focus on two who had made Gellerup their headquarters.

The first to be the focus of Jyllands-Posten was Raed Hlayhel, a Lebanese graduate of the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia where he immersed himself in Wahhabism. He moved to Denmark in 1999 after receiving a humanitarian visa to get medical care for his son but refused to learn Danish. Hlayhel established himself at Gellerup’s small Grimhoejvej mosque and began to preach his strict and politicized interpretation of Islam, attracting a small following among the neighborhood’s Arab population. His sermons repeatedly made Jyllands-Posten headlines, as he decreed that Muslim women should cover themselves from head to toe and will disqualify themselves from paradise if they wear perfume or go to the hairdresser.

Hlayhel teamed up with 28-year-old imam Ahmed Akkari. Born in Lebanon, Akkari had grown up in Aalborg and made a name for himself when, at age 15, local papers portrayed him as a model immigrant and joined a campaign to prevent his family’s deportation to Lebanon for illegal immigration. After winning his battle with the government, Akkari attracted attention for other reasons. In 2001, a Danish court convicted Akkari of assault after he almost ripped off the ear of an 11-year-old boy who had accidentally removed Akkari’s sister’s veil; in another circumstance, he advocated kicking unveiled Muslim girls.

Both Hlayhel and Akkari had an axe to grind with the Danish press and with Jyllands-Posten in particular. They saw an opportunity when Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Culture editor Flemming Rose explained that the idea of running such cartoons came to him “in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” In the aftermath of the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, ritually butchered in central Amsterdam by an Islamist who had been offended by van Gogh’s movie Submission, Rose was disturbed by several episodes in which European artists and publishers refused to display art or perform plays that could expose them to similar threats. Having learned that a local author writing a book on Muhammad was having problems finding illustrators, Rose contacted forty illustrators and asked them to draw cartoons on the subject, curious to see what their responses would be. Only twelve cartoonists responded. Most of the cartoons were harmless, but a few were offensive and two depicted the Prophet negatively: one drew him with a bomb-shaped turban and another as an assassin.

Anger within the Danish Muslim community was high. Some Muslim readers sent letters to the newspaper denouncing the cartoons and organized peaceful protests to express their frustration. For Hlayhel, this was not enough. “Muslims will never accept this kind of humiliation,” he admonished, “The article has insulted every Muslim in the world. We demand an apology.” Two days later, Hlayhel and Akkari contacted like-minded imams throughout the country and summoned them to Odense, halfway between Aarhus and Copenhagen. Addressing the clerics with a “you-are-either-with-me-or-against-Islam” rhetoric, Hlayhel said he would fight to obtain an apology and perhaps other concessions, not only from Jyllands-Posten but also from the Danish government.

Hlayhel’s attitude was likely shaped not only by strong religious convictions but also by personal ambition. He saw in the crisis the opportunity to enhance his own prestige within the Danish Muslim community. He could leapfrog from being an imam at a small mosque in the suburbs of Denmark’s second largest city to being the de facto leader of Danish Muslims. Hlayhel’s ultimatum put other imams in a dilemma: to play along and attract negative publicity or stand accused by a radical upstart of being insufficiently willing to defend Islam.

Enter Abu Laban

Ahmed Abu Laban, a 60-year-old Palestinian from Jaffa, who had become perhaps Denmark’s most famous imam, was a case in point. A frequent commentator on Danish television and in meetings with government officials, he had taken pains to label himself a moderate. But Abu Laban’s past was marred by connections with terrorists. He had settled in Copenhagen in 1983 after being expelled from both Egypt and Kuwait for his involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood. In Denmark, he became the right-hand man of Abu Talal alQassimy, a top leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Gama’a Islamiya who had received asylum in Denmark after fighting in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden and other future founders of Al-Qaeda. Many other Gama’a members subsequently passed through Copenhagen, including Al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Abu Laban also worked as a translator and distributor of Al-Murabitoun, the Gama’a’s official magazine, which was published out of Copenhagen and, at the time, glorified the killing of Western tourists in Egypt and urged the annihilation of Jews in Israel.

