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Danish Muslim cartoon critic recants.

The Danish Muslim who is credited with enflaming passions throughout the Islamic world over newspaper cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad has recanted and apologized.

Lebanese-born Ahmad Akkari now says the Jyllands-Posten newspaper had the right to print those cartoons.

In 2005, when they first appeared in print, they drew little notice anywhere--apart from the Danish Muslims who were complaining. Weeks passed and an angry Akkari finally organized a trip by Danish imams around the Arab world calling news conferences to denounce the cartoons and to call on Muslims to protest. Iran swiftly joined in, denouncing the West in general and the Danes in particular for offending Muslims. Iran also announced it was halting all trade with Denmark. But there is no evidence it ever did any such thing.

Akkari's unexpected change of heart has drawn praise in Denmark, though some question his sincerity. It has also disappointed some in the country's Muslim minority who were deeply offended by the cartoons.

Akkari, now 35, was a clergyman and the spokesman for a group of imams who led the protests against the cartoons in Denmark. They traveled to Lebanon, Egypt and Syria to elicit support, saying the Danish government wouldn't listen to their concerns. Their journey helped turn the dispute into an international crisis. Dozens were killed in weeks of protests that included violent attacks against Danish embassies in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Tiny Denmark found itself on a collision course with the Muslim world--something Akkari says he now regrets.

"I want to be clear today about the trip: It was totally wrong," Akkari told The Associated Press last week. "At that time, I was so fascinated with this logical force in the Islamic mindset that I could not see the greater picture. I was convinced it was a fight for my faith, for Islam."

He said he's still a practicing Muslim, but started doubting his fundamentalist beliefs after a 2007 trip to Lebanon, where he met Islamist leaders. "I was shocked. I realized what an oppressive mentality they have," Akkari said.

A year later, he moved to Greenland, the desolate Danish Arctic island, where he worked in a school for two years. "I had plenty of time to read and write. And think," said Akkari, who has shaved off the patchy beard he used to wear.

In another interview last week, Akkari said, "I have become much wiser. I take a very critical view of the mindset I represented then. There is something terribly wrong when everything is seen as a battle between good and evil, where one's own position is the only thing that is good. All other ideas are seen as an attack that must be countered. And that is dangerous."

Akkari said, "It creates a world that lacks shadings and hues. Everything is black and white. Life becomes a struggle between us and the rest of the world. That is not reality. What makes it even more dangerous is that they have begun to attract young people from gangs and prisons. They may not have the brainpower to be critical of what they are told."

Akkari spoke of his meeting years ago with Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten at the time of the cartoon incident. Juste, he said, "saw a world that swallows up people's capacity to innovate and to see the world more broadly. He tried to take a poke at that. I'm not sure it was the right way to go about it. But now I understand the concern." In 2005, Jyllands-Posten noted that Muslims oppose any depiction of the prophet--even favorable ones. The concern is that it could lead to idolatry. The newspaper said such religious sensitivities should not limit freedom of expression. And so it invited Danish cartoonists to draw the prophet.

The Jyllands-Posten view is a common one in Europe, where demands by Muslims for respect are seen as pressures to suppress free expression. The view in the media in the United States, a country comprised of numerous ethnic and religious minorities, is the exact opposite. Cartoons that ridicule an ethnic or religious minority are seen as offensive and provocative. A decision to refuse to print them is not viewed as self-censorship but as simple courtesy.

At the time in 2005, Akkari joined Muslim hardliners demanding an apology from the paper and action against it by the government. The government said it did not agree with Jyllands-Posten but had no basis for acting against the daily, which was operating within the parameters of freedom of expression.

Akkari now says printing the cartoons was permissible and his reaction at the time was wrong. Last week he even apologized in person to one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, who has faced multiple death threats and murder attempts. Many Muslims consider Westergaard's drawing, which depicts the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb-shaped turban, as the most offensive.

Westergaard said of his meeting with Akkari, "I met a man who has converted from being an Islamist to become a humanist who understands the values of our society. To me, he is really sincere, convincing and strong in his views."

Akkari's former colleagues in the Islamic Society of Denmark are not impressed, and have reportedly accused him of being an attention-seeker trying to get back into the limelight.

That group's spokesman, Bilal H. Assaad, declined to comment to the AP on Akkari but said, "It is still not permissible to publish drawings of Mohammad. We have not changed our position." The group is believed to represent about 10 percent of Denmark's estimated 200,000 Muslims.

Michael Ulveman, who was an adviser to then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen during the cartoon crisis, expressed doubts about Akkari's sincerity.

"I think Ahmad Akkari should go on Al-Jazeera and tell the Arab world about his new realization," Ulveman wrote on his Facebook page. "That would have real value for Denmark and the freedom of speech--and convince many of us about the depth and reach of his reorientation."
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Title Annotation:Faith: Religion and the world; Ahmad Akkari
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Aug 16, 2013
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