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Denmark doesn't deserve Muslim scorn

If you don't like seeing small countries bullied by political and religious violence, you might want to buy some Danish cheese. A buy-Danish campaign will help to counter widespread Islamic boycotts of Danish products.

The boycotts, along with burning Danish flags and, worse, embassies, comes with an irony. Denmark, after all, is one of the world's most tolerant places. Its 5 1/2 million people are orderly, industrious and generous. Denmark, in fact, contributes a larger percentage of its GDP to Third World economic development than almost any other country on the planet.

Denmark also promotes what we Americans call First Amendment freedoms with a passion. That's rare in a world increasingly divided by ideological hatreds.

So why are so many Muslims angry at Denmark? Because a plucky Danish newspaper discovered that illustrators refused to draw images for a book about the prophet Mohammad out of fear for their safety. The editors, in the name of press freedom, then solicited cartoons of the prophet (Muslims reject any pictorial image of Mohammad as sacrilegious) and printed a dozen, including one with the prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

A half-dozen European newspapers subsequently printed the cartoons to express their support for press freedom. One French editor was summarily fired by his Egyptian publisher.

The controversy pits religious sensitivity against free expression. The protests are centered in a Mideast where Turkish authorities in 2005 jailed a prize-winning author for writing a novel that "insulted Turkey," and where fatwas have encouraged the assassination of writers (including Muslim writers) in order to stifle opinions even vaguely viewed as anti-Islamic.

Why do we write about this?

Because both of us have lived in Denmark as Fulbright Scholars. We discovered there intellectual and political freedom that even Americans can envy.

Denmark is hardly perfect. Anti-immigrant and anti-Islam sentiment has sadly been on the rise. Immigration restrictions have tightened as Somalis and Turks have arrived in ever-larger numbers. Nevertheless, an anti-immigrant political party received only 13 percent of the vote in the last election, and Denmark's down-to-earth queen continues to offer New Year homilies reminding Danes to be welcoming.

So we have some modest suggestions: Let's applaud Denmark's tolerance. Let's cheer her commitment to free expression. Let's recognize that at least some of the violence is being promoted as part of a radical anti-Western agenda.

But let's also recognize that much of the outrage is genuine. Consequently, we need to denounce those who promote culture wars not only in the Mideast but here at home. We have an obligation to respect both Muslim sensibilities and free expression.

That's a tall order. Let's roll up our sleeves.

Gary B. Ostrower is a history professor at Alfred University. Bruce Leslie teaches U.S. history at SUNY Brockport.

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