Conversion

09.17.13

The Repentant Radical

After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Ahmed Akkari spearheaded protests that ultimately cost the lives of 200 people. Now he says he’s sorry. Michael Moynihan on what changed Akkari’s mind.

The video surfaced on YouTube last month. Abu Khattab, a Danish member of the radical Salafi group Call to Islam, squats on a hillside in rebel-controlled Syria, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle, surrounded by three bearded and severe-looking men. He is waging jihad here, in this blood-drenched country choked by chemical weapons and on the precipice of Western military intervention. But Khattab has something else on his mind. In heavily accented Danish, he suborns the murder of “enemies of Islam” and murtadeen (apostates) living in Denmark, encouraging his co-religionists not to “forget the mockery” they have visited upon the Prophet Muhammad.

After Khattab’s short speech, the men drop to one knee, training their guns on a mud wall plastered with images of writers, artists, and politicians who have offended their religious sensibilities. They empty their clips. One jihadist pumps his fist in celebration. The camera cuts to the photo of the former radical Danish imam Ahmed Akkari, holding a copy of that infamous Danish cartoon—Muhammad with a lit bomb swaddled in his turban.

The picture of Akkari—once a hero of Islamism who not so long ago stalked the Middle East, inciting hatred against Denmark for not condemning a series of satirical drawings—was turned into confetti.

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In 2005 Akkari was a baby-faced religious leader, the pious but integrated immigrant called upon by the Danish media to explain Muslim discontent with the West. Danish historian Jytte Klausen found that between 1999 and October 2007, Jyllands-Posten, the country’s largest circulating daily, “published nearly 300 stories featuring Akkari.”

Many of those citations would come after September 2005, when Jyllands-Posten published 12 satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad—some respectful, some mocking Islam, some mocking the newspaper for soliciting them—that precipitated what is known in Denmark as “the cartoon crisis.” Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the illustrations, would later write that publication of the caricatures was “prompted by my perception of prevalent self-censorship among the Danish media,” a fear that the Islamic proscription on images of the prophet were encroaching on the country’s free-speech traditions. Most of the drawings have long since been forgotten. But it was a cartoon by artist Kurt Westergaard depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban that would provoke a violent global crisis.

“It was Westergaard’s image that change my life,” Rose wrote in his memoir of the “cartoon crisis,” published in 2010. It would dramatically alter Westergaard’s life, too. And Ahmed Akkari’s.

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Like the frantic and violent response to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the initial reaction to the cartoons was localized and muted—and largely confined to radicals like Akkari—but orgiastic violence was soon to follow. When the Danish government refused to condemn the drawings, citing the country’s tradition of free speech, Akkari, now the spokesman for a loose-knit organization of Danish Muslims called the European Committee for Honoring the Prophet, traveled with a group of imams to the Middle East, hoping to inflame public opinion against a country that had sheltered and financially supported them.

In early 2006 the peripatetic Danish imams lectured political and religious leaders across the region, distributing the “Akkari-Laban dossier,” named for Akkari and Abu Laban, a Copenhagen-based radical imam who died in 2007. The report contained the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, petitions for the Danish government, and supplementary material on Islamophobia in Denmark. Slipped into the dossier in what appeared to be an attempt to provoke further outrage were three deeply offensive images of Muhammad that weren’t from Jyllands-Posten—including one of Muhammad having sex with a pig. To many Danes, it was clear that Akkari and Laban were attempting, by any means necessary, to foment a regional revolt against Denmark. “I was ready to get the whole world moving,” Akkari told me. “I was surprised that it moved so quickly.”

It was a strange sight: bucolic, Social Democratic, slightly boring Denmark, the focus of homicidal protest (approximately 200 people would die in anti-Danish demonstrations). To flick on a television set in 2006 in Scandinavia, where I lived at the time, was to confront images of burning Danish flags, Danish embassies coughing out black smoke, Danish products pitched into trash cans, and vein-popping religious sermons demanding respect for Islam. Laban and Akkari seemed to be always close by, stoking the flames, warning the unbelievers that their mockery would be met with righteous violence.

