By DOUG SAUNDERS
Toronto Globe and Mail
February 08, 2006
He was unlikely to have stood out. A short man of 31 who could have passed for half that age, he had a feminine voice and soft hands and was somewhat toughened by his struggling beard and an air of calm confidence.
Ahmed Akkari, a young Islamic scholar and Danish activist, was on a mission. Having failed to get the prime minister to take action over the cartoons' perceived slight to Islam, he had sought help from esteemed figures in the Muslim world, he says.
Over the next few weeks, he would hand copies of his green booklet to the grand mufti of Egypt, the chief cleric of the Sunni faith, leaders of the Arab League, the top official of the Lebanese Christian church and others.
They stared in amazement at the images in the book, he remembered during an interview, and vowed to take action to help him.
"They said to me, 'Do they really say this is the prophet Mohammed? They must really have no respect for religion up there in Denmark.' And they said they would make it known."
Akkari now finds himself regretting the results of his brief journey, the somewhat distorted message of which flashed around the Muslim world by Internet, newspaper and text message, and caused millions of Muslims to believe that Denmark and the Nordic countries had become home to blasphemies.
While the Koran does not forbid depictions of Mohammed, the prohibition stems from concerns the prophet expressed that even well-intentioned images could lead to idolatry or show disrespect for Islam's founder.
As he sat in one of Copenhagen's neat brown stone buildings this week and gazed at the melting snow, Akkari grappled awkwardly with the global emergency that has sprung from his mission. Friends, strangers and close family members are now blaming him for exactly the thing he says he was trying to prevent: the caricaturing of Muslims as violent fanatics.
The riots, he acknowledged, have placed his fellow European Muslims in a far worse position than they had previously known.
"Yeah, it has been more violent than I expected," he said. "I had no interest in any violence. ... It is bad for our case because it's turning the picture completely from what this should be about, to something else - and this is a dangerous change now."
This has led to a dramatic switch in his tone: While he still expresses anger at the media for glibly printing images considered offensive to his faith, Akkari was eager to find a way to quickly resolve the crisis - and to send a message to the violent Muslim protesters that might cause them to cease and desist. He suggested a joint news conference with the Danish prime minister or with the editor of the newspaper that first printed the images in which both sides would demand that their communities cease their most offensive activities.
Such a ditente now seems unlikely.
For his booklet contained not only the 12 depictions of the prophet Mohammed that had appeared in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September. He also filled it with hideous, amateur images of the prophet as a pig, a dog, a woman and a child-sodomizing madman.
Flipping through the book, he explained that these images had been items of hate mail sent to his colleagues by right-wing extremists who disapproved of their activism. These images, he insistently demonstrated, were separated from the newspaper cartoons by several pages of letters. "How could anyone mistake these for the newspaper images?" he asked. "It cannot be that anyone would make this mistake."
But protesters in Lebanon and elsewhere have cited these images in their actions. So have the organizers of a worldwide boycott campaign against Danish products, which is costing the country's economy.
"You should understand," he said, "that the boycott was more widespread than we thought it could ever be. In fact, we didn't ask for it."
He even seemed embroiled in the same fear that has gripped most Danes this week. "This could get a lot worse, and it could make life worse for Muslims here. If we can sort it out, if we can do something to help, make people take responsibility - all the people involved - then we have a chance of this violence not happening any more."
He had never meant this to be more than an internal Danish conflict, he says. It was meant to be a technical matter: How to get the government to acknowledge that something had gone wrong in this close-knit society, something that had caused its largest newspaper to ignore the feelings of a minority whose members number 180,000 in a country of 5.4 million.
His circle of Muslim leaders planned the overseas trip only after the domestic campaign had run aground. The newspaper had apologized for any offense the cartoons caused, but stood by the decision to publish them.
The leaders wanted a response from the Danish state. Akkari took part in efforts to bring legal action against the newspaper under hate-crimes laws, and to arrange a meeting between ambassadors from Muslim countries and the Danish prime minister. When these efforts were rebuffed, help was sought abroad.
But he had not intended his protest to go global. And he is horrified to find that the Danish people - and he proudly considers himself a Dane - have been demonized.
A gap has also emerged between Akkari and his family, who are secular Danes of Lebanese descent. He was born in Lebanon to a non-religious Muslim family. His father was forced to flee, as a political refugee, during the war in the 1980s.
"Maybe you could say I am more religious than he is," Akkari, who studied sociology at a Copenhagen university, said of his father. "But I don't think either he or I are on the extremes. Some people think I am very moderate, some think I am only a cultural Muslim, some think I am a fundamentalist."
Having provoked a deadly global confrontation between these poles, he said that he wasn't quite sure where to place himself.
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