By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 10, 2006
COPENHAGEN, Feb. 9 -- Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark said Thursday that the governments of Iran and Syria had intentionally inflamed Muslim protests against a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad to distract attention from their own diplomatic crises.
"Syria and Iran have taken advantage of the situation because both countries are under international pressure," Rasmussen said in an interview that echoed statements Wednesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rasmussen also said he would "not exclude the possibility" that Syria had also been involved in violent protests in Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
"I think they have taken this opportunity to use this case and a small country like Denmark as a distraction," Rasmussen said. He alleged that Iran was trying to divert attention from international pressure over its nuclear program and Syria from allegations that it was behind the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
"It is obvious that these events have now gone beyond the cartoons," he said, responding to a question about Rice's statements. "We are now facing an international crisis which has its roots in tensions in the Muslim world."
Rasmussen said he held "the two governments responsible" for mobs that attacked and burned Danish embassies in Tehran and Damascus. He said Denmark had lodged formal protests with the two governments and was considering further "diplomatic steps," which he declined to specify.
Rasmussen, a right-of-center former economic affairs minister who was elected in November 2001, said he has watched the events of the past week in "disbelief and sadness." Protesters in countries in the Middle East and Asia have burned Danish flags, attacked Danish embassies and called for Danes to be beheaded and massacred for cartoons seen in the Muslim world as a grave insult to the most revered figure in Islam.
"We are seeing ourselves portrayed as an intolerant nation, as a nation hostile to Islam," Rasmussen said in his spacious corner office at the parliamentary palace. "And it's a false picture. I think it's fair to say that Denmark is one of the most open and tolerant countries in the world. We have a real freedom of religion and we do respect all religions."
Rasmussen, who received a phone call of support from President Bush on Tuesday, said he was pleased with Bush's recent statements condemning violence against Danish diplomatic missions.
"We consider ourselves a faithful and loyal ally of the United States and we appreciate very much to see this reciprocated in the support from the United States," Rasmussen said.
The Bush administration's statements on the situation have shifted. Initially, the administration condemned the cartoons as offensive, but now Bush and other officials are stressing their opposition to the widespread violence. Rasmussen said the administration's initial stance on the cartoons "caused some public debate in Denmark, whether it could be considered a support or not. . . . We do realize that this is also a balance for the United States."
Muslims have staged violent demonstrations against Denmark in Iraq and Afghanistan, where several people have died in protests. But Rasmussen said Denmark had no plans to withdraw or reduce its 530 troops in Iraq or 390 troops in Afghanistan because of that violence.
Throughout the crisis, Rasmussen has publicly said he was sorry that the cartoons had offended Muslims. But he has steadfastly refused to apologize for their publication, because, he said in the interview, "neither the government nor the Danish people can be held responsible for what is published in an independent newspaper."
During the growing global debate about freedom of expression -- and whether the Jyllands-Posten newspaper was wrong to publish the dozen cartoons -- Rasmussen has emerged as its unapologetic champion. "I think freedom of expression is the safeguard of all other freedoms," he said. "I consider freedom of expression the most important freedom of all."
Rasmussen said he supported free speech even when it was directed harshly at him. As Muslim anger has been channeled through the Internet, he has been the subject of unflattering cartoons and altered photos.
"I don't feel offended -- that's part of the game," Rasmussen said, laughing. "As a politician, I am used to caricatures. I think it's a question of culture and tradition and maybe one of the reasons why most Danes don't understand why cartoons can cause all this."
Rasmussen said he would not support an idea, suggested by a top official of the European Union this week, that the E.U. consider adopting a voluntary code of conduct for the press.
But Rasmussen said he did believe the government had a responsibility to limit some expression -- that which would incite violence or terrorism. Following his election, two months after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, one of his government's first acts was to pass an anti-terrorism law that prohibits instigating terrorism or offering advice to terrorists. That law was widely seen as one of Europe's toughest responses in a post-Sept. 11 debate over how far to restrict civil liberties in the name of fighting extremist violence.
"If the freedom of expression is oppressed or suppressed because of violence or the threat of violence, then freedom of expression is dead," he said. "Therefore, you must have certain limitations. It must be prohibited to incite violence or terrorism."
Many countries in Europe have laws banning racist hate speech that stem from their experiences with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
Rasmussen said Denmark has laws outlawing racist or blasphemous expressions. A group of 11 Muslim organizations used that law to sue the Jyllands-Posten newspaper after the cartoons were published in late September, but last month the prosecutor declined to go forward with the case, saying the cartoons did not violate those laws. The Muslim groups have appealed to Denmark's top prosecutor.