DUBAI — A group of prominent Muslim scholars has called for an end to the boycott of the Danish retailer Arla Foods, in what may prove to be a major step toward resolving the crisis between Muslim nations and Denmark over the publication last autumn of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
The International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet, in a statement issued at the end of a meeting of prominent religious leaders in Bahrain last week, advised that “Arla Foods should be withdrawn from the boycott on Denmark,” in recognition of the company’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world.
Arla, the second-largest dairy products company in Europe and the largest Danish packaged foods supplier in the Middle East, saw its sales drop to nearly zero in the region when the boycott began in February. Although the statement names only Arla, the move is widely expected to break the embargo on other Danish suppliers in the region.
The scholars’ statement said that their recommendation “is based on the announcements that Arla Foods had placed throughout the Middle East condemning the actions of the Danish newspaper, as well as refusing to accept any excuse in this regard.”
“Arla has been facing tremendous pressure and criticism for its position,” it added.
Jyllands-Posten, Page 3 of culture section, Sept., 2005.
The cartoons can be viewed here.
Arla last week placed full-page ads in major Arab newspapers condemning the cartoons for insulting Islam, a move that sparked as much approbation in Denmark as it did applause in the Middle East.
“We made the decision” to place the ads “because we really believe that you shouldn’t insult people’s religions,” said Jan Petersen, regional director for Arla Foods Middle East. “As a company we have been caught in the middle of something that nobody could have ever expected.”
The controversy over the publication last September of the cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten boiled over in early February as a region-wide boycott of Danish products. The boycott quickly spread across the Middle East, one of the fastest growing markets for Danish packaged goods companies, and escalated into all-out violence in Syria, Lebanon and other Muslim countries.
Danish diplomats said the latest resolution was the product of intense political, diplomatic and social exchanges and weeks of dialogue between Danish representatives and businessmen and Muslim leaders and communities.
Denmark plans to increase its budget for a program set up in 2003 to improve relations with Middle East countries, currently at about 100 million Danish crowns, or $16.4 million, a year, by about 20 percent, Reuters reported Monday, citing Danish government officials.
“We are extremely pleased,” Thomas May, the Danish consul general in Dubai, said of the call to end the boycott. “Taking product companies as hostages has never been a solution. I am glad to see that things are getting back to normal.”
The conflict over the 12 cartoons – one of which showed the prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse – simmered for months before it erupted into violent protests, flag- burning and attacks on Danish and other Western embassies in several Muslim countries. Dozens of people were killed in the protests. Denmark temporarily closed its embassies in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Many muslim scholars were divided about ending the boycott.
“Any human being or a country that lifts the ban and stops boycotting Danish companies or the arrogant Danish government is not worthy of being a Muslim,” said Abd Al Moaty Bayoumy, former dean of the faculty of theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The boycott must continue, he said, “until the government, not the companies apologize.”
But Abdel Ghaffar Helal, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence and Koranic studies at Al-Azhar, applauded the step for emphasizing dialogue over anger.
“We urge Muslims not to boycott but to engage. All Westerners see of Muslims is the negative news in the media. They should see another side,” he said.
Many retailers said they intended to keep Danish goods off their shelves. By Tuesday, Petersen said, Arla’s products could be found in only 1,500 stores in the region, far from the 50,000 stores that carried its products before.
“The boycott is not in our hands or in the hands of the government. It’s in the hands of the people and ultimately the consumer must decide,” said a product manager at the Sharjah Cooperative Society, a retailer in the emirate of Sharjah, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
At least some customers have already decided. At a local Geant outlet in Dubai on Tuesday, Mansoureh Abidi, a housewife from Iran, said she was very happy to find Three Cows cheese on shelves again. “I bought it before and I like it very much. Last week, when I saw it on the shelf, I thought, ‘This is my lucky day.’ I bought 10 packages,” she said.
Nada el Sawy in Dubai and Abeer Allam in Cairo contributed reporting for this article.
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