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The Children's author who ignited a worldwide protest

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Submitted by Sophie (Canada), Feb 10, 2006 at 06:05

Wed 8 Feb 2006

The children's author who ignited a worldwide protest
EVA LANGLANDS
KARE Bluitgen has just received a death threat. "Wanted: dead or alive" said the placards showing the Dane's face borne by crowds in Thailand in the latest protest against the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The news will not have come as a shock for Bluitgen, a children's author, who is well aware that he started the storm. It was his failed attempt to find artists to illustrate a book about the Prophet that prompted the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to invite 12 illustrators to draw the Prophet as they saw him.

The cartoons accompanied an article on censorship in September and have since been published in papers across Europe.

Five months on, Bluitgen shakes his head at what he describes as the "absurdity" of recent events. Not only has his face been hoisted on placards in the streets of Bangkok. An imam from Denmark has appeared on al-Jazeera TV holding a copy of his new book, claiming it misrepresents Islam. And two Saudi Arabian newspapers have run articles criticising the author and his book, which they claim is an attack on Islam.

Bluitgen's role in the saga has set alarm bells ringing for him.

"The imam on television mistranslated my book and clearly got his facts wrong," Bluitgen says. "Not only does it show how this has spun out of all control; it also shows to what lengths some people will go to further their own agenda. These people have the will to cause havoc on the streets and spread misinformation. Yet all along I've attempted to represent the Prophet as accurately as possible from this flat in Copenhagen.

"I don't feel responsible for what has happened - this was out of my control as soon as the Danish newspaper decided to publish its cartoons. I realise it was originally my idea that has set the wheels in motion, but it's not about religion any more - it's about politics. The people behind the protests are extremists who want to further their cause. They don't know anything about me, the book or the drawings."

Like some other organisations and individuals embroiled in this saga, which has seen demonstrations across the world, Bluitgen feels he is being grossly misunderstood. His new book, The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Muhammad, published in late January, was intended to create understanding between Danes and immigrants. By telling the life story of one the Muslim world's most significant figures, Bluitgen hoped Danish children would be in a better position to understand their Muslim counterparts.

Instead, the former school-teacher has become a target for protests about the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten, which are not the same as the illustrations in his book.

While informed onlookers can easily spot the difference between the illustrations in the paper and those in the book - neutral, simple and devoid of associations with terror groups - it is clear from the protests in Thailand and the media coverage in the Middle East that not everyone makes the distinction.

A short stroll outside Bluitgen's flat provides evidence enough that the author lives right in the thick of things as far as integration goes in Denmark.

He lives in Norrebro, the area of Copenhagen with the highest concentration of immigrants. Between 80 and 90 per cent of schoolchildren are from immigrant or second-generation families, making Bluitgen's daughter, 13, and son, 17, in a minority in school. Bluitgen's mantra is clear: more understanding of different cultures from an early age is vital if integration has any chance of success.

While Bluitgen refers to the situation in his back yard, he says it shows a failure to address integration across Europe.

"If we don't meet each other in primary school, when can we?" he says. "I think it's hugely important we learn each other's culture in school. The riots in France recently show that you need to intervene early on. If you only meet people like yourself, you will become narrow-minded. And that's the optimistic scenario."

Reviews of Bluitgen's book have been noticeably cautious, a signal, perhaps, that the Danish press did not want to inflame the cartoon row further. Most publications have chosen religious experts to judge the book, which Bluitgen says is based entirely on Muslim sources.

Critics gave the thumbs-up to the book's faithful use of historic sources, praising the storyline and speech, but were not so congratulatory about his portrayal of Muhammad. Indeed, Bluitgen's Prophet is a violent warlord, intent on spreading the Islamic faith through the Arabic world. Also included are gruesome descriptions of war scenes and the Prophet's marriage to a nine-year-old girl, which some critics say portrays Muhammad as a paedophile.

"It's important to portray the reality. I've cut out some gruesome details, but needed to include some because Muhammad was, after all, a big strategist and leader," he says.

"I don't agree with critics who say I've portrayed him to be a paedophile. You were allowed to marry a nine-year-old at that time. Muslims are very proud today that he married her - she ends up being his favourite wife and she is still the most well- known Muslim woman today.

"We have to be careful not to condemn historical people with our western eyes. By using the word 'paedophile', you've already put a negative label on it. But from a historical viewpoint, there wasn't anything wrong with the marriage."

Controversy is an old friend to Bluitgen, known for doggedly standing by his ideals. In 1998 he published a schoolbook entitled New Danes, the term used in Denmark today to describe the immigrant population. With 14 jokes about different sections of society, including homosexuals and immigrants, it used satire in a similar way to the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten. Bluitgen hoped children would begin talking about prejudices and cultural differences. For six months the book was used in almost every school in Denmark without a complaint from a teacher, pupil or parent. Then, Bluitgen says, a group of imams got hold of it and began protesting. Despite the row, Bluitgen says the book remains a vital tool in Danish schools today.

"Bringing these topics out in the open is the only way forward. Nothing should be so self-important that you can't make fun of it. That would be an awful society, if someone could put a fence around themselves and say: I am so superior to you all that you can't make fun of me," he says. "Some people said it was offensive. I think that only when we can make fun of each other can we have a closer relationship."

The debate about self-censorship was already in Bluitgen's mind three years ago when he published a book entitled For the Benefit of the Blacks, the colour referring to extreme political movements. Accusing the left-wing parties of "burying their heads in the sand", he urged them to bring integration issues to the fore of debate - otherwise they would risk pandering to extremist religious groups. Bluitgen believes his book helped. Politicians have become more willing to discuss integration problems, he says, but he admits the ordinary Dane still struggles to debate integration for fear of being dubbed anti-Muslim.

Known for being a loner and a man of principles, Bluitgen is standing by his ideals. But at what cost? Several people have died in protests against the cartoons and more are likely to follow. Is defending freedom of speech worth the loss of life that we've been seeing?

"Undoubtedly, yes. The regimes that control freedom of speech are much more violent and claim many more lives than the democratic governments. That's my belief. We shouldn't forget that historically it's cost many lives to win freedom of speech," he says.

"You have to be able to say out loud: 80 per cent of crimes in Denmark are committed by immigrants, which make up 12 per cent of the population. Because then you can ask: how do we go forward? Some people say it's racist to say such things. But unless you do, you will never solve the problem."

This article published February 8, 2006 Scotsman.com
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