He was the main instigator of the wave of Danish Muslim mischief that arose in reaction to the 2005 Muhammad cartoons and that resulted in riots, embassy burnings, an international boycott of Danish products, and over a hundred deaths.
Now, he says, he’s changed his mind – not just about the Muhammad cartoons, but about Islam itself. And about Denmark, too, for which he now professes the deepest affection and gratitude. In an August 22 op-ed for the Danish newspaper Politiken, in a lecture given at the Free Press Society, and in dozens of TV, radio, and print interviews in recent days, Ahmed Akkari has described his ideological journey from passionate jihadist to lover of liberty.
Born in Lebanon in 1978, Akkari was taken by his parents at age six to Denmark, where they were given asylum. His parents picked Denmark, he says, precisely because few immigrants lived there at the time; they figured it was a place where they could live a peaceful and assimilated life far from the turbulence of 1980s Lebanon.
Akkari attended regular Danish schools, where he learned about critical thinking, objective analysis, the scientific method. But then, at age sixteen, he started hanging around a local mosque and listening to “missionaries” who convinced him that they were “in possession of the truth and nothing but the truth.” Soon he was training to become an imam and learning to despise democracy and freedom of speech.
He found work as a teacher at a Muslim school. And then, in 2005 – the same year he was granted Danish citizenship – the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the Muhammad cartoons. Akkari quickly became the public face and voice of the Muslim protests, stirring up rage among fellow believers not only in Denmark but around the world.
The cartoon riots peaked in 2006. After they died down, Akkari withdrew from public life for a while. He had time to think. And he began, he says, to see the importance of living in a society that makes room for “all lifestyles.”
Later that year, he settled temporarily in Lebanon. When Denmark evacuated Danish citizens from the country after a Hezbollah attack on Israel, Akkari was among them. “Despite the fact that I had done so much damage to Denmark, the country let me in again,” he recalls. “Nobody arrested me at the airport. I was not interrogated and nobody questioned my right to return.” (Mind-blowing, but that’s an article for another day.) This treatment, he says, made an impression on him, and helped lead him down the road to where he is today.
Then, in 2008, he took a teaching job in Greenland. “In the stillness of the polar nights,” writes Ingrid Carlqvist in Dispatch International, summarizing the story he told at the Free Press Society, “the thoughts came to Akkari. He started reading the world’s most important books.” He read world history and Enlightenment philosophers. “There was so much I didn’t know. I read about the freedom fighters who throughout history have tried to prevent religion from curtailing free thought and I realized that Denmark was in fact the oasis my parents had imagined.”
Indeed, Akkari claims that while in Greenland he “prayed to God never to send any Muslims” there because he “was so tired of corrupt imams spreading their totalitarian ideology that I was convinced they would not only melt the ice cap if they came there, but set it on fire.” Radio host Mads Holger and cultural critic Kasper Støvring, to whom Akkari recounted his Greenland sojourn on the air, describe his experience as “an existential crisis,” a “wandering in the desert,” a story “of almost biblical dimensions.”
Then, in 2011, during a visit to Lebanon, Akkari read a controversial book by one Hamid Nasr Abu Zeid that criticized Muslim “religious rhetoric.” Because of his book, Zeid had been declared an apostate and forced to divorce his wife. But Akkari liked what he read.
Eventually, after years of ideological doubt during which, he says, he would take “a step forward and then a step back,” Akkari arrived at a decision: he had changed his mind about Islam. And in late July, a reporter for the Danish newspaper BT persuaded him to go public with it. Since doing so, Akkari has been saying and writing the kinds of things that critics of Islam have been saying and writing for years – and that left-wing, cultural-elite commentators in Denmark and everywhere else have been consistently savaging as lies, lies, lies.
What distinguishes Akkari from some of us, however, is that he embraces – indeed, seems to cling to, as if to a life raft – the distinction, which some of us (myself included) find spurious, between “Islam” and “Islamism.” Islamism, he says, “the Quran and Muhammad’s life as the foundation for rituals, rules, and outlooks.” Islamists “assume that every word in the Koran is the law, and that every source provided by Muhammad is the basis for a law.” Islamists insist, moreover, “that they are in possession of the truth and nothing but the truth.”
To me, this sounds like Islam, pure and simple. If it’s Islamism, then what, in Akkari’s view, is Islam? The answer’s not clear. He does acknowledge that the majority of Muslims are, by his definition, Islamists: Islamist thought, as he puts it, “has infected most ordinary Muslims, who…can not imagine reading texts in other ways without feeling that they’re offending against God.” Yet he is – or wants to be seen as – one of that tiny minority of Muslims who assert that their faith, although rooted in a manual of hate and in the life story of a tyrannical, murderous pedophile, can somehow be turned into something entirely different from what it’s been since its inception.
