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17 February 2015

Copenhagen Attack Witness Inna Shevchenko Debates Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Religion and Free Speech

Danish police have shot and killed a man they say carried out attacks on a synagogue and an event promoting free speech in Copenhagen.

Local media identified the suspect as 22-year-old Omar al-Hussein, who had reportedly been released from prison just weeks earlier. Two other people have also been charged with aiding him. The presumed target of the attuacks, Swedish artist Lars Vilks, has received death threats for depicting the head of the Prophet Muhammad on a dog. Vilks was unharmed, but a Danish film director was shot dead and three police officers injured. Hours later, the gunman attacked a synagogue, killing a guard outside and injuring another two police officers. The attacks in Copenhagen come a month after the massacre at the Paris offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. We speak with Inna Shevchenko, a speaker at the Copenhagen free speech event when the attack took place. Shevchenko is a leader of the international women’s protest group Femen, which often demonstrates topless against what they perceive as manifestations of patriarchy, especially dictatorship, religion and the sex industry. We are also joined by Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and author of a number of influential books on Islam and the West.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Danish police have shot and killed a man that they believe carried out attacks on a synagogue and an event promoting free speech in Copenhagen on Saturday. Local media identified the suspect as 22-year-old Omar al-Hussein, who was born and raised in Denmark. According to Danish television, he had been released from prison just weeks earlier. Danish police have also charged two other people with aiding the gunman. The bloodshed began on Saturday when a gunman attempted to shoot his way into a café hosting a discussion on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression. The BBC aired audio from the event at the moment of the shooting.

INNA SHEVCHENKO: I realize that every time we talk about activity of those people, there will be always, "Yes, it is freedom of speech, but..." And the turning point is "but." Why do we still say "but" when we—


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to an audio recording from Saturday’s shooting in Copenhagen. That first voice you heard, just before the gunfire, was Inna Shevchenko, a leader of the international women’s protest group Femen. She’ll join us on the show in a moment. Also speaking at the event was the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, the presumed target of the attacks, who has received death threats for depicting the head of the Prophet Muhammad on a dog. Vilks was unharmed in the attack, but a Danish film director named Finn Nørgaard was shot dead. Three police officers were also injured.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hours later, the gunman attacked a synagogue, killing a guard outside and injuring another two police officers. The attacks in Copenhagen came a month after gunmen attacked the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people in Paris. France’s ambassador to Denmark, François Zimeray, was at the café when Saturday’s attack took place.

FRANÇOIS ZIMERAY: [translated] I don’t know if they are strong words, but this is simply what one feels when you hear bullets and see their impact. I was very impressed today to be able to calmly see what I went through yesterday in these few seconds. In these moments, you think it’s all over. You don’t have any feelings. You don’t think of anything, but try and understand what’s happening. And what I understood then was that the same event was taking place as in Paris. And probably, if the Danish police didn’t succeed in—five policemen wounded—didn’t succeed in their job, I wouldn’t be here today.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Copenhagen attacks, we’re joined by two guests. Inna Shevchenko is with us. She was speaking at the free speech event in Copenhagen when the attack took place Saturday, leader of the international women’s group Femen, which often demonstrates topless against what they perceive as manifestations of patriarchy, especially dictatorship, religion and the sex industry. She is speaking to us now from Paris, where she has just gone from Copenhagen.

And we’re joined once again by Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, author of a number of influential books on Islam and the West, including Western Muslims and the Future of Islam and also the book In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad. Professor Ramadan was named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. He’s joining us from Doha, Qatar.

But I want to go first to our guest in Paris, Inna Shevchenko. Describe the scene on Saturday. What exactly were you talking about when the shots opened fire? And explain where they came from.

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Thank you for having me, first. Well, when everything happened in Copenhagen, when terrorists entered the place, just a few seconds before, I was mentioning that very often it is an illusion that we can fully enjoy freedom of speech. I was sitting on the stage together with Lars Vilks and one of the organizers of the event. And then I mentioned such a phenomenon as "but" when we talk about freedom of speech. And as you can hear on the record, once I mentioned that there will be always opinion, "Yes, OK, we are fine with freedom of speech, but..." and then the shots started. And ironically, I think, it started in this event, because I think that those shots and this attack was definitely a huge "but" to our freedom of speech.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Inna, has it been established that the Swedish cartoonist who was on the panel with you—was he the presumed target? Has that been made certain?

