The New York Times has a history of attacking opponents of radical Islam or offensively blaming an unwelcoming Western society for driving some young Muslims to commit terrorist slayings. Especially for a journalistic enterprise, the Times is often distressingly passive when it comes to defending critics of Islam on free speech grounds.
Thursday's report by Andrew Higgins from Denmark could serve as a paradigm of the paper's take on radical Islam and its opponents. The subject itself was genuinely newsworthy – some local Muslims embracing the right to free speech of Lars Hedegaard, an opponent of Islam who was the victim of an assassination attempt: "Danish Opponent of Islam Is Attacked, and Muslims Defend His Right to Speak."
But Higgins' treatment was unnecessarily hostile and unbalanced, with the rough language from Hedegaard treated wtih greater concern than the deadly violence committed in Copenhagen in the name of Islam.
When a would-be assassin disguised as a postman shot at -- and just missed -- the head of Lars Hedegaard, an anti-Islam polemicist and former newspaper editor, this month, a cloud of suspicion immediately fell on Denmark’s Muslim minority.
Politicians and pundits united in condemning what they saw as an attempt to stifle free speech in a country that, in 2006, faced violent rage across the Muslim world over a newspaper’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Since then, the newspaper that first printed the images, Jyllands-Posten, has been the target of several terrorist plots.
However, as Mr. Hedegaard’s own opinions, a stew of anti-Muslim bile and conspiracy-laden forecasts of a coming civil war, came into focus, Denmark’s unity in the face of violence began to dissolve into familiar squabbles over immigration, hate speech and the causes of extremism.
But then something unusual happened. Muslim groups in the country, which were often criticized during the cartoon furor for not speaking out against violence and even deliberately fanning the flames, raised their voices to condemn the attack on Mr. Hedegaard and support his right to express his views, no matter how odious.
The writer, who for several years edited a mainstream Danish daily, Information, is a major figure in what a study last year by a British group, Hope Not Hate, identified as a global movement of “Islamophobic” writers, bloggers and activists whose “anti-Muslim rhetoric poisons the political discourse, sometimes with deadly effect.”
Higgins swiftly let a local group, the Copenhagen Islamic Society, off the hook of responsibility, given that it "swiftly condemned the attack on Mr. Hedegaard. It also said it regretted its own role during the uproar over the cartoon, when it sent a delegation to Egypt and Lebanon to sound the alarm over Danish blasphemy, a move that helped turn what had been a little-noticed domestic affair into a bloody international crisis."
Again, the Times faulted the victim of a terrorist attack for provoking violence.
The response from native Danes has grown more equivocal over time, with some suggesting Mr. Hedegaard himself provoked violence with his strident views and the activities of his Danish Free Press Society, an organization that he set up in 2004 to defend free expression but that is best known for denouncing Islam.
“I think that Hedegaard wanted this conflict,” Mikael Rothstein, a religious history scholar at the University of Copenhagen, said during a discussion on Danish television, adding that “brutal words can be as strong as the brutal physical act of violence.”
Previously shunned by Denmark’s intellectual and political elite, Mr. Hedegaard, who was uninjured in the attack and is living in a safe house under police protection, has been front-page news, even in newspapers that consider him a deliberately provocative racist, which he denies.
Hoping to take advantage of the furor stirred by the attack, a tiny but vociferous anti-Muslim outfit called Stop the Islamization of Europe organized a rally Saturday in central Copenhagen. Its leader, Anders Gravers, a xenophobic butcher from the north, fulminated against Muslims and the spread of halal meats, but only 20 people turned up to show support. There were many more police officers, on hand to prevent clashes with a larger counterdemonstration nearby.