Abu Laban understood that leaving the spotlight to others could cost him his position of leadership within the Muslim community. Despite mutual suspicions, Abu Laban and Hlayhel teamed up to create and lead the Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Prophet consisting of twenty-seven Muslim organizations and mosques whose stated aim was to obtain an apology for the cartoons. The committee was less than met the eye, however; Abu Laban only invited imams to Odense known for their radical views. Many of the twenty-seven member organizations were either empty fronts or groups with no more than ten members.

A few days later, Hlayhel issued a press release demanding an apology from Jyllands-Posten on behalf of the entire Muslim community. His call for an apology was a veiled threat. “We are not threatening anybody,” said the Lebanese cleric, “but when you see what happened in Holland and then still print the cartoons, that’s quite stupid.” Abu Laban and the other imams also contacted the media and voiced their indignation.

While the story was top news in Denmark, outside reaction was muted. On October 17, 2005, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Fajr published the cartoons to illustrate that the depictions were in poor taste, as did the widely read Indonesian news website Rakyat Merdeka. Publication of the cartoons sparked not outrage, but only indifference.

Many moderate Danish Muslims sought to distance themselves from the committee’s actions. On January 16, Jyllands-Posten ran a front page story with the statements of forty-nine Danish Muslims who wanted to express their disapproval of the actions of the imams and dispel the notion that the committee spoke on behalf of the Muslim community.

For a few weeks, the radical imams continued to voice their protests while Jyllands-Posten defended its right to freedom of expression and satire. With their efforts going nowhere, the imams contacted the ambassadors to Denmark of various Muslim countries to seek their assistance in convincing the Danish government to force Jyllands-Posten to apologize. Eleven of the diplomats, led by Egypt’s ambassador Mona Omar Attia, sought a meeting with Danish prime minister Rasmussen to discuss the issue. Rasmussen refused. “This is a matter of principle. I won’t meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so,” the prime minister explained. “As prime minister, I have no power whatsoever to limit the press–nor do I want such a power.”

Internationalizing the Crisis

In response, the imams decided to escalate matters. Abu Laban called upon his connections throughout the Muslim world to “internationalize this issue so that the Danish government would realize that the cartoons were not only insulting to Muslims in Denmark but also to Muslims worldwide.”

Helped by the Muslim ambassadors, he put together two delegations of Danish Muslims who traveled to various Muslim countries to solicit support. The delegations met with, among others, Arab League secretary Amr Moussa, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, and influential Sunni scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The delegation showed each of these leaders the twelve cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten along with others which had never been published in any Danish publication. The new cartoons were much more offensive than the original twelve: one was falsely alleged to depict the Prophet Muhammad with a pig face and another to show him having intercourse with a dog. When challenged with this fraud, the imams said that the new images had been sent to them via e-mail as threats and had been shown to their Middle Eastern hosts only to give them an idea of the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in Denmark, a claim that cannot be verified. A booklet presented by the delegation contained several blatant untruths about the oppression of Muslims in Denmark, claiming Muslims do not have the legal right to build mosques and are subjected to pervasive racism. Some of the imams also gave interviews to Arab media, reiterating their accusations and claiming that the Danish government was planning to censor the Qur’an.

The imams’ tour was successful. By the end of December, the cartoon controversy had become international. Middle Eastern regimes, trying to ride the wave of religious revival influencing their populations, rushed to condemn the cartoons and called for boycotts of Danish goods. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League held meetings on the matter. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups used the controversy to prove their claim that the West hates Islam. Many groups and organizations for different reasons opportunistically jumped on the “I hate Denmark” bandwagon.

News of the Danish controversy spread throughout the Muslim world. The same cartoons that had not sparked reaction in October caused outrage three months later. At the end of January and the beginning of February, the West watched as the cartoon controversy peaked. In Denmark, a country where even top politicians normally go around on bicycles, security guards were assigned to various Jyllands-Posten editors, and bomb threats were called in almost daily to various newspapers. Danish websites were hacked, and Islamists posted on-line threats of attacks against the country.

