Ahmed Akkari has been on a long journey, both physically and mentally.
In December 2005, Akkari was among a group of imams who travelled through the Middle East in order to create international pressure on Denmark to officially apologise for Jyllands-Posten newspaper’s printing of the Mohammed cartoons.
The trip instigated a series of violent protests against the drawings, which led to a boycott of Danish products and culminated in fire being set to several of Denmark’s embassies in the region. Denmark’s reputation and international goodwill was on the line.
In the centre of this whirlwind of events stood the then-26-year-old Akkari, who was the then spokesperson for the Islamic faith group Det Islamiske Trossamfund (DIT). For several weeks he stood in front of TV crews, where he again and again explained how disrespectful the drawings were to Muslims.
But today his answer to whether Jyllands-Posten was within its rights to print the Mohammed drawings is quite clear.
“Yes, it was okay.”
“The trip was the wrong thing to do”
Akkari was born in Lebanon in 1978, but moved with his family as a refugee to Denmark in 1985 and grew up in the Jutland town of Thy. During his teenage years, Akkari became deeply influenced by his family’s more religious associates. In a kind of teenage rebellion, he became highly critical of Danish society and customs.
Back then, his world was made up of two things: good and evil, with Islam as the agent of good. Today his world view is more nuanced and complicated, being older and not having gone through life unscathed.
When the group of imams took off on their trip in 2005, there were many less than honourable goals and motivations for the mission that Akkari says he failed to notice.
“Today I want to be perfectly clear about the purpose of the journey. It was wrong. The whole process, all the ideas behind it, and why we wanted to react. It wasn’t right and I would encourage everyone to reconsider should something like this happen again,” said Akkari.
The drawings were abused
Akkari’s days as an imam are now behind him and he says that he is “no longer a part of the Islamic mission". He further claims that many of his former colleagues are hypocrites with a mindset that is “horribly wrong”.
“The world doesn’t need a lid on human expression. That also goes for people you might disagree with. There was something deep-seated in the mentality of the group I belonged to, which I just didn’t notice. There was this fundamental idea that people were not allowed to express themselves freely, and that is just wrong,” said Akkari.
Were the cartoons misused?
“The way I see it today, yes. Behind all the talk of protecting religious imagery, there is always power and abuse," he said. "It is simply revolting.”
Akkari’s journey to reach the opinions he has today has taken years and has been a gradual process. His doubts started to form, however, already a few years after the climax of the Cartoon Crisis.
A change of heart in Greenland
Following the massive attention he received during the crisis, Akkari decided to move to the small Greenlandic town of Narsaq in the autumn of 2008. There he worked as a teacher in the town’s only primary school. Surrounded by high mountains on the flat plains of Greenland, Akkari used the long winter months to study the writings of enlightenment freethinkers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau.
He studied the American Declaration of Independence and he tried to view his past experiences and Denmark from different points of view. The trip to Greenland became a sort of formation journey, where Akkari developed as a human being.
The search for the ideal society
Akkari has spent his time looking for a country with “peace, serenity and understanding”, a kind of ideal society. He points to the Scandinavian countries, Canada and Australia as examples of ideal societies.
“You can’t find many examples of societies like that around the world. So I have deducted that there must be something wrong with those societies where, in the name of religion, individuals are stripped of their right to free expression.”
Although he didn't want to name names, the now 35-year-old Akkari said there are certain people within the Danish Muslim community who should realise that they have actually been treated quite well in Denmark.
“They should understand that the country they now live in has rules and those rules should be followed. If they do not agree, or simply can’t make life here work, then they should find another place where they can better identify themselves with.”
Are you saying that disillusioned and unhappy Muslims should just pack up and leave?
“I don’t know about that, but what I am saying is that if you can’t figure out to adapt in an appropriate manner, then … Denmark is after all a free country where you can choose to be almost whoever you want to be, what more could you ask for?” said Akkari.
You had a very active role during the Cartoon Crisis, an event you are now very critical of. Do you feel you owe anyone an apology?
“I feel that I have sent the necessary signals and the necessary words I need to send. If there is anything more people want from me, then everyone is welcome to give me a call or knock on my door.”
Are there others from your former community who should apologise for their roles?
“Perhaps it would be better if they got educated on topics related to having a country and on being a citizen of a country. A form of modern etiquette training you could call it.”