Akkari and Laban had long been disaffected with life in Denmark, a country they saw as louche and irreligious. “Even though [the Danes] belong to the Christian faith,” the imams wrote in their dossier, “secularization has overcome them, and if you say that they are all infidels, then you are not wrong.” It was an argument that resonated among radical clerics in the Middle East.

As the death toll climbed, Akkari denied responsibility for the violence, arguing that it was "the cartoon from Jyllands-Posten that made people so angry—and nothing else.” In private, he fantasized about meting out violent punishment to his enemies. A French documentary crew secretly recorded Akkari threatening Naser Khader, a Syrian-born Danish politician and outspoken opponent of Islamism. The possibility of Khader achieving a high-level ministerial post in the Danish government prompted Akkari to comment that, if such a scenario came to pass, “shouldn't someone dispatch two guys to blow up him and his ministry?” Denmark’s deputy prime minister, Bendt Bendtsen, said that Akkari, who once begged to remain in Denmark, should be deported back to Lebanon.

As the cartoon crisis simmered, Akkari receded into the background. In 2008, after a rift with Laban, he disappeared to the empty expanse of Greenland. Five years later, his photo sits on a hillside in Syria next to Naser Khader’s and Kurt Westergaard’s, torn apart by bullets from a Kalashnikov. How did this leading figure from Denmark’s Islamist milieu, a selfless and tireless defender of the prophet, end up being denounced on the Syrian battlefield as an apostate?

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Ahmed Akkari is sorry.

In August, he apologized to Naser Khader. He apologized to Kurt Westergaard. He contacted Flemming Rose with an offer of a meeting and apology. He told a Danish newspaper that he owes “the entire nation of Denmark a formal apology.”

“He’s very brave. He’s taken a big step, and he’s ready to atone. He’s changed from being an Islamist to being a humanist.”

“I saw the world in a special way” back then, Akkari told me. “Now it is very clear to me that it’s a big problem that people aren’t allowed to change their minds. It’s something [Islamists] can’t tolerate. I don’t know how they are going to build a society, to have dialogues with other communities, if they are like this.”

When reports of his second thoughts filtered into the media, most writers underscored that while rejecting Islamism, Akkari was nevertheless still a Muslim. But the cartoon experience had so severely—and clearly—fractured Akkari’s faith that, after we spoke, I wondered if religion played any role in his new life.

Indeed, Akkari sounded like a formerly religious man sprinting toward agnosticism. “Actually, I haven’t been so fond of going out and saying anything about [my faith] loudly. Because things in life aren’t that simple. I’m not a practicing religious man as I was at that time ... I believe there must be a greater force or power—let’s say God—but I really can’t find him through all these religions.”

It was a stunning—if hesitant and qualified—admission. When I followed up with him by email, I asked if he still attends mosque. “Actually, I haven't participated in any formal mosque prayers for many years (unfortunately?!), except on one or two very special occasions. So I'm not attending any mosque—primarily because I can't stand the way preachers use the religious word and [because of] the lack of critical approach from many mosque congregants.” In another email, he wrote of his religious “doubts,” but stressed that “my problem isn't with 'God' but with the representatives of God on earth.”

One can’t help but wonder if Akkari is hairsplitting because of (understandable) fears for his personal safety. But as he acknowledges, his former comrades are allergic to nuance. “I see the problem in being marked as apostate, but it requires much less than what I've done to get ‘the mark.’” In another email exchange, Akkari wrote, somewhat cryptically, “I believe I haven't changed my religion, but I have been clear that I don't accept any kind of inquisition of any sort.” Piecing together his various thoughts on religion, it seems that, at the moment anyway, Akkari is a skeptical Muslim, one more concerned with preventing the religious radicalization of European immigrants than finding his own theological “truth.”

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Ahmed Akkari speaks to the press in February 2006 at a mosque in Copenhagen. (John McConnico/AP)

There is no simple explanation for why he flipped, but Akkari’s time in Greenland, having emerged from the swamps of Islamism, was crucial. “In Greenland, I had space and time—and I had the public library. I started reading.” It was there, shrouded in Arctic anonymity, that he confronted his own prejudices, reading books of philosophy, history, and sociology, ultimately consuming—but, he admits, not always comprehending—Danish existentialist philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard.