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Well, police didn’t give us any information, because they simply do not have it. Lars Vilks personally explained that he thinks he was a target of the event. But as we talked later with police, and police explained that the target of the event could be either Lars Vilks or also the reason to attack this event could be also the presence of one of the representatives of Femen, who is receiving also lots of threats a lot. But I think that right now we should not talk about who exactly personally was a target. The target was the idea, the idea that all of us were carrying in that room, the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and being free to celebrate it, to enjoy, to laugh, to speak about it, to scream about it in the streets. So the target of those extremists are our ideas.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ramadan, speaking to us from Doha, Qatar, if you could respond to what has taken place right now in Copenhagen? We last talked to you, of course, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Look, once again, it’s exactly the same scenario, and we have to take the same clear position and condemn what happened. And I really think that the target of this young guy was the event itself, what was the—which is the freedom of expression and things that are perceived as insulting Islam. And what we have to say as Muslims, what we have to say as Muslim scholars and in world, that this is betraying our principles, and this cannot be acceptable. So, once again, it’s the clear position that we have to take.

And beyond this, I think that instead of putting religions on one side and people supporting freedom of expression, we need to understand, and not to be misled or mistaken about our common enemies, that there are people, dogmatic minds, going towards violence and promoting violence, that are against freedom of expression. And we have to be clear that these are our enemies. And for me, as a Muslim, what is happening in—because you were mentioning this in your headlines—what is happening in Syria and Libya, this is all against the principles of our religion, so the Muslims should be clear on that, while at the same time we have to have the big picture and to say, "Let us come together to be against the use of religions to kill."

But at the same time, and it’s not a "but" that is undermining the condemnation, but stressing the fact that the picture is very complex, and we also have to be clear about the killing of Muslims and not to be quiet when, for example, 200 people have been killed in Nigeria, or the three people who have been killed in North Carolina, and it took two days for President Obama to come and to say something about it. And the silence here is not acceptable. So it’s not this against that, but we have to be not—we should not be selective in our condemnation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Tariq Ramadan, you’ve been following the position of Muslims in Europe for decades. Is it your sense, as some claim, that more and more young Muslims in Europe are turning to a more radical form of Islam and also violent acts like the one we just witnessed in Copenhagen?

TARIQ RAMADAN: I think that there is something completely new that we are—it’s very difficult for us to understand, is this attraction towards what is happening through the social media. And yes, there are more people being involved with it. We never had such a thing as people going—we had, yes, of course, people going to Bosnia or going to al-Shishan or going to even Palestine, but it was—they were few, it’s a handful number. So I don’t think that we had this before. Now, at the same time, we have to be very cautious. It’s not because they are killing and they are getting the headlines that they are something, you know, that is representing Muslims. It’s a tiny minority. It’s on the margin. The people are not even going to the mosques. They are not within the community. This young guy was just in prison a few weeks ago. And it’s the same in France. We have to be very cautious. It might be that we have more young people being involved, but still this is completely disconnected from the Muslim communities in the West.

And then, because you are asking this question, without trying to find justification, because it’s not justifiable, we need to come to some of the reasons that we can find, to go upstream and to try to solve the problem—so, for example, anything that has to do with a better teaching of Islam. We need institutionalizing the Muslim presence in the West and in Europe by having a teaching vision that is clear on the things that could be accepted within the diversity of the Islamic teaching and the things that are unacceptable. So this kind of informal teaching that we have of Islam and this in-between, it’s not helping.

On the other side, we also have to deal with political issues, because when, in Europe, we are presenting that they are at war with our values, the people are in touch with the international scene, and they are seeing what is happening, and sometimes which kind of international policies are promoting—are promoted by the West, the United States or the European countries. And we also have to be clear that we are giving some value to this political analysis. It’s not as if nothing is happening around the world; people are being killed, and European and Western powers are involved in wars around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Inna Shevchenko, if you could weigh in here? Also, comment on the fact that at this Krudttønden café where the free speech event took place, people stayed to continue the event, is that right, afterwards? Again, a Danish filmmaker was killed in this attack, Finn Nørgaard.

INNA SHEVCHENKO: That’s right. That’s right. We were—as we gathered there to celebrate freedom of speech, we continued to celebrate freedom of speech, with certain conditions that we all have right now. We have new conditions for being able to celebrate and to enjoy freedom of speech, and we have to be—we have to know that today we can be targeted. We can hear sounds of Kalashnikov around us whenever we draw or laugh or speak, enjoying freedom of speech, and there are new conditions today, and we have to accept it.

But what—you know, what happened at that event, it was horrible. It was horrible to hear shots of Kalashnikov just behind the door of the room where you were simply talking about pluralism and about being able to explain—to express whatever ideas you care without harming physically anybody. And then we heard shots. And, of course, the situation was terrible, and people were running and trying to hide under the tables and in the corners. It was chaotic.

