COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A Danish Muslim leader who seven years ago traveled the Muslim world fueling the uproar over newspaper caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad is back in the headlines in Denmark after doing an about-face on the issue.
Once a leading critic of the Danish cartoons, which sparked fiery protests in Muslim countries, Lebanese-born Ahmad Akkari now says the Jyllands-Posten newspaper had the right to print them.
His unexpected change of heart has received praise from pundits and politicians in recent weeks, though some question his sincerity. It has also disappointed some in the country's Muslim minority who were deeply offended by the cartoons.
Akkari, now 35, was the spokesman for a group of imams who led the protests against the drawings in Denmark. They traveled to Lebanon, Egypt and Syria to elicit support, saying the Danish government wouldn't listen to their concerns.
Their journeys helped turn the dispute into an international crisis. Dozens were killed in weeks of protests that included violent attacks against Danish missions in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Tiny Denmark found itself on a collision course with the Muslim world — something Akkari now regrets.
"I want to be clear today about the trip: It was totally wrong," Akkari told The Associated Press this week. "At that time, I was so fascinated with this logical force in the Islamic mindset that I could not see the greater picture. I was convinced it was a fight for my faith, Islam."
He said he's still a practicing Muslim but started doubting his fundamentalist beliefs after a 2007 trip to Lebanon, where he met Islamist leaders.
"I was shocked. I realized what an oppressive mentality they have," Akkari said.
A year later, he moved to Greenland, the desolate Danish Arctic island, where he worked in a school for two years.
"I had plenty of time to read and write. And think," said Akkari, who has shaved off the patchy beard he used to wear.
Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable ones, for fear it could lead to idolatry. Arguing that such religious sensitivities should not limit the freedom of speech, Jyllands-Posten in 2005 invited Danish cartoonists to draw the prophet.
At the time, Akkari joined Muslim hardliners demanding an apology from the paper and action against it by the government. He appeared to advocate violence against a more moderate Danish Muslim in a secret TV recording, but later said it was just a joke.
Akkari now says printing the drawings was OK and that his reaction at the time was wrong. Last week he even apologized in person to one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, who has faced multiple death threats and murder attempts from extremists. Many Muslims consider Westergaard's drawing, which depicts Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban, as the most offensive.
"I met a man who has converted from being an Islamist to become a humanist who understands the values of our society," Westergaard said of Akkari. "To me, he is really sincere, convincing and strong in his views."
Akkari's former colleagues in the Islamic Society of Denmark are not impressed, and have reportedly accused him of being an attention-seeker trying to get back into the limelight.
Group spokesman Bilal H. Assaad declined to comment on Akkari on Thursday but said "it is still not OK to publish drawings of Muhammad. We have not changed our position."
The group is believed to represent about 10 percent of Denmark's estimated 200,000 Muslims.
Michael Ulveman, who was an adviser to then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Ramussen during the cartoon crisis, also expressed doubts about Akkari's sincerity.
"I think Ahmad Akkari should go on al-Jazeera and tell the Arabic world about his new realization," Ulveman wrote on his Facebook page. "That would have real value for Denmark and the freedom of speech. And convince many of us about the depth and reach of his reorientation."
Ritter reported from Stockholm.