Danish imam says West must respect Islam

Danes are pointing fingers at a shadowy grouping of Muslim leaders, accusing them of instigating a global firestorm over drawings of the Prophet Mohammed during their recent trips to the Middle East.

Ahmed Abu Laban, the most prominent imam in the group, today said he condemns the violence but he insisted the uproar has brought a better understanding of Muslim values in the West.

“The volcano was inside,” he said at a mosque in northern Copenhagen. “Now it’s erupting, and after the volcano there will be peace again.”

Muslims do not understand Europe, and Europeans are reluctant to learn more about Islam, Abu Laban said, calling for more dialogue.

“We shall talk in Denmark. We shall talk in New York. We shall talk in Geneva … and they will listen to us that we believe in God. And most importantly … do not touch Mohammed.”

Abu Laban, a Palestinian immigrant, is a leading figure in the Islamic Faith Community, which is part of a loose Danish network of 27 Muslim organisations that turned to Muslim countries for help in the conflict over the newspaper publication of drawings of the prophet.

Experts say the grouping represents about 10% of Denmark’s 200,000 Muslims. The exact number of followers is unclear, as is its leadership structure.

Public opinion in Denmark turned against the group after several of its leaders went on trips to the Middle East in December, carrying a dossier with the cartoons from Jyllands-Posten and other images they said were offensive to Muslims.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused them of giving Denmark a bad name, saying he was “stunned” to learn about the trip.

The leader of the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjaersgaard, went a step further, accusing the group of conducting a defamation campaign against Denmark.

Group leaders have said they sought outside help because they found it hard to make their voices heard in Denmark.

“We distance ourselves from the violence. We still don’t think it’s because of our protest that people some places have used violence,” said Ahmad Akkari, a spokesman for the group.

Akkari said he was part of a four-man delegation to Lebanon, and also visited Syria on his own. Another delegation went to Egypt.

He said blaming the visits for igniting the violence was absurd.

“US President George Bush has been visiting many countries in the world and after this maybe some people were killed. … We cannot hold him responsible for that,” he said.

Still, many question why the group was not initially more forthcoming about who was on the tour, and exactly what was said.

“It’s so unusual that things are so badly documented,” said Helle Lykke Nielsen, of the Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. “We can normally trace things. Here, it’s kind of a porridge. You cannot tell who did what when.”

A poll released today showed 58% of Danes believe the Danish imams bear the main responsibility for the recent spate of violence, including flag burnings and attacks on Danish embassies.

The Megafon institute survey said 22% of the 1,033 Danes interviewed blamed Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the Mohammed drawings in September.

Jyllands-Posten has apologised for offending Muslims by printing the drawings but stands by its decision to publish them, citing freedom of speech.

Many Danish Muslims say the group that travelled to the Middle East does not represent them.

“I think the drawings offended nearly all the Muslims in Denmark. But there is a difference of opinion on how to solve it,” said Zubair Butt Hussain, a spokesman for a Danish group called Muslims I Dialog (Muslims in dialogue).

He said his organisation declined to be part of the Mideast trip, and wanted to find a local solution to the dispute.

“That’s because we see ourselves as Danish Muslims and we would hope that a majority here would accept us as Danish Muslims,” he said.

Abu Laban, who was not on the trip, rejected the notion that the Islamic Faith Community had increased the outrage over the prophet drawings.

“We have not put fuel on the fire,” he said. “We have not stirred or agitated the Muslim masses.”

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