Denmark Is in the Eye of the Storm Over Muslim Cartoons

Published Feb. 26, 2006 by San Francisco Chronicle.

Aarhus, Denmark — The questions about my personal safety over the last few weeks have been constant. My mother, other family members and friends back home in the United States are all concerned about how edgy it has become here in Aarhus, the home of the now infamous Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that ran cartoon images of Muhammad.

But every time I hear my mother’s worrying voice, my face winces and I wonder why they think I’m in such danger. I am an African American student studying in Aarhus, a town of about a quarter-million people and Denmark’s second-largest city after Copenhagen.

The images coming in from around the world are amazing. Frantic mobs of people waving green and white Muslim flags while burning red and white Danish ones. Embassies burn while enormous crowds of people shout unsettling, threatening things.

That is a sharp contrast to what’s going on in Aarhus. No mobs have taken the city by storm. None of the town’s buildings has been set ablaze by angry or radical Muslims in retaliation to the offensive cartoons. Shop windows remain intact.

The Aarhus police department has reported no increase in the amount of crime since the publishing of the drawings.

It’s not an especially pretty town. Many of the buildings are made of cement or drab yellow brick, and the weather is neither clear nor warm this time of year. It has its charm, though, the same charm of many mid-sized European cities: a town hall with a big clock tower; antiquated churches; and a town center walking street with nice department stores and boutique shops. There’s also a large presence of American commercial enterprises such as McDonalds, Blockbuster and 7-Eleven. But it’s not a scenic place. There’s no Golden Gate Bridge in Aarhus.

Instead, Aarhus has the No. 15 bus line, popularly known to some Danes as the garlic express. The No. 15 gets its namesake because it takes you to Brabrand, the neighborhood where most of Aarhus’ Muslim immigrants live.

Brabrand is the suburb. Gellerupparken is the area, arguably the largest ghetto in Denmark. Seventy-five to 85 percent of Gellerupparken’s residents are not ethnic Danes. They live in the same segregation as immigrants do in most of Western Europe.

Many of the residents are second generation Danes, or “new Danes.” Many of them have trouble getting jobs because of the stereotypes attached to their Muslim surnames.

The residents of the neighborhood live in long, tall, 8-story apartment buildings with satellite dishes hanging from balconies.

Outside their homes earlier this month, 300 of them got together in a candlelight vigil to protest the violence that’s taken place in the Middle East.

Since the cartoons became front page news, Denmark’s Muslims haven’t reacted with cheers for the embassies’ destruction, nor have they begun burning Danish flags. Instead, they have come out with statements of disapproval of both the drawings and the violent protests. In Copenhagen those crowds swelled to 1,000 people.

But away from the streets, on computer screens, protests of Danish antipathy toward Muslims have surfaced. A group of young Danes has come together to create a Web site called which aims at creating tolerance and respect between Muslims and Danes.

“To break down prejudice, it is important to show that far from all Danes are hostile to Islam,” said Nikolai Lang, one of the five creators.

Another Web site that has seen a flurry of attention in response to the drawings The Web site was created by 20-30 Muslims outside Denmark, mainly of Palestinian descent. Their site apologizes to the Danish and Norwegians for damage done to their embassies in the Middle East. After four days online, the site received some 153,000 hits and almost 4,500 postings on their guest book. The rhetoric of those postings, mainly from Danes, is full of thanks, appreciation and apologies for the drawings.

There is anti-Muslim feeling in Demark, however. Two weeks ago, Danish Radio reported that unknown assailants defiled the Muslim section of a cemetery in the south of Denmark, “completely destroying 25 grave sites.”

The ultra right wing Danish People’s Party, which received 13 percent of the vote in last year’s election, is benefiting from the cartoon crisis. A recent poll showed that if an election was held today, the party, which proudly states that it does not believe in a multicultural society, would receive a 5 percent boost in support over last year.

In reference to a bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden, Pia Kjaersgaard, the party’s leader, told the BBC, “If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmo into a Scandinavian Beirut, with clan wars, honor killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Oeresund Bridge.”

Until now things have remained civil, but the fire under both sides of the argument has been stirred. Neither side is alone, and neither is getting quieter.

Comments are closed.