Various clerics issued fatwas calling for the death of the twelve cartoonists, and a Pakistani cleric even put a US$1 million bounty on their heads. Several Muslim countries officially endorsed a boycott of Danish goods launched by religious organizations. Protesters from Gaza to Jakarta burned Danish flags and effigies of Rasmussen. That many used the controversy for local reasons was apparent. In Pakistan, where Islamists could not find buildings with Danish links, they attacked U.S. fast food restaurants. In Libya, rioters did not attack Danish facilities but targeted the consulate of Italy, the country’s former colonial power. In Yemen, government forces falsely accused opposition journalist and free press advocate Hafez al-Bukari of accepting Danish money. And in Afghanistan, the target was the U.S. air base at Bagram.

Enter Naser Khader

Paradoxically, a year later, the consequences of the crisis have been largely positive for Denmark. There has been no terrorist attack against either Denmark or Danish interests abroad. The boycott of Danish goods caused only minor losses for some Danish companies but did not affect the country’s general economy. In some cases, the boycott backfired: Egypt saw a 30 percent drop in Scandinavian tourism, and Danish papers reported that the Egyptian tourism attaché in Denmark was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from Egyptian hotel owners begging him to bring back Danish tourists. Danes also proved the imams’ accusations of Danish racism wrong; there was not a single anti-Muslim attack in Denmark throughout the cartoon crisis.

The controversy catapulted the debate about Muslim integration into the top issue among all political parties in Denmark. Seldom is there a day without a newspaper editorial, university roundtable, or a television program discussing Muslim integration. Compared with the period before the crisis erupted, the debate is more sophisticated and nuanced. The Danes understand that the Muslim community is not a monolithic bloc but encompasses different religious traditions, ethnic backgrounds, and political opinions. The crisis has taught the Danes to distinguish between Muslims who believe their faith is compatible with a secular democracy and seek integration and those who promote Shari’a (Islamic law) and shun Danish society.

Rose wrote in an editorial that the country’s radical imams have been marginalized and “no longer speak for the Muslim community in Denmark because moderate Muslims have had the courage to speak out against them.” Possibly the most positive consequence of the cartoon controversy is the emergence of a number of moderate Muslim leaders, who have confronted the imams and affirmed their pride in living in a society that gives them freedom of expression and religion. The best known among this group is a young Syrian-born Danish parliamentarian, Naser Khader.

Khader moved to Copenhagen in 1974 at the age of 11, rejoining his father who had found a job there as an unskilled worker. Learning Danish, he received a Master’s degree in political science in 1993 and launched a successful political career, first locally and then nationally, making integration a priority issue. For more than a decade, Khader had criticized the attitude of many Muslim immigrants who settle in Denmark without embracing its values. His 1996 book, Honor and Shame, which denounced some aspects of Middle Eastern culture as backwards, led to a violent confrontation with Abu Laban; the two men have not spoken since. While Danish media had once characterized the dispute between Abu Laban and Khader as merely a rift within the Muslim community, they now recognize its significance to and consequence for Danish society.

At the height of the cartoon controversy, Khader founded the Democratic Muslim Net work, an organization aimed at uniting moderate Danish Muslims. Membership in Khader’s organization is dependent on endorsing a document called “The Ten Commandments of Democracy,” the first commandment of which is, “We must all separate politics and religion, and we must never place religion above the laws of democracy.”

Abu Laban has described Khader and his Muslim supporters as “rats in a hole” and “cowards” responsible for the troubles of all Muslims in Europe. Then, in March 2006, French journalist Mohammed Sifaoui used a hidden camera to tape comments made by the Danish imams during what they thought was a break in an interview. “If he becomes minister for foreigners or integration,” said Akkari, “wouldn’t there be two guys sent over to blow up him and his minis try?” Because of the ensuing outrage, Akkari wrote an open letter to Khader, apologizing for what he called his bad joke.

