Nordics find generosity no shield from Muslim wrath By Per Bech Thomsen COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - For years, Scandinavian countries have been among the most generous with aid to the Muslim world, but that generosity has stood for little in the scandal over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. In the past week, Scandinavian embassies have been set ablaze in Syria and Lebanon and bans have been put on Danish exports, creating a row that threatens to unravel the substantial goodwill Scandinavia had in the Middle East. Despite the vast contributions Nordic countries have made, analysts suspect Denmark's heavy-handed approach to immigrants may be one reason behind the Muslim backlash. And they worry that it could take a long time for reputations to recover. That's bad for Scandinavia, but it may also be bad for aid recipients such as the Palestinians, just as they face a crunch over funding following militant group Hamas's election victory. "The general perception in the Arab world of the Nordic countries as tolerant and generous has suffered a huge blow," said Ole Woehlers Olsen, a senior advisor at the Danish Institute for International Studies. The region's reputation for generosity was not undeserved. Norway brokered the Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s; Norway and Sweden are the top single donors of aid to the Palestinians after the United States; and Denmark launched an "Arab initiative" in 2003 to promote understanding. Its presidency of the European Union helped set up the "roadmap" for Middle East peace. "That is why is has hurt so much to see the pictures of flags being burned and all the threats against the people who are there to help the Palestinian people," said Fathie El-Abed of the Danish-Palestinian Friendship Association. THOUGHTLESS ACT Denmark, where the cartoons were first published, has been the focus of anger. Jyllands-Posten, a conservative paper in a country whose government won power partly by making it tougher for immigrants to get in, commissioned the cartoons for a debate on whether it was acceptable to censor the media to avoid offending Muslims, thereby giving Muslims special treatment. Later published in a small Christian paper in Norway and now in papers all over Europe and beyond, the cartoons snowballed from a local debate about censorship to a global row about free speech and relations between the West and the Muslim world. "It was not a deliberate provocation by Jyllands-Posten. It was thoughtlessness based on ignorance about the fact that it would hurt a lot of people," said Olsen. But the suspicion that it was an act of provocation is hard to dispel because of the political context in Denmark, where the center-right government has flexed its muscles on immigration, even restricting the entry of foreigners married to Danes. Prime Anders Fogh Ramsussen came to power in 2001 on a campaign to curb the immigrant numbers, egged on by his openly anti-immigrant allies, the Danish People's Party, which wants to expel some imams accused of whipping up anti-Danish sentiment. Aid agencies and experts say that if the situation continues to deteriorate, it is the Palestinians who stand to lose most if ties with Scandinavia are damaged beyond repair. The crisis comes just as the Palestinians face a funding crisis after Hamas, a militant Islamic group, won elections. Norway has been a particularly strong Palestinian donor. "This is an important role and particularly now because it is such a big issue whether Hamas will get enough funding," said Henrik Thune at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Sweden has tried to show solidarity with Denmark while distancing itself from the cartoon row itself and stressing the role its foreign aid agency SIDA plays in the Middle East. "We support development in the Palestinian territories where we are helping with financial support for healthcare, education and infrastructure," said SIDA spokesman Jon Hedenstrom. "That is well known in many parts of the Middle East."