Rotten judgment in the state of Denmark

The Danish paper that printed the cartoons wanted to stir up trouble -- and the government wanted a culture war. They got more than they bargained for.

Published February 8, 2006 12:49PM (EST)

Kashmir this week declared a nationwide protest against 12 cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed published four months ago in a provincial Danish paper. Iran officially launched a cartoon war against the West, calling for competitive lampooning of the Holocaust. I can't wait to see what comes next. Will we reach a state of de facto deterrence based upon the stockpiling of sketches? Are roundtable negotiations of mutual editorial disarmament to follow?

I would much prefer cartoon wars to fatwas calling for beheadings. But in the process of this big cartoon upheaval that has spread across Europe and beyond, my country of birth, Denmark, has fallen from grace. The modern myth of "the little tolerant people," rooted in a group of Danes who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi deportation in 1943, has died.

In the past five years, I have interviewed 300 Muslim leaders in Western Europe about their views and solutions for the integration of Islam. It has long been evident to me that religious toleration and reverence for human rights have been sorely lacking in Denmark. The debate now raging over the caricatures has tilted on the defense of free speech -- but a deep and unflinching commitment to free speech is not really the mission of the paper at the center of the maelstrom, nor of the present Danish government.

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that originally published the 12 caricatures, has a circulation of about 175,000 and is Denmark's largest paper. The paper's main offices are in Aarhus, the country's second-largest city, on the outskirts of town in an area zoned for industrial use. The building resembles a well-kept small manufacturing plant, but inside everything is white and pleasant. It is where I grew up, and in my family the paper still sits on our coffee tables. But don't let the blond wood deceive you. Jyllands-Posten is a conservative paper and it has always minded the religious and political sensitivities of its readership, the Lutheran farmers and the provincial middle class.

In Denmark the national papers have historically been associated with the main political parties and the movements that formed them. Jyllands-Posten is associated with the prime minister's party. In English, Fogh Rasmussen's party is referred to as the Liberal Party; in Danish it is "Venstre," meaning "the Left." But the party is neither left nor liberal. The names date back to the days of limited suffrage, when the Conservatives were "the Right" and there were only those two parties. My father, a brother and a sister ran for office from Rasmussen's party. It was the party everyone else in my family voted for. Once I emigrated to the U.S., family unity on political matters was restored.

The Economist called the Danish cartoons a "schoolboy prank." That describes them pretty well, but I like a few of them nonetheless. One is of a benign-looking Prophet, who stands on a cloud turning away a line of suicide bombers with, "Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins." That one elicited a laugh or two in my family. My favorite one, though -- which was aimed at the cartoon publishers, not Islam -- shows Mohammed as a seventh-grader, who has written on the blackboard "Jyllands-Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs." Two others portray the Prophet much the way Jesus is usually drawn, but darker and with a halo that has turned into horns. The rest are a predictable mix of self-righteous, unfunny commentary and depictions of shady-looking faces with big, bulbous noses and blood-dripping swords. They tab popular prejudices about Muslims as war-mongering and misogynistic blackbeards. They are the pebble that started a tsunami -- but they were never meant to be innocent.

The cartoons started out as a gag, the kind you do when the news is slow. Flemming Rose, the paper's culture editor, decided last summer that he was fed up with what he described as the spreading "self-censorship" on matters related to Islam, so he solicited cartoonists for drawings of "how they saw the Prophet." On Sept. 30, 12 cartoons were published under the headline "Mohammed's Face." Rose cited a statement by a Danish stand-up comedian, who had complained that he was afraid to make fun of Mohammed on TV. A children's book author complained that he could not get anyone to illustrate his book about Mohammed. Another example of Islamic pieties' crushing influence on free speech was that three theaters had put on shows deriding George Bush, but none Osama bin Laden. Cartoons are an important anti-totalitarian expression, Rose wrote, and therefore the paper had asked 40 Danish cartoonists to draw their image of Mohammed. Only 12 responded. Rose implied that some of those who did not respond were infected by self-censorship.

