'I was convinced we had found a solution to living together - not now'

Madeleine Bunting in Copenhagen
Friday February 3, 2006

http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,1701273,00.html

Every conversation quickly comes round to the subject, and opinion has become sharply polarised. The majority of Danes can't see what the fuss is about - a "storm in a teacup", said one, while Danish Muslims are incensed by what they see as only the latest evidence of an increasingly Islamophobic country.

Such sharp divisions over Islam have become a characteristic over the last 10 years in Denmark, profoundly shaking its sense of identity as tolerant and egalitarian. What the cartoon issue has exposed to global scrutiny is the passionate and often ugly debate here about what Denmark's 170,000 Muslims have to do to integrate.

At the centre of the storm over the publication of the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad is Ahmad Akkari. He has the role of explaining the Muslim position to an increasingly irritated Danish audience who are now seriously alarmed that this row is threatening the security of Danes in the Middle East and damaging economic interests.

"We are against censorship. We believe in free speech. Many of us fled our countries because of the lack of free speech," insists Mr Akkari, a social worker. "But what we told the editor of Jyllands-Posten [the paper which first printed the cartoons last September] is that they had picked the wrong test case for this freedom. They've picked on one of the most marginalised communities in this country, one that has many social problems and who have been struggling against Islamophobia here.'

Mr Akkari, 28, believes the cartoons were gratuitous and tasteless. He argues that it is his right to free speech to criticise the newspaper for associating all Muslims with violence by illustrating the Prophet with a bomb in his turban.

He is baffled why other European newspapers have chosen to inflame the situation by reprinting the cartoons. "From the start, we haven't asked the government to apologise. All we wanted was a clear stand from them that Muslims' freedom of belief would be safeguarded. From the newspaper, we want a clear apology."

Opinion polls indicate that 70% of Danes thought it was right to publish the cartoons, and every Dane prefaces their remarks with a fervent declaration of the importance of free speech. Many argue that if someone comes to their country, they must accept its values.

But those on the left fear the cartoons were the last straw for Muslims antagonised by an increasingly xenophobic attitude towards immigrants. They struggle to reconcile two conflicting principles - free speech and tolerance. What is now at stake is not just Denmark's reputation for tolerance and espousal of human rights but the Danes' very sense of national identity.

"I'm ashamed. As a young man, I travelled around the world and I was convinced that we had the best country and that we had found the solution to living together," says Martin Lidegaard a member of parliament for the opposition party, the Radical Liberals. "I was very proud but I'm not now."

Meanwhile, among Copenhagen Muslims there is real fury. Abubeker Idris pours out a bitter story of how he has tried to establish himself in Denmark over the last 20 years, but despite qualifications and perfect Danish, he has had more than 500 job rejections. He is now working as a taxi driver. "If there was a point to the cartoons, it might be different but what purpose do they serve? I respect Danish laws and pay my taxes, why can't they respect my feelings? I'm still called a foreigner. A member of the parliament called Muslims a cancer in Denmark, kill the cancer or it will kill you, she said - and no one challenged her."

For Manu Saleem, a Copenhagen councillor, the cartoons have been seized upon by Muslim groups as concrete proof of the Islamophobia they experience in Denmark, he says. A Dane of Indian background and a non-Muslim, he recognises the importance of freedom of speech to Danes - "they believe it is a Danish invention" - but he also insists: "If you have free speech, you also have a responsibility towards the people you are speaking about."

His concern is how the current crisis will deepen the segregation which has developed in Denmark over the last decade as Muslims have clustered in ghettos in its major cities, particularly in Copenhagen. One third of school children in the capital are from ethnic minorities. "Research last year showed that more and more of the ethnic minorities here don't feel they are Danish and don't feel any obligation to Danish society. At the same time, 50% of 'ethnic Danes' say they don't want to have any contact with ethnic minorities."

Ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to be unemployed or in low paid jobs, but the most worrying trend to Mr Saleem is that of those who leave school at 16 without basic reading and writing skills, 56% are from ethnic minority backgrounds. One of the most expensive education systems in the world is failing them. For a small country which prides itself on a highly educated, skilled workforce, the chances of these young people getting jobs are small.

"In 1980, there were 40,000 immigrants and by 2020 there will be 471,000 on current trends, and there is a real danger that the underclass will get much bigger," said Mr Saleem.



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