In Copenhagen, Ambassador Ahmed met with Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Mr. Rose commissioned the cartoons of the Holy Prophet of Islam in 2005 which led to a global storm of controversy and protest. This interview was conducted on the eve of the tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Ambassador Ahmed wanted to learn from Mr. Rose the background to his commissioning of the cartoons and the thinking behind this action. In an extensive conversation, Ambassador Ahmed also discussed the significance of the Holy Prophet in the Islamic faith, the central role the Holy Prophet plays in the personal lives of Muslims across the world and their reverence for him, and why so many Muslims reacted so strongly to the publication of the cartoons.
By Akbar Ahmed
The World Post – Huffington Post
The sense of absolute horror at the terrible tragedy that took place in Paris has not yet abated. The enormity of what happened — an attack on the foundations of the idea and practice of a free press — is unprecedented. France grieves and so should all right-thinking people who value democracy and human rights. We commiserate with the families who have suffered such tragic loss.
The president of France, Francois Hollande and his political rival and former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared together in a show of unity to condemn what had happened in the strongest words. They faithfully reflected the defiance, anger and shock that the nation felt. World leaders from President Obama to the prime minister of the U.K. rallied around in a show of solidarity with France, vowing to stand by it.
Both Hollande and Sarkozy cast the attacks in Paris in terms of the Huntingtonian thesis of the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. Hollande condemned the “exceptional barbarism” and Sarkozy declared this to be a “barbaric” attack on civilization itself. It was “a war on civilization,” said Sarkozy. Implicit in such statements was Huntington’s idea of the clash…
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During fieldwork for the Journey into Europe project, Ambassador Ahmed and his team learned about the various challenges posed for the Muslim community by the rise of right wing parties across Europe, including in Denmark with the Danish People’s Party.
In order to further explore this position becoming more widespread across Europe, Ambassador Ahmed requested Harrison Akins to sit down with Mr. Soren Espersen, a member of the Danish Parliament and the Deputy Chairman of the Danish People’s Party. A former journalist and a member of parliament for 10 years, Mr. Espersen is the Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as his party’s spokesman on foreign affairs, and former Deputy Speaker in the Danish Parliament.
The Danish People’s Party, founded in 1995 and described by Mr. Espersen as a “national conservative party”, won nearly 27% of the vote in the recent European elections, the largest share of the vote in Denmark. The third largest political party in Denmark, it currently holds 22 seats out of 179 in the Danish Parliament.
During the interview, Mr. Espersen discussed the history and positions of the Danish People’s Party, the challenges Denmark faces with its Muslim population, and the issues surrounding increased immigration to Europe from the Muslim world.
In Palermo, Sicily, Dr. Amineh Hoti of the Journey into Europe team visited the bookshop Libreria del Corso where she met its owner, Antonio Daniel Costantino who also authored a book on Roger II’s Palatine Chapel which displays a blend of Arab and Norman cultures. During Dr. Hoti’s visit, they discussed the legacy of Arab culture in Sicilian language, architecture, and food as well as the history of “La Convivencia” in the region. In the shop, there was a treasure trove of books on this period of Sicilian history which have not yet been translated from the Arabic and Italian languages into English.
In Palermo, Sicily, Ambassador Ahmed visited the great cathedral of Palermo where he discusses the Islamic heritage of Sicily and the issues surrounding Muslim immigration to Italy today.
The Palermo Cathedral was originally constructed in the 12th century on the site of the main mosque of Palermo during the period of Muslim rule beginning in the 9th century. It is today the largest cathedral in Sicily. The cathedral is the final resting place for two of the great leaders in Sicilian history: Roger II and Frederick II. Both leaders were committed to the spirit of La Convivencia and promoted a distinct culture which brought together the different peoples inhabiting Sicily.
In Palermo, Sicily, Ambassador Ahmed and the Journey into Europe team visited Mayor Leoluca Orlando at his office in Villa Niscemi, a palace originally constructed in the 17th century by an aristocratic Italian family.
Mayor Orlando was first elected Mayor of Palermo in 1985 when he began his successful campaign to break the hold of the Sicilian Mafia over the city, a period known as the Palermo Spring. He has previously served as a member of the Sicilian Regional Parliament, Italian Parliament, and the European Parliament. He is currently the president of the association representing the 394 mayors of Sicily. A trained lawyer, Mayor Orlando has written a dozen books and legal treatises. His many awards and distinctions include the European Parliament’s European Civic Prize, awarded in 2000 for “his struggle against organized crime and his engagement in favor of the civic renewal of his city.”
During the meeting, the entire team was impressed by Mayor Orlando’s spirit of interfaith harmony and “la convivencia” between different communities which he said was fundamental to Sicilian identity. He spoke with passion for the rights of all humanity, including the many immigrants coming to the shores of Sicily, and gave advice for how to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims today.