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Drawing the wrong conclusions

Amid the cartoon crisis, Danes are girding for a culture war. What they should do is help Danish Muslims build an Islam compatible with modern Europe.

On Feb. 4, Muslims gathered in Copenhagen to protest the publication of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
On Feb. 4, Muslims gathered in Copenhagen to protest the publication of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. (AP Photo)

THE EDITORS OF the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published the 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed that set off a worldwide furor, believe they are the victims of a ''clash of civilizations." Only Christians support free speech, the paper's chief editor has written, and the paper did the right thing by publishing the cartoons. But it will never be able to do the right thing again, he claimed, because the Muslims have won this battle in the ''culture war."

With pictures of demonstrators in London demanding the beheading of the editor and rioters burning down Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus, it's easy to agree with him. The paper's story of victimhood is true, but it's also self-serving. The paper solicited the cartoons from Danish artists to protest the spread of ''self-censorship" in Denmark. But considering that members of parliament from the Danish People's Party, which is part of the government's majority, have called Muslims ''a cancer on Danish society" some critics argue that the problem is that there is too little self-censorship in Denmark.

Jyllands-Posten is the country's largest paper, with a circulation of about 175,000. But it is also a provincial paper, aligned with the party of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Rasmussen has long been on the offensive in the ''culture war," a term that politicians from his coalition government use frequently to describe a project that aims to drive multiculturalism and alien belief systems underground.

The international crisis set off by the cartoons reinforces Danes in their belief that they are the accidental victims of a war between Christianity and Islam. But sadly, the notion of a ''clash of civilizations" obscures the real challenges facing Muslims in Europe and ignores the fact that European Muslims overwhelmingly support building a faith that will be compatible with the modern European nations they now call home.

. . .

This crisis is personal for me. As a Dane, I am more accustomed to being asked to tell the story of how the Danes rescued some 7,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Now, I find myself being asked to explain how the ''good Danes" have turned into hate-filled racists with no respect for human rights. But the crisis is distressing for me not just as a native of Denmark.

I have spent the past three years interviewing some 300 Muslim leaders in Western Europe about their views on how Islam can be integrated in Europe. These interviews were with parliamentarians, city councilors, doctors, and engineers, a few professors, lawyers, and social workers, owners of small businesses, translators, and community activists. These Muslims are not fundamentalists or terrorists, and do not support the introduction of a new Caliphate. They are inclined to evoke human rights as the core of their belief system and speak in straightforward and practical terms about the need to make Islam adaptable to European norms, including the equality of women.

One of my interviewees, for example, was Fatih Alev, a young Danish imam. The child of Turkish immigrants, Alev is university-educated and approaches both men and women in the easy egalitarian way that characterizes Danes. He preaches in Danish and embraces his Danishness-with one notable exception. He thinks that Danes have lost their spirituality, and that this loss is a primary reason they have become so intolerant of immigrants. ''The Danish shelves for faith and spirituality are empty," he says, ''they fill them instead with fear of the 'strong' foreigner."

Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has argued that European Muslims and their organizations are ''Trojan horses" for Islamic fundamentalism, but this simplistic view overlooks men like Alev, and misunderstands the real obstacles he and like-minded Muslims face in trying to find ways to practice their faith in Europe. The theological faculties of public universities in Europe educate the clergy for the Catholic and Protestant churches, but there are no Islamic chaplaincy programs except for the madrassa run by the Tabligh, a Muslim missionary group originating in Pakistan, or the Islamic Centers financed by Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which mostly teach puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. Across Europe, there are about 6,000 mosques, not many for a population of perhaps 15 million or 18 million people. And only about 5 percent of the imams serving those mosques are estimated to have been educated in Europe.

The result is that the voices of the moderate majority can be drowned out by the radicals who hold sway over Europe's mosques. Two years ago, I attended Friday prayers and heard the khutbah, the Friday sermon, at the mosque of Ahmed Abu-Laban, one of Denmark's radical Muslims. Abu-Laban does not speak Danish, and he often loses his temper. When I spoke to him, he angrily denounced the failure of western democracy to live up to its commitments to religious tolerance. In December, Abu-Laban and a small group from his organization went on a trip to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, to show off the 12 Jyllands-Posten cartoons. The delegation also put three more cartoons in their portfolio-one showed a praying Muslim being raped by a dog-adding fuel to an already smoldering fire.

I don't believe there is a clash of civilizations going on in Europe, though there is a clash of values. But this clash is between two old European parties, the secularists, who believe religion should not influence the doings of governments, and the conservatives, who argue that faith is at the core of public values. Each is struggling to come to terms with the reality of religious pluralism in Europe. There are Muslims and Christians on both sides of this issue.

Rather than gird themselves for a culture war with Muslim immigrants, Danes would do well to nurture a European Islam. Europe is still riddled with privileges for established Christian religion. Austria, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Greece all have publicly subsidized faiths. In Germany, the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, as well as Judaism, but not Islam, are entitled to federally collected church taxes, and in France, 25 percent of students go to publicly funded Catholic schools. Islam is the beneficiary of no such infrastructure. Currently in Denmark, all Muslim prayer halls or mosques are in converted space-factories or small store-front shops. A 15-year-old campaign to build a mosque in Copenhagen has come to naught for lack of money and political red tape.

The cartoon controversy has sparked senseless destruction, but one of the more sensible responses that has been suggested is a constructive one. The government, says Herbert Pundik, the former editor of the liberal daily Politiken, should start a collection of funds from Danish citizens to build a mosque in Copenhagen to make amends to Danish Muslims. Pundik speaks on issues of religious tolerance with the authority that comes with being one of the Jews who was ferried across the sound to safety in October 1943. Denmark should listen.

Jytte Klausen is a professor of politics at Brandeis University. Her recent book, ''The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe," was published by Oxford University Press in December.

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