Then the shots finished, and the situation—we understood what happened. And one of the participants proposed to continue the debates. People, the audience, were so proud to be on that side of the fight, not to be—not to represent a dogmatic side of the fight that, unfortunately, I should mention, and unfortunately for Tariq Ramadan, unfortunately, religions do represent dogmatic part of this discussion. And we represented at that event, and millions of people today in Europe are expressing that they represent, liberalism and pluralism. And what—right now we are in the middle of ideological war between pluralism and dogmatism. And unfortunately for all of us, religion does play a big, big part in dogmatism and in dogmatic side supporting it. Even though, again, I’m not going to please, maybe, Tariq Ramadan, I definitely see how many religious people also become victims of those extremists, but I think that we should not deny the other side of religion that is giving to us today. And unfortunately, this is not the most peaceful side.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Inna, you’ve also suggested that Europe—Tariq Ramadan, why don’t you respond to what Inna said?

TARIQ RAMADAN: I think that the starting point of our discussion is not to be dogmatically liberal against religion. What I’m hearing now, it’s a dogmatic mind rejecting all the religions and all the dogmatic religious cultures or religious teachings as being dogmatic. That’s very superficial. And I’m very, very cautious with some dogmatic liberal minds saying freedom of expression is on our side. Please, I don’t think that you are going to solve the problem. And this is the problem I have with your organization, Femen. You are dogmatic in the way you are rejecting all religions. You don’t see that within religions and the religious traditions you have millions, hundreds of millions of people who are open-minded and trying their best and they are supporting freedom of expression. So don’t be like this, because by promoting this mindset, you are creating the problems; you are not solving or trying to find solutions.

So, once again, I would say, I am on the side of freedom of speech. And then, this, I think, we have to promote. And I said this, you know, at the very beginning. I was myself involved in the discussion about the cartoon crisis in Denmark at the very beginning. I was there, and I met with journalists. Even the journal, the newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, they published my book on the prophet that you mentioned in English, they published it in Danish, because they wanted to show we are also—we want to give this right picture, we are not only against. So I think that we need to find new alliances and not this binary vision, "it’s religions versus open-minded people." No, it’s open-minded people against all type of instrumentalization, and even sometimes the liberal values of instrumentalizing in a very dogmatic way, as I’ve said.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Inna Shevchenko, could you respond to what Tariq said and also elaborate on the suggestion you’ve made that Europe needs to change its policies in light of what’s happened? And you’ve spoken of ideological warfare. Could you elaborate on that?

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Yes, first of all, I want to respond to Tariq. And, you know, I think that definitely what you are doing well, you are trying to turn my words right now around. And I think that what we all are saying and what is the main idea of what we all are caring and what we were caring at this event, that we all should be able to express our ideas, whether you are religious or not. And to say that we are rejecting all religions is definitely to be superficial, as you say. We’d never reject religious people, who can care liberal ideas, and there are plenty of them, including a lot of friends that I have who are religious—and, as well, Muslim, who are supporting secular ideas and who do agree that Charlie Hebdo did have a right to draw Muhammad.

And as I know—as far as I know, you don’t agree that this is a freedom of speech. You call it insulting. And in one of the texts of your blog, you said that those terrorists are victims of society. And I think this is a big danger in your speeches. I think that you definitely objectively should recognize the side of all liberals, that we provide the solution that respects opinion and right to believe, to think, to speak about whatever they want. Religious you are or not, you have right to express your ideas. You have right to talk about that.

But what we propose, we don’t carry Kalashnikovs in our hands. And one small group, even small group of our community, do not care—do not carry Kalashnikovs in our hands. What we do carry, we carry a much more powerful weapon: We carry our ideas of respecting right of everybody to express their ideas. And we propose a real solution. We don’t say the situation is too complex and we should just sit and be desperate about it. What we do say, we say that we have to educate each other, that everybody has a right to laugh at whoever, whether Muhammad, it is Jesus or Marine Le Pen or Obama, whoever. We have right to laugh. We have right to criticize. We have right to express our opinion. And this right should be respected. And this right should not be—should not be criticized and said as—and named as superficial, not at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Tariq Ramadan, your response?

TARIQ RAMADAN: No, no, no, once again, this is a distortion of what I said. What I said is superficial is to put religions on one side and then to come to say, "I have nothing against religious people, but I am against religions." I have been following many of your statements about religions and connecting religions with patriarchy, with very narrow-minded people. That’s fine, if we start with what you are saying now, that we are coming together, and we are promoting the point that it’s freedom of speech. And yes, freedom of speech means that we cannot deny the fact that if I feel insulted, that’s fine. The question is not if I feel insulted; the question is: What am I doing out of it? And what I’m saying is that I take a critical distance. I let the people speak the way they want. And this is the starting point of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that I agree and I’m happy with all what I hear, but I acknowledge the fact that the people have the right to say. That’s the point, and you cannot deny this.

