Denmark's cartoon blowback

Ulf Hedetoft
1 March 2006

The publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that has offended Muslims, cost lives and polarised emotions worldwide sprang from a particular context of Danish political and media discussion, explains Ulf Hedetoft.

The distance from domestic provocation to global outrage is short, as Denmark has found to its surprise and regret in the course of a few short weeks. What the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten intended as a public demonstration of Danish democracy and the right to free speech – an exemplary case presented to the Muslim minority in Denmark – was suddenly transformed into a major political, diplomatic, and even economic quandary. The cartoon scandal has come home to roost, proving to doubters (and there are many in Denmark) that globalisation is a reality in today's world and comprises more than economic adaptation to changing external conditions. Danes have been forced to realise – among other sobering lessons – that the immigrant "little brother" on the inside apparently has powerful kith-and-kin on the outside.

In defence of free speech

The "cartoon war" is still exacting its cost in lives as well as frayed relationships across the world. Its obscure, local beginnings six months ago are by now familiar. Jyllands-Posten, irked by the fact that a number of Danish cartoonists had refused to contribute drawings of Mohammed to a book on Islam by a controversial Danish writer, decided to remedy this apparent instance of self-censorship by commissioning cartoons of the prophet. It published twelve of these on 30 September 2006.

There was no other substantive context, no thematic or analytic justification, no other narrative, slant, or interpretative framework that might have made them palatable or just somehow reasonable. The message was simple, unadorned, and childishly, defiantly provocative: we publish these because we have a right to do so; the liberty of free speech allows us to offend whoever we like, and the religious sensibility of Danish Muslims has to come to terms with this basic fact of Danish life and values if they want to be accepted and to integrate.

This defence of free speech – testing the limits of Muslim tolerance rather than observing the limits of civility – was portrayed as necessary because this democratic value is allegedly under threat from Islamic communities wanting to curtail democracy, to impose a different culture on Denmark, and eventually to introduce sharia law. Provocation was called for and offence justified in order to teach the "immigrant other" a serious lesson, and at the same time wage a battle for what "we all" believe in, before it is too late.

Thus, the paper itself depicted this act of deliberate provocation and insult – the perversity of deliberately offending because one is allowed to – as almost an example of civic disobedience: as if Jyllands-Posten and not the Danish Muslims were a minority voice in a public landscape dominated by non-Danish values, and as if the aliens were winning the domestic "clash of civilisations".

Also by Ulf Hedetoft in openDemocracy:
- "'Cultural transformation': how Denmark faces immigration"
(October 2003)

The context

Nothing could be further from the truth. An act of this kind is clearly the doing of a group of highly influential opinion-leaders in Denmark (Jyllands-Posten is the newspaper with Denmark's largest circulation and is ideologically close to the ruling political majority) and, moreover, the result of a crude game of power and identity politics vis-à-vis immigrants. It is also fully in line with the peculiar kind of Danish Islamophobia and anti-immigrant scepticism that has come to dominate public debates (and has undergirded government policies) within the last five years, if not for much longer.

In this context the free-speech argument is not a novelty, but a key part of the, by now very nearly conventional, stock-in-trade of anti-immigration alarmism. Immigrants (and their descendants) routinely find themselves at the receiving end of insensitive, offensive, and inconsiderate characterisation in the inviolable name of free speech and frank public debate. The trick, naturally, is that form and content – a specific liberty and a particular application of it – are systematically confused.

It should be obvious that the right of freedom of expression does not compel anyone to articulate offensive, false, or outrageously silly statements in the public domain. This kind of exercise (which has absolutely nothing to do with a much-needed critique of religious dogmatism) is usually the preserve of children and adolescents wanting to test the limits of parental tolerance or societal laws. Nevertheless this is an argument frequently presented in defence of anti-immigrant stereotyping in Denmark: we talk directly about them, make demands on them, and portray them as we please, because we can and may … and because they deserve it of course.

This rider refers us to the reality of the argument – for, in effect, "free speech" as "the right to offend" – and shows why it cannot be taken at face value. In no other public domain than the area of immigration policy and intercultural conflicts is this kind of argument applied so widely and indiscriminately. Free speech, indeed, is the formal context within which Danish politicians, public commentators, journalists, and ordinary folk find the space to express their views on immigrant communities, often in no uncertain terms.

Jyllands-Posten's publication of the cartoons should be seen as standing firmly in the tradition of this peculiar dialectic of Danish migration discourse. In that sense the editors were justified in thinking that this was not just permissible, but in a sense quite normal – and to transcend this normality they undoubtedly did their best to outdo themselves in the distinctive Danish sport of anti-Muslim provocation.

