What a difference seven years makes. In 2006, violent protests exploded across Muslim societies in the Middle East and Africa, resulting in the deaths of at least 200 people. What sparked the riots was the publication of a series of cartoons in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, that included images — some critical, others benign — of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. (Many Sunni Muslims find any depiction of Muhammad’s image to be blasphemous.) The Islamic Society in Denmark played a key role in stirring up worldwide Muslim anger over the cartoons.
Jump ahead to the present. A wide array of Danish Muslim leaders from various organizations are firmly defending the free-speech rights of Lars Hedegaard, a polemicist who can perhaps charitably be described as a brutally harsh critic of their religion. Hope Not Hate, a British antiracist group, identified Hedegaard as one of the six leading anti-Muslim figures in Europe.
On February 5, Hedegaard was the target of an attempted assassination when someone dressed as a postal worker shot at him and barely missed his head. In response, Danes at first united in outrage against political violence. But then, as more of Hedegaard’s writings and remarks became known, some Danes wondered whether he had brought this attack on himself. “I think that Hedegaard wanted this conflict,” said Mikael Rothstein, a scholar of religious history at the University of Copenhagen. “Brutal words can be as strong as the brutal physical act of violence.”
Then the Muslim voices emerged. And they spoke with one voice: freedom of speech must be defended. Minhaj-ul-Quran International helped put together a protest in Copenhagen to condemn the assassination attempt on Hedegaard. As one Danish-born Muslim put it: “We don’t defend Hedegaard’s views but do defend his right to speak. He can say what he wants.” The Islamic Society of Denmark not only denounced the attack and defended free speech, they also said that they regretted what they had done after the publication of the cartoons seven years ago.
So far Hedegaard has not been moved by the outpouring of Muslim support for him and his freedoms. He declares that Muslims in Denmark will never embrace their new homeland’s belief in free expression. “There is no such thing as ‘moderate’ Islam, and there never has been,” Hedegaard said. “There may be shades of opinion among Muslims, but as a totalitarian system of thought, Islam has remained unchanged for at least 1,200 years.”
But Hedegaard is an anti-Muslim extremist, so his attitude is unsurprising. More reasonable observers recognize that Muslims in Denmark are taking this opportunity to show that they want to be both Muslims and Danes — that they can respect Danish political values while remaining true to their faith. Muslims “have changed their approach,” said Karen Haekkerup, Denmark’s minister for social affairs and integration. She considers their actions “a good sign.”
Diversity isn’t easy. It’s even harder in countries like Denmark that have, until recently, had very few immigrants from Muslim countries. When you add religion to the mix of language and culture, it’s still harder. Throw in the tensions between Muslims and the West in a post-9/11 world, and now you’re talking about a really daunting challenge. But it is a challenge Europeans, Americans, and every diverse society must overcome. And seeing this kind of progress in Denmark, coming from some of the same people who were at the center of fomenting violence in 2006 — well, that gives me reason to hope.
Ian Reifowitz is In The Fray‘s staff blogger and the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. Twitter: @IanReifowitz