“In 2011 for the first time I read an Islam critic.” It was the work of Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, an Egyptian scholar exiled from his homeland and forced by an Egyptian court to annul his marriage for the “crime” of apostasy. His writings transformed Akkari. “He made me move further with my break from Islamism,” a system that he now views as “a way of controlling people. You use God, you use metaphysics, and that’s very strong.”

Akkari, once infected by with the virus of radicalism, now possesses all the curiosity of a university student. He recommends that I familiarize myself with an American academic named Wes Cecil, a professor at Peninsula College in Washington whose YouTube videos include disquisitions on Arabic literature, Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida, and Simone de Beauvoir.

But what really shocked his former allies—and sealed his fate even with Denmark’s mainstream Muslim community—was Akkari’s meeting in August with cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. A video of their meeting shows Akkari slightly nervous, almost deferential, and expressing his profound apologies. Akkari was surprised by Westergaard’s generosity—he expected “disgust.” “I told him that I was really sorry because I had been part of a movement that forced him to live under constant protection. Several people tried to kill him. And that was because of something that I participated in.”

His public atonement and embrace of Westergaard might force Akkari himself to live with perpetual police protection. “One of the imams in Denmark, who is now in Lebanon, has been spreading pictures of me shaking hands with Kurt. ‘Look how he fell to his knees, this man smiling to the person who committed such a vicious act by drawing the Prophet Muhammad.’”

Westergaard’s grim fate, which Akkari was instrumental in creating, was about to befall Akkari.

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“The negative responses have come primarily from the Muslim community, unfortunately,” Akkari says. Jacob Mchangama, a free-speech activist and author in Copenhagen, agrees. “Mainstream Muslim organizations are shunning Akkari,” he says. “This a challenge both to the multiculturalist left, who see Muslims as being this homogenous group, and the very anti-Islam right, who also see Muslims as this homogenous group.”

Despite the attention and plaudits from people like Mchangama, it’s a lonely existence for Akkari these days. When I asked him via email what effect his transformation had had on his social life, he was despondent. “Well, so much for friends and family. I think many haven't realized what I'm really saying, and I haven't seen them since that evening show on TV [in July, when he rejected his previous beliefs], so it’s hard to tell.” A few were sticking by him, but the political life requires political friendships. And those were dead.

Many of his former adversaries, those critical of Islam, have also been reluctant to embrace Akkari. “On the right, in the blog comments, you see many talking about taqiyya—the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says Mchangama, referring to the supposed Muslim technique of disguising true belief in the furtherance of religious goals. “It’s the way to explain Muslims who aren’t fundamentalist. ‘Oh, that’s just taqiyya.’ You can always win the argument.”

When I spoke to Westergaard, he dismissed those skeptical of Akkari’s motives and intentions. “He’s very brave. He’s taken a big step, and he’s ready to atone. He’s changed from being an Islamist to being a humanist.” But another of the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists, Franz Füchsel, was more skeptical of Akkari’s motives and less inclined to forgive his “evil past.”

“I am worried about his situation,” says Westergaard, who was attacked in his home by an ax-wielding Islamist in 2011 while his granddaughter watched television in an adjoining room. The 78-year-old’s own “situation” is one of constant interactions with PET, Denmark’s security service. He cheerfully shrugs off the inconvenience. “We drive in an armored car. And security follows me very close. But we aren’t in any kind of prison.”

It wasn’t always that way. During the height of the crisis, Westergaard described the disorientation and dislocation of living under guard. “All I wanted was to go home, and I came down with a mild bout of depression ... I felt like I’d been hit by this tremendous exhaustion. We’d just be sitting around in deserted holiday areas out of season with no one around and nothing going on.”

When I first spoke to Akkari in August, not long after he went public with his apology, he acknowledged a sense of unease, but dismissed the level of protection granted to Westergaard as unnecessary. “I’m anxious. But I haven’t gone so far as to have security around me all the time.”

This too would change.

