Danish company Arla said it will take years for trade between Denmark and the Arab world to recover, despite apologies from the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten yesterday (31 January) for the offence caused by Jyllands-Posten’s cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohammad.

Muslims throughout the Middle East and North Africa responded angrily to the series of cartoons, first published last September and reprinted recently, depicting the Prophet Mohammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. Islam strictly forbids depictions of the prophet.

The call of religious leaders to boycott Danish goods was answered by consumers and, Arla reported, Danish produce was removed from supermarket shelves across the Middle East. The boycott of Danish goods has caused sales in the region to halt almost completely and consequently Arla has brought production in the area to an end.

Arla’s managing director Peder Tuborgh warned that the situation will not be resolved quickly, stating that it would take time for trade to pick up again. “This will take years, but we want to see a dialogue that can solve the conflict and allow us to work towards re-establishing Arla’s business in the Middle East and the good relations that we’ve enjoyed in the region over the past 30 years,” he said.

Danish politicians are having to walk the tight line of compromise, simultaneously appeasing Muslim sensibilities in order for trade to resume while being perceived by the Danish public to defend freedom of speech. A Danish survey revealed that 79% of Danes think that no apology is necessary. Danish companies are caught in the cross-fire and have witnessed their Middle Eastern sales decline and then cease.

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“Arla is neither a newspaper nor a political party, and we don’t wish to take part in a political debate. Equally, we’re not responsible for solving the conflict,” Tuborgh said. Commenting on freedom of speech he added: “In Denmark we have two core values: one is that you cannot offend other people because of, for instance, their religion or ethnic origin. The other is free speech. I believe that both businesses and people have a responsibility for ensuring a balance between these two values. The one should not exclude the other.”