Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and Danish-Muslim Ahmed Akkari are an
unlikely pair to teach us a New Year's lesson. On opposite sides of a vicious and deadly international crisis in 2006, both men are now reconciled with a wiser and more judicious perspective.
People change. If they are sincere and ask forgiveness, it is a virtuous act to grant it.
Only 28 years old in 2006, Akkari acted as a spokesman of the Islamic Society in Denmark and led a delegation to the Middle East to protest the publication of the Mohammad cartoons and subsequent refusal of the Danish prime minister to apologize. Riots ensued and more than 200 people lost their lives as Danes watched their red and white flag burn in the streets of Middle Eastern cities. Their prime minister called the reaction to the cartoons the nation's biggest foreign affairs crisis since WW II.
The wound never healed, but festered, and four years later -- on Jan. 4, 2010 -- an axe-wielding man broke into Kurt Westergaard's home because the 75-year-old cartoonist had insulted Islam when he drew the most offensive of the cartoons: Mohammad with a bomb protruding from his turban. Westergaard found shelter in a safe room within his house and was never injured but the horrific event reopened the debate in Europe about legitimate forms of free speech.
Between then and now, Akkari spent several years in Greenland in a kind of self-exile. He worked as a teacher and spent his free time reading. What he read is what sets him apart from many diaspora Muslims and why he is now being denounced as an apostate. The former Islamist is now a student of Enlightenment values.
I heard Akkari talk to university students in Copenhagen about Western political philosophy. He spoke of Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu as well as Karl Popper. He said that Wittgenstein has influenced him very much in his attempts to understand the power of language among Islamists. He also spoke of his admiration of N.S.F. Gruntvig, arguably Denmark's greatest democratic icon. The biggest influence on Akkari, however, is the Egyptian thinker and leading liberal theologian, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, famous for his concept of humanistic Qur'anic hermeneutics (the science and methodology of interpreting religious texts). His writings transformed Akkari and made him move further away from Islamism, a system he describes as totalitarian.
Back home in Denmark, Akkari was recently pounced on by the press. In the process
of giving interviews, he gained clarity of his new ideas and, among other things, felt that he wanted to apologize. First, to Danish Muslims, and secondly, to Danes in general
and Kurt Westergaard in particular. After talking with the cartoonist, Westergaard accepted his apology. "I met a man who has converted from being an Islamist to become a humanist who understands the values of our society," Westergaard said of Akkari. "To me, he is really sincere, convincing and strong in his views."
This puts Westergaard squarely in the corner of those who accept Akkari's personal journey and conversion to western values. Not everybody, however, agrees with him. There are many Danes who doubt the former Islamist's sincerity. They refuse to accept his change of heart, and claim he is merely grandstanding and trying to get undeserved admiration. On the other side are Akkari's former Islamist brothers who denounce him, some even calling for his death.
Sandwiched between two hostile groups, Akkari is a brave man. He lives underground and must always look over his shoulder. He continues to read. He is also writing two books, one about his way out of Islamism and the other, a critical examination of Islamic interpretation of scripture.
Akkari has not renounced his faith but put it on hold while he reads and writes. Both books will be in Danish and we can look forward to English translations.
Kurt Westergaard is another man who knows how it is to live in fear since he's been forced to live with bodyguards. On January 4, he observed the fourth anniversary of his encounter with an axe. His acceptance of Ahmed Akkari's apology and conversion is a message we need to be reminded of. Education matters. People do change. We have to give them room.
Westergaard is now 79. We should all be so magnanimous.