Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A postcard from Denmark to Yemen

It would be pretty lame if one of Yemen Observer Newspaper’s reporters went to Denmark and didn’t ask media persons and media institutions about the cartoon incident and all its complications and consequences. The reason I say this is because I’m one of Yemen Observer newspaper’s reporters, and I had the chance to stay in Denmark for one month as a fellow in Danida Fellowship Course (DFC), in Copenhagen, Denmark, “the Role of Media in the Democratic Process.”

I’m a report of Yemen Observer Newspaper, whose on 2006 publishing license was temporarily canceled by the Yemeni government, after it has published the Danish cartoon, illustrating the Prophet Mohammed. In fact, former editor in chief, Mohammed al-Asadi was arrested due to publishing the cartoons and he was arrested on charges of offending Islam. Later on, he was released on bail. The trail lasted for six months and afterward Yemen Observer got its license back and resumed working.

Cartoon and freedom of expression

That was one of the many worldwide incidents that occurred as a consequence of the cartoon publication. It was a widely reported controversy that led to protests around the entire Islamic countries, including Yemen, some of which escalated into violence with instances of police firing on crowds of protestors; resulting in a total of more than 100 reported deaths. Back then, in Yemen, people demonstrated, condemning the cartoons and burned Denmark flag. Protesters demanded the Yemeni government to cut all the relations with Denmark economically and commercially as a measure to defend the Islamic Prophet, Mohammed. And they did. Consequently, Danish economy became evidently negatively affected.

Nonetheless, the controversy manifested a new platform of discussion on freedom of expression that Arabs and Muslims did never have. Through my questions and my stay there I realized that on one hand; Danish freedom of expression has truly no limits and on the other hand; Denmark would never help in incitement of violence. Its people are one of the friendliest nations of Europe. “My father always told me that a person who you don’t know is not a stranger; he is just a friend that you have not met yet,” told me Danish photographer, Jens Hemmel.

Today, Danish-Arab diplomatic relations are getting recovered gradually. Regardless of the fact that the incident has taken its toll on their relations, Denmark is showing a great interest in bridging and understanding the Islamic religion through establishing educational programs where participants from the Arab/Islamic countries would join; such programs like the one I was in.

The matter of fact is, the whole controversy happened due to lack of bridging between the two cultures; the Danish and the Islamic ones. “That incident is a clear misunderstanding and it was a real mix-up. Denmark is a world that its people can say whatever they want to; whereas in the Middle East there are sacred matters, related to religion which would never be mocked at all. So, it was a matter of extremely different worlds interacting and having a huge gap between them,” said Suzan Khaled, Danish-Arab journalist.

Hence, needless to say that bridging and filling that gap should be through a joint work from both sides. The more cultural and academic exchange programs between the two countries, the closer they become.

Freedom in Yemen; a work in progress

My presence there was perceived grippingly. Having a Muslim, Arab, Yemeni female journalist among the other fellows in the fellowship course was roughly unexpected. “How did she have the freedom to travel?” I was typically asked. Simply, Yemen was evolving; with a new face of freedom. My presence was a proof that Yemen is on the way in having an absolute freedom for its daughters.

Statistics about Yemenis and Arabs

It’s estimated that Arab and Muslim communities in Copenhagen alone to be 100, 000. The Yemeni community, like most of the Arab communities in Denmark, lives in a closed circle but the Danish government is working on programs and methods to have a better integration between Danish and those communities. Generally, Islam religion has been one of the fastest spreading religions in Denmark. Before the cartoon almost around six people converted to Islam annually, while right after the cartoon, around 1,000 people are converting to Islam annually.

Cultural Shock

For me, the main cultural shock was how similar Yemenis and Danish could be in terms of hospitality and friendliness. Frankly, Yemenis consider strangers their friends right away they meet them, that was also the case with Danish people. In addition, Yemeni homes always welcome its guests with the best hospitality. Danish were also like that.

Educational and cultural programs in Denmark

Typically, when Yemeni students aspire to study abroad they never think of Denmark, while there are tens of opportunities where Yemen’s youth could take advantage of and enjoy Denmark’s fascinating educational methods and materials.

