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A carnival of stupidity

Neal Ascherson
6 February 2006

The affair of the Danish cartoons is both a scandal and a storm signal. It is scandalous, as a horrific carnival of stupidity, hypocrisy and manipulated outrage celebrated with equal enthusiasm in the Muslim world and in "liberal" Europe. It is a storm signal of worse to come. Five people in three countries have already died in the last two furious days of riotous confrontation. But even if the tumult soon peaks and begins to subside, the world has been left a more dangerous place.

Millions of peaceful Muslims, small farmers in Sumatra or Bengali waiters in European cities, are now inclined to listen more respectfully to those who tell them that the west and its leaders intend to exterminate Islam by slander and humiliation as preludes to war. Millions of Europeans, reading posters like those carried by demonstrators in London on 3 February ("UK, you must pray – 7/7 is on its way", with calls for the killing of British editors and broadcasters) are reluctantly wondering if any compromise is possible between democracy and the religious dogmatism of a minority. The city authorities of Rotterdam are about to decree that only Dutch may be spoken in their streets. This week, rather fewer Dutch people will see this for the imbecile provocation that it is.

Also in openDemocracy, Ulf Hedetoft examines recent shifts in Denmark's public discourse about immigrants, outsiders and strangers:

"'Cultural transformation': how Denmark faces immigration"
(October 2003):

"The external menace – globalisation as represented by hordes of cultural aliens – has entered into an unholy alliance with 'our own' elites, people elected to defend our interests and our collective historical destiny. It is this collusion which is allegedly putting the very future of Danishness in jeopardy."

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A slow-burning fuse

The most curious thing about the affair is why the fuse burned so slowly. It was on 30 September 2005, more than four months ago, that Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen published the cartoons of Mohammed (heavily unfunny, but extremely rude). The newspaper was barging into an already running story, about the reluctance of Danish illustrators to contribute to a life of Mohammed for children. Jyllands-Posten is a rightwing paper, in tune with the present Danish government in its resentment of Muslim immigrants, and it meant to make trouble. There followed some small demonstrations, and several death threats to the cartoonists.

None the less, the trouble could have been contained. The fatal element was the insistence of the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on posturing as a friend of liberty who knew how to stand up to repressive aliens. He brushed the protests from Danish Muslims aside. He then refused to receive the ambassadors of Islamic nations, who were demanding the prosecution of the newspaper. They reported back to their own publics on "Danish intransigence".

By now, it was late October. The cartoons, accompanied by lurid stories of "persecution" were already trickling into the Islamic media bloodstream all over the world, carried by emails and a variety of websites. Late last year, a delegation of Danish imams, variously described as "extremist" or "conservative", left for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with a portfolio of "blasphemous" Danish cartoons, including some pornographic images which nobody in Denmark could remember seeing.

More diplomatic protests were ignored in Copenhagen. But in Saudi Arabia, a campaign to boycott Danish goods broke out in late January, and the Saudi ambassador to Denmark was recalled on 26 January. Too late, Jyllands-Posten published its regrets for any offence the cartoons had given and Rasmussen agreed to speak to Muslim ambassadors, begging for calm. All over the Islamic world, taking the Saudi lead, anti-Danish outrage spilled into the streets. It was then that France-Soir and Die Welt in Germany, alleging that the Danes were surrendering to threats, published the cartoons, followed by papers in Norway, Spain, Italy and Ireland. The target of Muslim anger now became Europe itself.

Was this a genuine moral contest between free expression in democratic societies and Islamic intolerance? "Freedom Go To Hell" read one of the London posters, and "Butcher Those Who Mock Islam". These were intolerable slogans, especially in Britain where – astonishingly – not one single newspaper has so far republished the cartoons. But motives are not that clear. On both sides, and not just among the Muslim public, ambitious agitators are trying to ventriloquise and appropriate stacked-up feelings of insecurity and threat, as much as to make a stand on principle.

The road from tolerance

Freedom of expression has to be fought for and defended, in every European generation. But freedom should not be defended by a "'neocon" doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. Anyone who can read knows that portrayals of the prophet, even without insult, are profoundly upsetting to pious Muslims who are not necessarily at all "extreme" or "Jihadist". What Jyllands-Posten did was to publish something it knew would provoke Muslims (though it had no idea how much) in order to flaunt its own "liberal" credentials. That was unforgivable.

In the same way, rights – like the freedom of the press – inherently offer us the right to decide when to use them. The grounds for that decision include common sense and prudence. I may have the right to throw away a cigarette near a pile of leaky petrol drums, but I will probably choose not to do so, and will be held criminally responsible for a conflagration. Publishing insulting cartoons of Mohammed at a moment haunted by suicide-bombings, fanatical murder and American-led war or threats of war in Muslim countries was an act of that kind.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The Struggles for Poland (1988), Black Sea (1996), and Stone Voices: the search for Scotland (Granta, 2003).

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

"From multiculturalism to where?"
(August 2004)

"Pope John Paul II and democracy"
(April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (September 2005)

"Poland's interregnum" (September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable"
(October 2005)

Back in the noisy 1960s, Herbert Marcuse used to preach about "repressive tolerance". Something has gone wrong with the concept of tolerance in both Denmark and the Netherlands , where it has become not so much repressive as aggressive. Both these small nations have become used to being regarded as decent, liberal places, their democracies deeply rooted, their record of respect for human rights and individual liberty admired by the rest of the world. Everyone remembers how the Danes once saved their Jews from the Nazis, and how open Holland has been to life-experimenters and counter-cultures. In both nations, the idea that they are tolerant has been adopted as part of their identity.

And yet this has now become an obstacle. The arrival of fresh waves of immigration, especially from north Africa and Asia, seems more threatening to the national culture than it would in their bigger European neighbours. Sharing an open society with others suddenly turned out to be problematic.

At a recent conference in Copenhagen, I heard a Danish professor say that "Denmark has difficulty in accepting difference, or that other ways of being Danish can exist. This country has done well by sticking to a mono-ethnic model, and finds it hard to change". Mandana Zarrehparvar, from the Danish Institute of Human Rights, is part-Iranian. She said: "Integration in Denmark has failed. There are no mosques, no Muslim graveyards, no Muslim councils. Denmark fancies itself a monocultural society, which it is not".

The notion of multiculturalism, so popular in Britain, is rapidly losing ground in both these countries. The strangers, it's now said, must assimilate or leave before they swamp their hosts. But in both countries it's argued, paradoxically, that anti-immigrant policies are actually a defence of tolerance. Islam is presented as inherently intolerant, and therefore incompatible with Dutch or Danish values.

In short, both these ancient societies are struggling through a crisis of identity. And to assert that identity, marshalled round its supposed core value of tolerance, it has seemed necessary to show intolerance to others who are different. But is this anxiety really about Islam, its dislike of criticism or resistance to Enlightenment liberalism? Or is it, at root, no more than the hostility of a tightly-knit community to strangers who have arrived to share the family home? Jyllands-Posten suggests that its main concern has been for freedom and democracy. I doubt that. It has certainly damaged both of them.

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