Muslim Society Official Explains Mission Against Cartoons

Protests against cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad have led to a number of deaths and damage to Danish missions in several countries. The Danish cartoons came to worldwide attention in part because of Ahmed Abu Laban, the religious director of the Muslim Society in Copenhagen. Steve Inskeep talks to Laban.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Protest over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad claimed four more lives today in AFGHANISTAN. Police shot to death four protestors as hundreds of people rioted outside a U.S. military base in the southern part of the country. This morning, we're talking to one person who played a key role in igniting protests around the world. He's a Muslim activist in Denmark, and he called attention to Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

INSKEEP: The Danish cartoons came to worldwide attention in part because of Ahmed Abu Laban. He is religious director of the Muslim Society in Copenhagen. When the Danish paper first refused to apologize for the cartoons, Abu Laban and other Muslim leaders helped to get the incident attention in the Middle East. And he's on the phone now from Copenhagen. Welcome to the program.

Mr. AHMED ABU LABAN (Religious Director of the Muslim Society, Copenhagen): Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Now, let's talk about what you did. You and others working with you prepared a document that included these cartoons, and then you sent it to people outside Denmark, people in the Middle East. Who did you contact?

Mr. ABU LABAN: We contacted the director of Al-Azhar and the Mufti of Egypt, because Al-Azhar, since 1940, and with the beginning of Egyptian cinema, they published a fatwa concerning the display of the character of Prophet Muhammad in cinema, or whatsoever related to art.

INSKEEP: So you reached out to religious leaders in Egypt?

Mr. ABU LABAN: Yes. They are the religious leaders in Egypt. And they talked to the Sunni Muslims as well.

INSKEEP: And did you speak to people in other countries, too?

Mr. ABU LABAN: The second delegation has been sent to Lebanon, and our idea was very clear, that in Lebanon, whatever the fragile situation is at the moment, there have been a recipe of co-existence with Muslims, Christians and the subsets available, and working very hard to keep this kind of co-existence.

INSKEEP: But why appeal to people in Egypt and Lebanon?

Mr. ABU LABAN: Egypt, because we were not interested in media. We were trying to get some theological and academic assistance to our point. We like to expand the platform of dialogue among civilizations. So, let's seek help from professors, from scholars in the Middle East. It's not governments. We are not asking troops to come and invade Denmark. That's not the point.

INSKEEP: The Wall Street Journal, among others, has reported that the pamphlet that you distributed in other countries included images that were never published. You obtained cartoons that were even more offensive than the cartoons that were actually in the newspapers, and that this was in your pamphlet that was spread around the Middle East. Is that true?

Mr. ABU LABAN: We sent the delegation, flesh and blood, to make the point clear, away from any possible misinformation, but in addition to that, to tell people that Denmark is a good country, and Danes are very sweet people, and we have, as Danish Muslims, become a fundamental part of the society. And then we have a dossier, a binder where we have documented the events from A to Z up to the moment when the people reached Egypt. So...

INSKEEP: And that included cartoons that weren't even published in the newspaper?

Mr. ABU LABAN: Yes. The first section, the 12 cartoons of the concerned newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, and then another newspaper, a weekly one here in Denmark called WEEKENDAVISEN, or Week in the News, and the third one was intimidation letters. We tried to tell people in the Middle East about the mood of atheism, and how desperate we are to get their clarification and their religious and academic support.

INSKEEP: Intimidation letters? You're saying that people received these cartoons in the mail?

Mr. ABU LABAN: Yes. Some centers and some figures, and we do not display them here. We don't like to put oil on fire. We just put it on the dossier, and give it to the concerned people.

INSKEEP: Mr. Abu Laban, you mentioned pouring oil on fire. These cartoons were offensive to Muslims in part because they depicted the Prophet Muhammad as violent. Do you think it is appropriate that people have protested those cartoons by burning embassies and killing people?

Mr. ABU LABAN: We reject and we denounce any act of violence in Islam, and according to the genuine Shariah interpretation. It's only the cartoonist, the editor-in-chief, and the newspaper. They are our group whom we should initiate the dialogue. So, nobody should inflicted by any harm, whatsoever. To make damage to the property and to set fire to the embassies is counterproductive to our issues.

INSKEEP: Do you regret, then, that this has gone so far?

Mr. ABU LABAN: Excuse me?

INSKEEP: Do you regret that this has gone so far?

Mr. ABU LABAN: Well, the same way that Mr. Ford will regret that he produced a nice car, and a teenager had used it in the wrong way to kill himself or somebody else. We do not blame Ford because they produce nice cars. We produce the people who misuse them.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So you are not to blame, you say, for...

Mr. LABAN: No. No. No.

INSKEEP: Ahmed Abu Laban is religious director of the Muslim Society in Copenhagen, Denmark. Thank you very much.

Mr. LABAN: Thanks a lot. Have a nice night.

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