While few Danes still tolerate fake moderates and their double talk, where do most Danish Muslims stand? Khader’s organization has more than 15,000 non-Muslim supporters but only 1,100 Muslim members, making Muslims a minority in their own organization. Khader responds that membership does not mean much. He points to the People’s Party, which has 3,000 members but which obtained 13 percent of the vote in the 2001 elections.

Still support could be higher. Many Muslims support Khader’s vision but are afraid to do so publicly. Several who have endorsed Khader’s views have received threats. Others fear labelling by the radical imams. “If you disagree with the imams you are accused of defending Jyllands-Posten, of being against Islam,” said Rabih Azad Ahmed, a Palestinian-born Gellerup resident active in various intercultural initiatives. “Moderate Muslims are stuck in the middle.”

The Security Services’ Dilemma

While Danes sympathize with the moderate Muslims, the government must still address the radicalism of a segment of the community. No solution is without consequence. PET (Politiets Efterretningstjeneste), Danish domestic intelligence, knows well the goals of the radical imams but may fear alienating them. “I could have raised hell here in Denmark,” said Abu Laban in the aftermath of the cartoon controversy, “I could have made the Muslims lash out.” Concerned with the immediate goal of avoiding violence inside Denmark, PET still engages with Abu Laban and other radical imams and sometimes praises them. In a controversial interview given in March 2005, Hans Joergen Bonnichsen, the former PET head, accused the media of demonizing the imams whom he praised for their role in calming down the Muslim community during the crisis.

PET’s policy of short-term obsequiousness may have long-term repercussions. Radical imams use the authorities’ endorsement to boost their own status within the Muslim community, portraying themselves as the only ones who can represent and defend it. At the same time, the imams manipulate the relationship, becoming necessary mediators in any contact between authorities and the Muslim community. When, for example, in June 2006, a small right-wing group organized a provocative anti-Muslim protest inside Gellerup, the police dispatched in sufficient numbers and had to resort to the imams’ help to stop the local Muslim youth from attacking the protesters. If keeping order within the Muslim community is subcontracted to the imams, the state relinquishes part of its authority on its own soil to the benefit of megalomaniacal imams disloyal to Denmark and its democracy.

There are other reasons to be skeptical about the security services’ benign attitude toward radical imams. Tina Magaard, an expert in Islamic literature at the University of Aarhus, analyzed a sermon delivered by Hlayhel in the aftermath of the cartoon saga, in which, according to his Manichean vision of the world, he divided Danish society into good and bad. If Jyllands-Posten, the Danish government, and the People’s Party were evil for their roles in the cartoon controversy, PET and Arla, the Aarhus-based food industry giant that condemned the cartoons fearing economic repercussions against its businesses in the Middle East, are praised for solidarity with Muslims. Magaard believes that Hlayhel considers his own position in Denmark to be similar to that of Muhammad in Medina when the Prophet, having limited power at that stage, formed alliances with tribes of polytheists and Jews. PET and Aria, in Hlayhel’s vision, are good Danish “tribes” with whom a deal can be made for the greater good of Muslims. But Hlayhel’s covenant, like Muhammad’s, Magaard warns, is revocable: it will be valid only as long as it serves the Muslims’ interest, and circumstances will change as the balance of power shifts.

The Aftermath

It seems that power may be the imams’ goal. Since the cartoon saga ended, Hlayhel has thrown his weight behind the construction of a large new mosque inside Gellerup, a project he had previously opposed. Wealthy Saudi businessmen have visited his mosque, attracted by his new notoriety. Since money for the construction of the mosque now comes from foreign sponsors supportive of his politics, Hlayhel stands to benefit more and expand his influence at the expense of those more beholden to the local community. Those moderate and liberal Muslim organizations on the other hand that do not receive foreign largesse struggle to survive. Some receive funding from the city council but often at the expense of accusations of being government puppets.

Like the cartoon controversy, the Danish solution to the dual dilemma of how to empower moderate Muslims without tainting them and how to marginalize radicals without backlash will have repercussions beyond Denmark’s border. While some in Europe are watching, many others remain in a state of denial, handicapped by political correctness and self-destructive taboos.