Students, academics, journalists, activists from Yemen could hugely contribute to the bridging process between Denmark and Arab/Islamic countries if they just reach out and start the dialogue. A land of absolute freedom, Denmark would definitely inspire many Yemenis to think outside the box and have a broaden horizon.


Most Yemenis, like many Arabs and Muslims, know one thing about Denmark; it is the country where a cartoon illustrating the prophet Mohammed was published in one of its newspapers. That incident was a turning point in the diplomatic relations between Denmark and the Arab and Islamic countries. One of its consequences was creating a new plat form to start a dialogue between the two worlds to understand each side’s take on freedom of expression. Therefore, the Yemen Observer had an insightful interview with Suzan Khaled, Danish-Arab young journalist, studying journalism and an intern at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), Denmark’s oldest, largest electronic media enterprise and the most leading national broadcasting corporation in Denmark. Her competence and unique background makes her an influential tool to analyze the incident and its consequences.

Yemen Observer(YO): Do you think there is any misunderstanding between Danish and Arab and Islamic cultures?

Suzan Khaled (SK): Unfortunately, there is a huge misunderstanding. In my part, I always try to point out what’s good in the Danish culture when I talk to Arab people and point out the good in the Arab culture when I talk to the Danish people, because no matter where you are you will find something bad to point at even in the Middle East itself. It’s really sad that people want to focus on the bad things only.

YO: How do you see the cartoon controversy developed a misunderstanding between the two worlds; the Danish and the Arab and Islamic worlds?

SK: That incident is a clear misunderstanding and it was a real mix-up. Denmark is a world that its people can say whatever they want to. We don’t have something sacred here in Denmark and if we have, we always make fun out of it with an ironic and sarcastic tone. In the Middle East there are sacred matters, related to religion. For instance, Allah and the prophet Mohammed are very sacred and it’s a sensitive matter to say anything dreadful about them and if any one does so, it can’t be done publically. So, it was a matter of extremely different worlds interacting. Essentially, it was a turning point in Denmark’s history.

YO: Why, in a place that’s believed to have endless freedom, is it difficult for Muslim immigrants to build a mosque here in Denmark?

SK: We always discuss that. It’s a very important issue. In Denmark, they say that they have freedom of religion, of speech, of choice and freedom of everything and yet this issue is a sensitive one. You have to remember that this is a new development for Denmark and they have to get used to this strange and mysterious religion called Islam. It’s a work in progress.

YO: What does it take for Denmark to comprehend Islam religion and the Arab world?

SK: To understand Islam, it will take some time. So, it’s a matter of time and a matter of being open-minded and tolerant. Unless there are many Danish people go, visit, work and interact with and in Arab countries and get to know about the Middle East and get back to Denmark and tell about that region’s cultures, it will remain a challenging issue. If a Danish person goes to the Middle East and gets back with good experiences, it will certainly help to understand Islam. Understanding Islam could be easily done by Danish people’s own perspectives and a close and real connection with Arabs and Muslims. For example, take Yemen as an example. The one thing Danish know about Yemen is al-Qaeda, terrorism and what’s reported in the international media. They don’t hear positive stories and never meet Yemenis.

YO: Is there any influence on the decision-making process in Denmark that’s coming from the Arab communities?

SK: Yes and no. They don’t have direct power but they do have so indirectly. For instance, during the controversy after publishing the cartoon that depicted the prophet Mohammed Arabs and Muslims gathered to meet Danish authorities. They had many meetings but they didn’t have the power to do anything. They tried to talk to the Danish authorities and they were listened to. That was all. All non-Danish communities in Denmark are always welcome to suggest and discuss with the authorities. It’s their right, but power remains in the Danish authorities’ hands after all.

YO: What do you personally think about the cartoon?

SK: I think it was a very important point in history. In fact, it was a huge turning point in the Danish history; a point that will never ever go away. It has caused and still causing a negative impact on Denmark. People will always remember it. I just came back from couple Arab countries and the first reaction I get when I tell them that I’m Danish, they tell me are you from where the cartoon about the prophet was published!? They immediately remember that incident and change towards me.

YO: Is there an effort done by the Danish government to address the consequences of that cartoon?

SK: Yes, of course. First of all, I think they now understand that they have to be good friends with the Middle East. Secondly, they really realized the impact it had on the economical sector. Third, there is an effort on the diplomatic aspect. During the Israel attack on Gaza, years ago and when the Turkish ship got attacked in Palestine, Denmark was one of the first countries to go out and condom the attacks. In fact, Denmark mad donations for Gaza back then. On the other hand, during the holy month of Ramadan many Danish officials were going to the Middle East to strengthen the diplomatic relations between Denmark and the Arab countries.

Simply, Danish government always has and will always do an effort to get things like it used to be with the Islamic/Arab countries before the cartoon controversy.

YO: How did you make it to be an intern in the Danish Broadcasting Company?

SK: If one has the willpower, he can accomplish his goals. In Denmark, my family is sort of a unique one. We are immigrants from Lebanon and I have 7 siblings. My brother is a doctor and almost all of us are in high positions thanks to our good education. In Lebanon it would be impossible that the seven children of a middle-class family and a large family to have all the children to be well-educated.

YO: What’s your background?

SK: I wasn’t born here in Denmark. My parents came here because of the civil war in Beirut, Lebanon, just like many other Lebanese families escaped the civil war to Europe, Canada and America. In 1985, we came to Denmark and I was one year old. My older three brothers and I were born in Lebanon but the rest of us were born in Denmark.

YO: Was social integration in the Danish society difficult for you during your up-growing in Denmark?

SK: For me it was a special experience. We came to a small town in Denmark and there were only 10 thousand people in this town. So we were integrated in a good way. We had to talk Danish from the beginning and my parents had to work which led to daily interaction with Danish. So, it was really good that we came to a small place because people knew us and we integrated very well and easily. We had to talk to Danish and accordingly had Danish friends.

YO: Describe how did it feel like through your school and college?

SK: Through my childhood, I have never had Arab friends and when I moved to another city to study at the University I met my first Arab friend! She was from Egypt and her name is Yassmin. We were going to study Arabic language in the university and now she went to law schools and I went to journalism school. Imagine! I was 19 years old when I first met an Arab person. That explains how we were really integrated with Danish and were not really interacting with Arabs. I attribute that to my parents’ decision to go and live in a city where Arabs usually don’t settle down. Hence, some people think that I’m more Danish than being an Arab. That’s true because all what I have mentioned.

YO: Do you think Arab communities are closed and withdrawn?

SK: In Copenhagen you meet more Arab people than anywhere else in Denmark. They would be more Arabic than I am. Meaning, they would have more of the Arabic spirit than what I do have because the communities stay together and sometimes interact with Danish. So I think I’m a special person in this point because of my background for the fact that my environment is mainly Danish. Unfortunately, Arabs are only living within Arab groups and they don’t really initiate to integrate with Danish. They judge each other too much. And I’m happy that I came from a totally different environment. I think I’m more open-minded because of that and because all the elements I mentioned.

YO: Do you think the Danish people are more flexible and welcoming to different cultures or they are the contrary?

SK: You can approach that in two ways; the political point of view or the social point of view. The political aspect is that they are getting more conservative. They want to keep the Danish values and keep the Danish culture very much. This is what all the politicians want; the liberal and the social parties. If you look at the social aspect, people are very open-minded, cultured and tolerant. If you exhibit that you want to do something very good, something beneficial for Denmark that will make a difference for the society, definitely Danish people will be very open-minded and will embrace you.

YO: How could you describe the overall experience you’re having in Denmark?

SK: Giving my background, only people like me could assure that Denmark is a paradise, especially for many people who came from poor countries. I’m from a poor country and I’m not rich and I don’t want to be rich but I want to be in a democracy like Denmark, always. It’s a real democracy and it’s working.

*On February, 2006, the Yemeni government canceled the publishing license of Yemen Observer, after it published the Danish cartoon illustrating the Prophet Mohammed. Former editor in chief, Mohammed al-Asadi was arrested due to publishing the cartoons. He was arrested on charges of blasphemy. He was released on bail on 22 February. The trail lasted for six months and later on Yemen Observer got its license back and resumed working.