Also in openDemocracy on the "cartoon war" in Europe and the Muslim world (February 2006):
- Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity"
- "Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" – a compendium of views from twenty writers
- Doug Ireland, "The right to caricature God…and his prophets"
- Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification? "
- Ehsan Masood, "A post-Satanic journey"
- Sarah Lindon, "Words on images: the cartoon controversy"
- Fred Halliday, "Blasphemy and power"
- S Sayyid, "Old Europe, New World"
- Saskia Sassen, "Free speech in the frontier-zone"
- Daphna Vardi, "Jews and cartoons: why the connection? "
- Kalypso Nicolaïdis "Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition"
- Farhang Jahanpour, "Cartoons, caricatures, and civilisation" (February 2006)

Revenge of the imams – and the global backlash

The rest of the narrative (so far) is familiar. What started as a mix of childish pranks and Islamophobic attitudes has developed into a worldwide crisis – setting emotions, identities, and interests in motion that neither the newspaper nor official Denmark would ever have imagined in their wildest nightmares, and which have assumed their own independent (partly fanatical, partly opportunistic) dynamics, beyond the control of both governing elites and international institutions.

The mediating spark that lit this incendiary fire was a trip made by a number of Danish imams to governments and Muslim leaders in the middle east, carrying the (somewhat caricatured) message of this Danish insult to Muslim identities and demanding an apology from the newspaper and the Danish government – following a refusal by the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to have a conciliatory meeting with ambassadors representing Muslim countries, on the grounds that "the government could not interfere with the freedom of the press".

The government can, however, interfere with the freedom of the imams to take advantage of their freedom of speech in this way – at least in the sense that it openly condemned the trip and made the imams more or less directly responsible for the global backlash and its ruinous effects on the image and interests of Denmark. Although in a sense this is a case of punishing the messenger, the government had a point: it is doubtful if, without the intervention of the imams and the Islamic Faith Society, this event would have travelled far beyond Danish borders (although it appears that the independent role of the Egyptian government should not be underestimated, and it is notable that the offending cartoons were published in the Egyptian newspaper al-Fajr in October 2005 without provoking a firestorm).

At the same time, it is beyond any shred of doubt that the Danish government's criticism of the imams is a case of conscious, symbolic revenge for what Muslim leaders perceive as unfair treatment, marginalisation, and lack of religious respect on the domestic scene – a case of the umma striking back, so to speak.

The ultimate irony is that in spite of pervasive talk in Denmark over the last decade about the menace that Islamic culture and religion represent to Danish homogeneity and historical values, the real "clash" has come about in a way that no one had anticipated – that is, as a result of the very effort to defend Danishness that Jyllands-Posten more than any other social actor has irreverently spearheaded during this period.

The acts and statements that exemplify this effort are not just problematic in their terms; they display a fundamental ignorance of the perceived other, whose deity is more central, more sacrosanct, and more ubiquitous than in Lutheran societies, and more affectively and existentially connected to the honour, identity, and self-respect of individuals and groups.

For that reason, acts and statements that can be seen to be defamatory and slanderous in respect of Muslim symbols and culture are taken as personal insults and can engender violent reactions, not least in middle-east countries where religiosity already functions as a symbolic vent to real social and material pressures – "the last refuge of the victims", to paraphrase Samuel Johnson.

It is the failure to understand this – and to apply the normal codes of civilised conduct – which has dramatically fanned the fires of global "occidentalism". In turn, although the newspaper is now clearly on the defensive (unlike the position it symbolically feigned to start with), this has consolidated its principled view about the incommensurability of Danish values and the Islamic religion.

In a narrowly national perspective this reflects the tragedy of the situation: as recent surveys indicate, anti-immigrant attitudes and deep-seated scepticism about cultural pluralism in Denmark might well harden even further, and the political benefactors of these attitudes – the government and the Danish People's Party – stand to gain from these tragic events. Globalisation may have hit the country with a decided vengeance – but if any real lesson will be learnt by the powers-that-be is more than doubtful.

In the meantime, what should be obvious is that this has nothing to do with a clash of civilisations. What, one might ask, is civilised about the behaviour of the Danish newspaper, its government, or for that matter the violent, powerless, desperate reactions in the Muslim world? Civilisations, if they are to merit that epithet, do not clash. National and religious ideologies and identities, on the other hand, do, particularly when fanned by the explosive combination of economic inequalities, imperial aspirations, symbolic politics, and moralistic self-righteousness.

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