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Like Westergaard—and unlike Akkari—Flemming Rose says he has no regrets about his role in the cartoon crisis. “I don’t regret anything. I have a clean conscience. And I’d do it again.” Eight years after he published the incendiary cartoons, Rose rarely speaks publicly about the editorial decision that upended his life. “I’m not in the public domain. I could do it, but I would have to pay a price.”

On a bone-chilling February day in Copenhagen, I met Rose at a restaurant just few blocks from the heavily surveilled and fortified entrance to Jyllands-Posten. He is unrepentant but nevertheless reluctant to revisit the subject, speaking haltingly about the cartoon crisis—but fluidly and without interruption on most everything else.

The transformation of Rose’s life, for which Akkari also takes a large measure of responsibility, has been permanent. “My security situation is the same as it was five years ago ... My name is not on the door [of my house]. I don’t necessarily come to work at the same time. I don’t leave at the same time.” This doesn’t seem to be excessive caution. A few weeks prior to our meeting, a gunman attempted to kill Lars Hedegaard, a well-known anti-Islam polemicist in Denmark. As a precautionary measure, the Danish security services immediately notified Rose.

According to Rose, fear of extremist violence prevented his memoir, Tavshedens Tyranni (The Tyranny of Silence), from finding an English-language publisher. (According to an English-language website for the book, “All rights [are] available,” with the relevant detail that any published version would contain “30–40 facsimiles, caricatures and photographs”).

“We had meetings with three or four big American publishers in 2008. My agent thought there would be an auction, but they all declined to make an offer.” Rose provided me with a translated manuscript of the book, a fascinating and gripping recapitulation of a personal—and political—universe transformed by religious fanaticism. I asked the obvious question: was the decision motivated by fear? “Yes, absolutely.”

Rose recalls one particularly positive meeting with a large American publisher. “During our conversation, [the editor] asked me to obtain the rights from the cartoonists. And then he just disappeared. Through my agent, he wrote me a private email saying, ‘I’m very sorry for this, but if it hadn’t been for all this fuss we would have been bidding on your book.’” Another publishing executive asked Rose if he was “prepared to go through with this again?” The implication was clear: American publishers certainly weren’t.

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I emailed Akkari the morning Danish television broadcast video of Abu Khattab pumping bullets into his photo. I asked if we could talk again: “Yes, of course you call anytime you see fit. Or write, since I'm leaving for a trip to get distance [from] the escalation here.”

The last time Akkari fled Denmark, to Greenland, he returned with an armful of philosophy books and a passion for Enlightenment values. “You go to a place to try to find meaning in life—God, a secure environment, a community you feel good about—and you end up looking very strangely at the world. I can’t explain to you how relieved I feel, sitting at my friend’s house drinking coffee, with the way I see my surroundings. It’s difficult to explain.”

During the cartoon crisis, a popular Saudi imam told Al Jazeera that free speech was the enemy of religious faith: “The problem is that [the Danes] want to open up ... everything for debate. That’s it. It begins with freedom of thought, it continues with freedom of speech, and it ends up with freedom of belief.”

It now seemed a prescient observation, because it was liberalism, the consumption of dissenting ideas—the very thing he had once dedicated his life to shutting down—that changed Ahmed Akkari. Jacob Mchangama argues that, for Akkari, the Danish tradition of free speech acted as a disinfectant. “The Akkari affairs shows the fallacy of the argument that we need to ‘compromise’ and be ‘pragmatic’ when it comes to free speech and religious sensitivities."

In 1994, when he was 15 and living in an isolated region of northern Denmark, Akkari explained to a local newspaper why he would never return to his native Lebanon, the country he fled in 1985. “I am a Dane now. It's only when I look in the mirror that I think I’m a foreigner.” He has navigated back to his 15-year-old self, again rejecting the idea that he is the “other,” an immigrant with a preternatural hostility to Danish values. Indeed, there is a certain patriotism that infuses his speech these days.

“In 2007 I was on a trip in the Middle East, and I could see the contrast very clearly. I could see how societies were there and the gift I was given being raised in Denmark. Today I appreciate the idea of having a society like Denmark, where people can go to a religious place, the pub, sit by the beach [or] do whatever they like. That’s pretty rare out there in the world.”