by Lorenzo Vidino
February 6, 2006
Confused by the wave of protests, threats, boycotts, and attacks against diplomatic facilities that have shaken their idyllic tranquility after the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed on Jyllands-Posten, the Danes are asking themselves questions. They wonder if an attack will take place in their country, as threatened by various jihadi groups, and if freedom of speech is in jeopardy. But a more immediate question is puzzling some: Why has the outrage of the Muslim world exploded only now, in February, when the cartoons were published last September? At the time of the initial publication, international media had reported news of the blasphemous caricatures, not only in Danish, but also in English. Yet nothing happened, aside from timid protests from the Muslim community of the tiny Scandinavian kingdom. So what is different about the situation now? More than the question, it is the answer that is keeping a good chunk of Denmark's political and cultural elite awake at night. The recent anti-Danish emotional wave coming from the Muslim world, in fact, is far from a spontaneous reaction, but it has been cunningly orchestrated by a knowledgeable insider, a real snake in the grass who has been creeping in Denmark for the last 15 years.
Ahmed Abdel Rahman Abu Laban, a 60-year-old Palestinian imam who has been residing in Copenhagen since 1993, has become over the last few years the face of Islam in Denmark, creating his own persona of a moderate cleric who seeks dialogue but who is victimized by the widespread "racism" of the Danes. Despite his poor command of the Danish language, Abu Laban is a frequent guest on Danish television and in meetings with government officials, where he claims to represent the voice of the local Muslim community. Even though part of the establishment has always looked at him with suspicion (Prime Minister Rasmussen has always refused to meet with him), Danish intelligentsia has made him a celebrity--so much of one that even the Washington Post recently profiled him as "one of Denmark's most prominent imams."
But Abu Laban's real face has now been revealed. In September, the imam immediately condemned Jyllands-Posten's cartoons and led protests at the local level. Danish politicians and media, busy with local elections, ignored him. But Abu Laban is not the kind of person who gives up easily. After having contacted ambassadors from Muslim countries in Copenhagen, he put together a delegation with the goal of touring the Middle East to "internationalize this issue so that the Danish government would realize that the cartoons were not only insulting to Muslims in Denmark but also to Muslims worldwide," as he explained in an interview with "Islam Online". The delegation met with, among others, Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, and Sunni Islam's most influential scholar, Yusuf al Qaradawi. The delegation showed each of these leaders the 12 cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten, along with others that had never been published by any Danish publication. The new cartoons were every more offensive, as showing the Prophet Mohammed with a pig face or having sexual intercourse with a dog. While the delegation claimed that the differentiation was pointed out to their interlocutors, there is no other evidence, and rumors about the more blasphemous images began to circulate in the Middle East. Moreover, the booklet that was presented by the delegation contained several other lies about the "oppression" of Muslims in Denmark, claiming Muslims do not have the legal right to build mosques and are subjected to pervasive racism.
With emotions about the cartoons mounting, Qaradawi, the real brains of the Muslim Brotherhood's international network and a key opinion maker in the Middle East thanks to his weekly show on al Jazeera, attacked Denmark directly, warning that an apology would not be sufficient, and that "a firm stance" should have be taken by the Danish government. As Prime Minister Rasmussen refused to intervene, referring to the cherished tradition of freedom of the press in his country, Qaradawi and his ilk unleashed their propagandistic war against Denmark. Abu Laban, from his mosque in the Copenhagen suburb of Nørrebro, is now happily reaping the fruits of his hard work. But, in a quintessential exercise in taqiya (double-speak), Abu Laban has tried to hide his satisfaction to the Danes. Speaking on Danish television, Abu Laban has wept crocodile tears, condemning the boycott of Danish goods and the other consequences of his actions. Yet, interviewed by al Jazeera, the imam has said just the opposite, praising the outrage of the Muslim world at his adoptive country.
So just who is Abu Laban? The Danes are slowly getting a fuller portrait. Friday night, Danish state television DR broadcasted a long report on him and Danes have begun to understand more about the self-proclaimed voice of Islam in Denmark. According to DR, Intelligence documents reveal that Abu Laban has been in close contact for years with members of various terrorist organizations, and in particular with leaders of the Egyptian Gamaa Islamiya. In the beginning of the 1990s, in fact, several leaders of the Gamaa escaped the long arm of the Egyptian mukhabarat and relocated to Europe. Copenhagen became the new hometown of two of the group's leaders, Ayman al Zawahiri, currently serving as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, and Talaat Fouad Qassimy. From the quiet of the Scandinavian capital, the men published Al Murabitoun, the Gamaa's official publication. Abu Laban worked as a translator and distributor of the publication, which glorified the killing of Western tourists in Egypt and urged the annihilation of Jews in Palestine. Then Abu Laban worked closely with Said Mansour, a Moroccan man currently charged in Denmark for running a publishing house that distributed jihadi material.
All of this is not news to Danish security officials, but now Danes are slowly becoming aware of the facts. And Abu Laban's celebrated celeb status is about history in Denmark. Danes have no more patience for those who preach love in one language and war in another, those who publicly play the role of the victim, demand tolerance and then secretly incite hatred. While much of Europe has been asleep at the wheel, oblivious to the monumental threat radical Islam poses to its future, at least one country is increasing awake. Denmark's first battle is domestic, unmasking the enemy's fifth column inside its borders. As embassies burn, the rest might want to catch on, too.
--Lorenzo Vidino is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project and author of the book Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad.