DENMARK: Building bridges to moderate Muslims
Thomas Cromwell

Within Danish society irony and humor are much appreciated and part of the modern culture. Thus when a leading newspaper last October published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, in a less than flattering light, the general population was amused, and thought little of it.

No wonder then that Danes were stunned when this March a series of violent protests over the cartoons erupted in several Muslim countries. “We were taken aback that so many people could hate so much,” Denmark’s ambassador to Washington, Friis Petersen told in a recent interview.

Denmark is all for freedom of expression and demonstrations, but “we like peaceful demonstrations,” the ambassador said. In fact it was the violence of Muslim reaction that surprised and shocked the Danes. More troubling, several regimes in the Middle East clearly took advantage of anger on the street and in the mosques to stir the flames of incendiary anti-Danish and anti-Western sentiment.

Ambassador Petersen noted that in Damascus demonstrators set fire to the building housing the Swedish and Danish embassies, and then moved six miles across town to attack the Norwegian Embassy, clearly showing government sanction, if not active promotion, of the demonstrations. An attack on the Danish Embassy in Beirut, and the invasion of the Danish Embassy in Teheran seemed to hint at government complicity in those places too.

But to its credit, Denmark has reacted robustly to the attacks and criticism. With Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen leading, Danish government officials and ambassadors around the world have gone on a campaign to explain their country and underline Denmark’s commitment to building bridges among notions and religions, and to resolve differences through dialog, not conflict.

Ambassador Petersen said that Danes had assumed the world knew Denmark as the peace-loving country it is, a great supporter of the United Nations, and a long-time contributor to peacekeeping around the world. Now Denmark is the focus of intense international scrutiny regarding how it deals with the challenge handed it by the cartoons crisis. It is using that interest to reconfirm its underlying principles.

“We want to build bridges,” the ambassador stressed, several times, convinced that when others understand Denmark better, they will be willing to engage it in peaceful dialog, even if they oppose some Danish policies.

“We are a liberal society,” he explained. That means that while Denmark has a vibrant and successful private sector, it is also proud of its advanced system of social services and the protection of individual rights and freedoms that it offers its citizens. “We like that system: a private market economy as well as a very responsible social welfare system,” he said. Indeed, Denmark, together with its Scandinavian neighbors, has long been held up as a successful model balancing the private and public sectors.

The ambassador sees the American melting pot as a successful model for integration of people from diverse nations, cultures and religious traditions. In fact the greater overall religiosity of Americans seems to heighten awareness of the importance of mutual respect among religions that is critical to maintaining social peace within a multi-religious society. “Religious, ethnic and social integration have always been critical to Denmark,” he said.

He noted that over the past few years many in the Danish media have been discussing the role of religion in Denmark’s largely secular society, which is typical of West European countries. After all, churches and other religious bodies are the source of most moral and ethical principles in society, principles that are important in creating value systems for people’s lives and civil social behavior.

For most Danes there is little opposition in principle to immigration. However, there is a commonly held view that immigrants should pull their weight. “We want all people in our country to live up to the standards of our citizenship,” explained Ambassador Petersen. In other words, Denmark will work as a civil and peaceful society if its citizens fulfill their obligations to get educated, get work, and to generally contribute to society. They will also then deserve the many benefits Denmark’s government offers its people. And they will be free to worship as they wish.

Currently only two percent of Danes are Muslim. And total immigration over the past couple of decades accounts for only about five percent of the population. Since the international flap over the cartoons, a new movement called Democratic Muslims has sprung up in Denmark, headed by a Muslim Member of Parliament, Naser Khader, a Syrian immigrant. Khader, whose bipartisan group appreciates the freedoms and benefits of Danish society, and abhors the violent response of some Muslims to the cartoons, enjoys the support of some 88 percent of Danes, the ambassador said. As a Muslim, he has been successful in mediating with the Muslim community in Denmark. His position, the ambassador said, is very similar to that of most American Muslims, who believe they must fully integrate into the American system.

Asked what key lesson can be drawn from the cartoon crisis, Ambassador Petersen said the main lesson is that “We need to cooperate more across all dividing lines, including religious lines, to avoid a clash of civilizations.” He noted that while Muslim radicals grabbed the headlines with their violent demonstrations, moderate Muslim governments around the world had stepped forward to engage in dialog with Denmark to achieve better mutual understanding. A similar positive response had come from the Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organization.

This positive response brought a fairly rapid end to the worst excesses, and the ambassador said that while the situation for Danes and Danish companies in Muslim lands had not yet returned to normal, it was improving steadily.

The ambassador noted that Denmark has long agreed with Washington’s strategy of seeking to reinforce relations with moderate Muslim governments around the world, while isolating Muslim extremists. In fact Denmark is one of the few European countries that has been an active US partner in the war on terrorism, keeping its troops in both Iraq (520) and Afghanistan (340). “The cartoons issue has only strengthened this relationship,” he said.

If anything, he said, the cartoons issue had reinforced Denmark’s commitment to the strategy of isolating radical Muslims. He said that Denmark was very grateful for the support of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as many in Congress. He noted that a small country like Denmark had to appreciate the support of America at a time like this.

Ambassador Petersen also said that European countries had been extremely supportive as well, and that the whole cartoons affair in the end probably served to crystallize European support for a strategy similar to America’s in dealing with Islamic extremism.

Curriculum Vitae for Friis Arne Petersen - Denmark's Ambassador to the United States

Ambassador Friis Arne Petersen  presented his credentials to President Bush on October 3, 2005 as the Danish Ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Petersen has had a distinguished and outstanding career in the Danish Foreign Service, serving on the staff of two Danish Foreign Ministers and holding various senior positions.

Friis Arne Petersen was born in 1952 in Skagen, Denmark.

He earned a Master of Science degree in Economics from the University of Copenhagen in 1978.

From 1981-84 he was posted in Cairo as First Secretary.

In 1985 he was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, a position he held until November 1990, when he was appointed Chief of Staff for the Foreign Minister (1990-92 for Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, and 1992-94 for Niels Helveg Petersen).

In 1994 Friis Arne Petersen was appointed Assistant Secretary for Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and OSCE. In 1995 he was promoted to Under Secretary, Ambassador, responsible for European affairs and economic assistance to Russia and Central and Eastern Europe with a special responsibility for Denmark’s policies on EU and NATO enlargement processes.
In July 1997 Friis Arne Petersen became Head of the Foreign Ministry, assuming the position of Permanent Secretary of State. Throughout his term (July 1997 - October 2005) he was the alternate for the Foreign Minister in the European Union Council of Foreign Ministers. A major task was heading the Foreign Ministry during the Danish Presidency of the EU (2nd half of 2002) with the successful completion of the complex negotiations leading to the enlargement of the EU with 10 new member states from Central and Eastern Europe.  

Other major tasks during Friis Arne Petersen’s term as Head of the Foreign Ministry includes the Danish chairmanship of the OSCE throughout 1997 and the Danish election as Member of the United Nations Security Council for 2005-06.

Friis Arne Petersen has paid a particular interest to the North Atlantic parts of the Danish Kingdom: Greenland and Faroe Islands. He conducted the negotiations with the United States concerning Denmark’s contribution to the US Missile Defense System - paving the way for the Igaliku agreement (August 2004) among Denmark, Greenland, and the United States on the use of the Thule Radar in Greenland as part of the Missile Defense System.

In 2001 Friis Arne Petersen embarked on an ambitious and widely recognized plan of modernizing the Foreign Service in its entirety.

Friis Arne Petersen has been a member of the board of the Denmark-America Foundation since 1997. From 1997-2005 he was Co-chairman of the Danish-Russian Intergovernmental Council on Economic Co-operation. From 1995-2000 he was on the board of The Danish International Investment Funds. From 1996 he has been an external examiner at the University of Copenhagen and University of Aarhus (Political Science - International Relations). Friis Arne Petersen lectures regularly at Danish Universities as well as in business associations and political organizations. Likewise, he has published a number of articles on Foreign Policy issues.

Friis Arne Petersen is married to Birgitte Wilhelmsen. She has worked as an IT-consultant and graduated from the Zahle Teacher Training College and from Copenhagen Business School as trilingual commercial correspondent (French/Italian/Danish). The couple has a son and two daughters.

Friis Arne Petersen has received the following decorations: Commander of First Class of the Order of Dannebrog and Greenlandic Order of Merit (Gold) as well as Grand Crosses of Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Luxembourg, Romania, United Kingdom (GCMG), and Thailand.