Differentiating Islam from Islamism is obviously of vital importance to Akkari. Although many Danes, he says, “have interpreted my struggle against Islamism as an attack on Islam,” he insists that they “couldn’t be farther from the truth.” He makes a point of rejecting well-known Islam critics, such as Pia Kjærsgaard, founder of the Danish People’s Party, on the grounds that “Islam is not the real problem, but Islamism is.” For while Islamism, he argues, believes in “established truths” and “demands…a monopoly on the truth,” Islam “can be interpreted in many ways and is therefore compatible with democracy.” Islam, he claims, needs to be “released from the Islamists’ power.” He even envisions an Islam that “accepts…gays and atheists.” Well, I don’t get it (if you free Islam from what he calls Islamism, what’s left?), and I’m not betting on it, but – assuming he means it – good luck to him.
One highly interesting aspect of Akkari’s apparent change of heart is this: almost everything he’s said in the last few weeks has been a powerful rebuke to the left-wing journalists, academics, politicians, and others who took to the barricades on his behalf in 2006. When then Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen stood up to Akkari and refused to apologize publicly for the Muhammed cartoons, Fogh’s political opponents and virtually the entire Danish cultural elite savaged him for offending Muslims. Now Akkari says that Fogh was right. He confesses that he made a fool of himself in the crisis: “I was young and naïve.” He even says he understands why Jyllands-Posten felt compelled to publish the cartoons. What can the left – which at the time vilified Fogh and Jyllands-Posten for insulting Islam and praised Akkari as an eloquent voice for the oppressed and offended – say now?
Or consider Akkari’s flat-out statement that “there is not a single mosque or Muslim organization in Denmark that is not run by Islamists. As soon as you enter the house of the believers, you are met with Islamism whether you want it or not. As soon as you become a devoted Muslim, you are infected by extremism.” This testimony blasts to smithereens the Danish left’s longtime assurances that organized Islam in Denmark is overwhelmingly “moderate” – peace-loving, freedom-loving, opposed to sharia, and so on.
Akkari has also said that since his “coming out,” he’s been contacted by ex-Communists and ex-Nazis who identify with his current situation – an implicit admission, on his part, that his own former belief system, which he knows better than anybody, can indeed be likened to Communism and Nazism. Again, any critic of Islam who dares to venture such a comparison is (of course) certain to be called a Nazi himself by the Islamophilic left.
As I’ve often said, Denmark is by far the least naïve of Scandinavian countries when it comes to Islam. But Akkari argues that it’s still much too naïve. Islamism, he says, must be actively prevented from “infect[ing] young minds, as happened to me.” He calls for the Danish government to vigorously investigate mosques, Muslim schools, and the hermetically sealed Muslim community organizations. “I know people,” he warns, “who explicitly teach their children to view Danes as pigs.” To say these things, or any of the things Akkari is now saying, is to be relegated automatically by the Western left to the ranks of far-right Islamophobes. But they can’t dismiss Akkari so easily.
According to Carlqvist, most of those who attended Akkari’s talk at the Free Press Society judged him to be the real thing. But she admits that his “metamorphosis is difficult to explain and hard to believe.” She wonders: “Is his conversion sincere or he is he applying taqiyya – the right of Muslims to lie and deceive in the service of Islam?” Nader Khader, who at the time of the cartoon crisis was Denmark’s integration minister and whom Akkari considered killing, wonders too: he’s now appeared on TV with Akkari and accepted his apology, but admits to having some doubts about his sincerity. As for Holger and Støvring, Akkari’s story of his Greenland epiphany led them both to speculate that he might, in fact, be a secret Christian; but they also recognize he might be up to something, playing some game.
Perhaps it is a game. Or perhaps Akkari’s talk of Islamism is a self-deception, part of his difficult negotiation of an authentic psychological journey to secularism (or Christianity?) that isn’t yet over. Or perhaps he’s already given up entirely on Islam and is only pretending to hang on to it – if only by a thread – in order to be able to claim he’s not an apostate. (If that’s the case, it doesn’t seem to be making much difference: he’s now in hiding.) Nor am I sure what to make of the fact that Akkari chose to “come out” in BT and to publish his op-ed in Politiken – both of which took a dhimmi line during the cartoon crisis – rather than in Jyllands-Posten, whose editors were the unquestionable heroes of the hour.
After his talk at the Free Press Society, reports Carlkvist, Akkari “happily accept[ed] the Free Press Society’s mug with the famous drawing of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban.” Akkari has even had coffee with Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew that picture (and who, in punishment for it, was almost murdered in his home on New Year’s Day 2010). Akkari professed afterwards to be “overwhelmed by the way Westergaard accepted me and forgave me.”
According to Carlqvist, a Christian pastor, Søren Krarup, asked Akkari after his Free Press Society lecture “if he understood that Christianity is the reason why Denmark is such a peaceful oasis.” Akkari “gave no clear answer.” Carlqvist’s reading: Akkari “hopes for a dialogue with Muslims who are still in the grip of the extremists and…doesn’t want to burn all his bridges.”
Could be. We’ll see. No, we shouldn’t hold out too much hope. Anything can happen here. But a truly reformed Akkari could be quite a useful weapon in the war on jihad.
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