Friday, February 10, 2006

Dane Sees Greed and Politics in the Crisis

By JOHN VINOCUR and DAN BILEFSKY
The New York Times
February 10, 2006

COPENHAGEN, Feb. 9 — Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday that attempts by European companies in the Middle East to disassociate themselves from Denmark or Danish products were "disgraceful."

At the same time, Mr. Rasmussen tried to shield the Bush administration and some of Denmark's partners in NATO from accusations that they had been tardy and overcautious in coming to Denmark's defense in the crisis, which he attributed more to attempts by Iran and Syria to cause diversions in the Middle East than to a few satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.

Looking tired after what he acknowledged had been a difficult week, Mr. Rasmussen said in an interview that attempts to gain commercial advantage at Denmark's expense had struck at the hearts of all Danes.

Mr. Rasmussen did not refer to a particular business organization or country. But his response came in reply to a question referring to attempts in the Arab world by companies associated with Nestlé, the Swiss food giant, and Carrefour, the French retailer, to distance themselves from Denmark. Danish industry estimates it has lost more than $55 million in sales in the Middle East since the furor began a week ago.

But the prime minister declined to criticize the Bush administration about its cautious defense of an ally. President Bush referred to his solidarity with Denmark for the first time on Wednesday, after five days of rioting in the Middle East against Danish interests.

"I have never doubted that Bush would stand up for Denmark," Mr. Rasmussen said. "He values faithfulness and loyalty. I was not surprised he decided to call me and express support."

Mr. Rasmussen reiterated that there would be no Danish apology for the cartoons. He brushed aside any suggestion that Denmark's policies requiring immigrants to accommodate themselves to Danish tradition were at fault, and asserted, "We are on the right track." More broadly, he said, "I see a very clear tendency that other European countries will go in our direction."

In light of statements here that Denmark had been abandoned in the early phase of the crisis, Mr. Rasmussen was asked if Parliament would maintain troops in Iraq and Afghanistan if it were asked to vote on the issue now. "The situation would be the same; we haven't changed," he said.

Mr. Rasmussen argued that the cartoon crisis had been hijacked by Middle Eastern interests using the caricatures for domestic ends.

He said Iran, isolated over its nuclear program, was using the cartoons to generate support in the Muslim world, while Syria, under investigation for the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was trying to cause a distraction. The Palestinian Authority, divided over the recent election of Hamas, was exploiting the cartoon crisis to unite its disparate elements, he said.

"We have religious extremists who exploit the situation and fuel the flames to pursue their own agenda," he said. "Religious extremists aim at destabilizing the situation in the whole region."

The issue will be discussed this week at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Sicily, he said.

Mr. Rasmussen said he believed that Islam was compatible with democracy but argued that it was incumbent on Muslim immigrants in Denmark and Europe in general to embrace the liberal values of their adopted countries.

"Denmark is a liberal country," he said. "We do believe in individual liberty and freedom. People can live according to their own customs. However, I think we have to insist on respecting our core values, including freedom of expression, gender equality for women and men, and a clear distinction between politics and religion."

Mr. Rasmussen said the perception of Denmark in the Muslim world had been distorted by falsehoods spread by cellphone and Internet messages across the Middle East.

In particular, he said the government was re-evaluating relations with local Muslim leaders who traveled to the Middle East in December, stoking tensions by showing the cartoons to religious leaders.

Asked if he would have done anything differently in retrospect, Mr. Rasmussen said he had no regrets. "I don't think we could have done something in another way," he said. "We are witnessing events with deep sadness and disbelief. We are not used to it in Denmark."

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