Now, the question here is, very often in all the discussions that we had and through your organization is to be aggressive in the way you are promoting it. It’s not helping. That’s the point that I’m making. It’s not—if you say to people, you know, "I respect religious people I don’t like, and I reject religions," I think that, once again, that’s your right, you can say it, but it’s putting the people into boxes in a way which is what I am saying is superficial.

Now, the point that I want to make—you are celebrating freedom of speech. Yes, we have the right to laugh, and this should be a right, yes, I’ve said that. Now, I don’t want a young guy, 22 years old, to put us in a situation where there is no way for us to have a bigger discussion, which this discussion is. He was wrong. He betrayed the Islamic principles. We have to say this in a clear way. Now I want the big picture and say: What are the reasons that are pushing some people to go that way? And what is our common response to be?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn—Tariq Ramadan, if you’ll allow me, I want to ask about some of the reasons, some of the speculation for the reasons that people are—young Muslims in Europe are turning to violence. The French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, visited Copenhagen Sunday to express solidarity after the attacks, that were reminiscent of the attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly newspaper. Cazeneuve said more must be done to prevent vulnerable members of society from, quote, being "brainwashed" by Internet propaganda.

BERNARD CAZENEUVE: [translated] This morning, I saw the same sadness I witnessed back in Paris in January in people’s terrified eyes, the same sadness, the same dread, the same dignity and the same mediation and the same sorrow. In the face of terrorism, we are first and foremost united by feelings like those of important democrats, those attached to democracy, to the values of the founding fathers of the European Union. When we call for more regulation for Internet in order to prevent websites and blogs promoting terrorism from brainwashing the most vulnerable citizens in our countries—and doing so efficiently, I have to say—this is realistic. We are adapting our strategies in the face of a very acute problem, and we need to do that with lucidity and to get ready to face a real threat for a long time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. You each have about 30 seconds to respond. Inna Shevchenko, could you comment on what the minister said?

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Sure, of course. We should—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, I’m afraid we’ve lost Inna for the moment. Tariq Ramadan, could you comment on what the minister said and explain whether you think it is Internet propaganda that’s seducing young, vulnerable Muslims in Europe?

TARIQ RAMADAN: No, that’s clear. He is right on one thing, is that now we know that there is the Internet propaganda, and this is attracting some of the young Muslims, even converts and things like this. But this is not the only reason, and it cannot only be this. We also have to deal with domestic policies in the West, where you have this frustration. Anyone can use this to instrumentalize religion as a weapons against the other, let alone the discussion on the international scene. You know, when France is saying, "We are not at war," yes, you are not at war with them, but you are at war in the Middle East, and you are involved in political actions and wars around, so you also have to deal with this. So, this is not to justify what was done, but this is to explain that if we don’t deal with the reasons, we are missing the point.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to—we’re going to have to wrap up, although I do think perhaps we have Inna right at this moment.

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Yes, can I come back?

AMY GOODMAN: If you could respond for 30 seconds, yes, to what the French interior minister said?

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Do you have me right now?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we hear you fine.

INNA SHEVCHENKO: Yeah, sorry, sorry. Yeah, well, you know, I think that generally to say—again, let me still come back a little bit to the main point and to what Tariq said and mentioned, and then go back to Bernard Cazeneuve. You know, the thing is that right now I clearly do hear that Tariq Ramadan is condemning violence of terrorists, who are unfortunately doing it in the name of his religion. And right now we can see how many of those terrorists are appearing. And I think that one of the reasons why it is happening right now, because so many people, including Tariq Ramadan, are spending much more time to condemn cartoons of Charlie Hebdo or Lars Vilks than to criticize and then to say directly to terrorists that the part of Islam that is saying that you have to fight infidels and everybody else who doesn’t belong to this religion and this idea should be forgotten or denied, clearly. They should not be said just they are terrorists and they’re not part of our community. There are a few brave Muslims who are saying, great people who are—great thinkers who are saying, "Yes, they are Muslims. They do represent our religion. And we should clearly say that this part of the religion should be mortified and should be denied." The solution is—just to say they are not Muslims and they don’t belong to Islam, this is just—

AMY GOODMAN: Inna Shevchenko, we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us. She was speaking at the free speech event in Copenhagen’s Krudttønden café when the attack took place on Saturday, a leader of the international women’s protest group Femen, which often demonstrates topless against what they perceive as manifestations of patriarchy. She was joining us now from Paris, where she’s gone from Copenhagen. And I want to thank Professor Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, author of a number of books, speaking to us from Doha, Qatar.

Filed under: War on Terror, Religion, Islam, Women's Rights