From Muslim activist to free speech defender: the story of Ahmad Akkari and the Danish cartoon controversy

Katie Engelhart speaks to Ahmad Akkari to find out why he apologised to one of the Danish cartoonists eight years after fuelling worldwide fury.

Shortly after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published its now-infamous series of Prophet Muhammed cartoons in 2005—which gave rise to the so-calledDanish Cartoon Controversy’— Danish political activist Ahmad Akkari embarked on an international tour that was meant to stir up outrage amongst Muslims. Akkari, a prominent leader in Denmark’s Muslim community, joined a group of Imams that led protests against the cartoons—and helped to turn a Danish debate into a global panic. In the weeks that followed, dozens were killed in violent protests.

In August 2013, Akkari abruptly reversed course. In a number of public interviews, he expressed regret for his role in stoking worldwide fury—and categorically asserted that Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the cartoons.

Free Speech Debate’s Katie Engelhart spoke with Akkari about free speech, as it applies to discussions of religion:

KE: Seven years ago, you were mobilising opposition to the cartoons. What was your rationale?

AA: At that time, I saw the world from an Islamic point of view. I believed that we had something holy, above the law in any country. My rationalisation was that people should be forbidden from offending what is holy.

We didn’t observe the law in Denmark. We didn’t care. I thought: Islamic law forbids what is going on, so we should do what is necessary to make [the newspaper] withdraw its drawings and stop what it is doing.

KE: So you believed, at the time, that even the secular press should respect Islamic law?

AA: That’s a discussion we can still have today: should the press respect these religious symbols, or not? The problem is that, according to the Islamic point of view, this is not up for discussion. The Islamic point of view wants censorship.

KE: What changed for you?

AA: Well, it was something very personal. In 2007, I moved to Lebanon. That inspired a big frustration in me: about the differences between people, about injustice in that society. At the time, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was very deeply frustrated. I tried to talk to prominent figures in Lebanon’s religious community, but nobody could give me any good answers.

Then, I was in Greenland from 2008-10. It was a quiet period, with a lot of reading. I started seeing things more deeply. I dug deeper into philosophy, new ways of thinking. I started to read with more critical eyes. In 2011, a friend gave me a series of books written by [the now-deceased Cairo University professor] Hamed Abu Zaid, an intellectual who offers critical interpretations of Islamic law and the Koran. I read Critique of Religious Discourse. I was surprised to find that it took a very academic approach: sober, and very logical

At that time, I was already experiencing intolerance within this community because I was asking critical questions. It became clear to me that there is a very deeply rooted intolerance in Islam towards accepting critical points of view. That was the end for me.

KE: To go off that last point: Do you think the Islamic community reacts especially violently to criticism, or to negative depictions in the media?

AA: Yes, there is a truth in that. But I want you to realise that we are talking about three points of view, not two.

The first point of view is the one taken by the cartoon publisher. He said: we are using our freedom of speech and publishing what is in our right to publish. The second one came from democratic societies in the West that criticised the publication. They don’t think such publication should be forbidden, and they do not talk about censorship. But they think it was perhaps unwise, given that Muslims are a marginalised group. They think this kind of thing creates instability in our society—that it could produce a new underclass, a socially isolated group. The third point of view is the Islamic point of view: that we cannot accept any publishing of this kind. They want censorship. They want free speech reduced.

It is the last point of view that I am criticising today. The rest is worthy of sober debate. It is much needed in the West.

KE: Let’s look at that second point of view. In Western European countries, should the media take extra caution before criticising Islam—because Muslims make up a minority, and sometimes experience prejudice?

AA: Not at all, Katie. I think the media should criticise because you have a large Muslim faction that is working against the integration process. The media has a right to criticise and to talk about minorities – even harshly. I don’t believe that if the media is less critical then everything will just be fine by itself.

KE: Today, do you represent first or second group?

AA: I belong to those who say: if the cartoons’ publication created a debate about something important, that is legitimate. Let’s have the debate.

KE: Some argue that your reaction to the cartoons back in 2006 has had a chilling effect on free speech, making journalists, artists and others fearful of talking openly about Islam. Do you think that argument has merit?

AA: No. I don’t agree at all. Even before the cartoons were published, the same writers and artists were afraid. They thought: what could such publication unleash? So it’s older than that movement. The protests were a manifestation of the problem, not the reason for people being scared.

KE: How does “respect” play into this?  Do writers, artists and others need to respect religion? Or be careful not to offend it?

AA: We need a deeper dialogue about these issues. But whoever is debating the cartoons should first agree on the freedom of speech, the freedom of publishing, and the freedom of art. They should first agree on these principles. Then there can be a debate. My point of view is that Islamic communities do not allow those principles in the first place. That’s what I’m trying to talk about.

KE: You apologised in person to one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard [who as a result of the controversy, received numerous death threats and now lives under police protection]. What did he say?

AA: I am lucky to have met him on humanistic grounds. I wrote on my Facebook site that my meeting with Kurt Westergaard was a surprise. I expected a man who would be angry. But I was surprised to find a man who was free of accusation or blame. We talked, and he explained his reasons for drawing the cartoon. I think it was right that I should apologise like that.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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