This all would have been very well if the paper had a long tradition of standing up for fearless artistic expression. But it so happens that three years ago, Jyllands-Posten refused to publish cartoons portraying Jesus, on the grounds that they would offend readers. According to a report in the Guardian, which was provided with a letter from the cartoonist, Christoffer Zieler, the editor explained back then, "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them." When confronted with the old rejection letter, the editor, Jens Kaiser, said, "It is ridiculous to bring this forward now. It has nothing to do with the Mohammed cartoons." But why does it not? Can you offend Muslim readers but not Christian readers? "In the Muhammed drawings case, we asked the illustrators to do it. I did not ask for these cartoons," Kaiser said. "That's the difference."

And therein lies the truth. The paper wanted to instigate trouble, just not the kind of trouble it got. And in this mission it acted in concert with the Danish government. "We have gone to war against the multicultural ideology that says that everything is equally valid," boasted the minister of cultural affairs, Brian Mikkelsen, in a speech at his party's annual meeting the week before Rose's cartoon editorial last fall. Mikkelsen is a 39-year-old political science graduate known for his hankering for the "culture war." He continued, "The Culture War has now been raging for some years. And I think we can conclude that the first round has been won." The next front, he said, is the war against the acceptance of Muslims norms and ways of thought. The Danish cultural heritage is a source of strength in an age of globalization and immigration. Cultural restoration, he argued, is the best antidote.

The Danish government has protested that Danish Muslims and the Islamic countries have conspired in a misinformation campaign regarding both the paper's motives and the law of the land. Among the examples of preposterous misinformation are that the paper is run by the government, and that the government can do anything to regulate what is said or not said. While radical Islamists have exaggerated and exploited these themes to incite violent protest, the painful reality is that there is some truth to them. The paper is related to the government, not by ownership but by political affinity and history. And Denmark is no paragon of free speech. Article 140 of the Criminal Code allows for a fine and up to four months of imprisonment for demeaning a "recognized religious community."

Mogens Glistrup, a tax protester turned xenophobe, was imprisoned for 20 days last year for a racist speech. He compared Turks to rabbits. Back in 1975, Jens Jorgen Thorsen, a multimedia artist belonging to the "situationist school," had a government grant provided to make a film about Jesus taken away. Five thousand young Christians had demonstrated in the street of Copenhagen against Thorsen and his movie and tumultuous scenes broke out. (Coincidentally, a police estimate held that about 5,000 people participated in one of the first demonstrations against the cartoons held in Copenhagen in October 2005.) Respected politicians spoke up and said that Thorsen had free speech, but if the blasphemy law had not been violated then certainly good taste and the feelings of religious Danes had the case dragged on in court forever with no conviction. Fourteen years later Thorsen had his government grant restored, adjusted for inflation.

The Danish right has only recently been converted to the free speech principle, and has its own idea of how to use it. In the past two years, the Danish People's Party has twice proposed to eliminate the blasphemy paragraph. Two of the party's members, Jesper Langballe and Soren Krarup, both pastors in the Lutheran National Church, have described Muslims as "a cancer on Danish society" in speeches in parliament. They want to be free to say it outside parliament too. The paragraph was not removed in part because of opposition from Lutheran clergy, who do not all share the two pastors' views.

But is blasphemy what the cartoons are about? The problem with the cartoons isn't that they violate Islam's rules about depiction of the Prophet, according to Fatih Alev, a young Danish imam and a prominent advocate for integration with whom I've spoken many times on the issue of integration. Rather, it is their political content, he told the Danish press this week. He objects that the cartoons stereotype who Muslims are, and misrepresent the religion entirely as the propaganda program of militant Islamists.

Meanwhile, most U.S. media outlets have not shown the cartoons, citing respect for Islamic prohibitions on depictions of the Prophet. On Saturday, Feb. 4, the Philadelphia Inquirer published the one with the bomb in Mohammed's turban, with an explanatory note that suggested that all Muslims do not regard depicting the Prophet as sacrilegious in the same way. But a number of European papers reprinted the cartoons in part or in full, proclaiming their intention not to be censored, nor guided by Islamic religious law. The conservative German paper Die Welt and the left-leaning Berliner Zeitung both printed the cartoons citing European values -- though they disagreed on what those values are. Die Welt thought Islam should not be allowed to trample free speech, while the Berliner Zeitung cited the importance of safeguarding modern freedoms wrested from the Catholic Church.

The prohibition in the Koran is clear: The Prophet is so beautiful that no human hand can render him with justice. And you will never see a depiction of Mohammed in a mosque or in illustrated versions of the Quran. But the reality is that illustrations of Mohammed are readily found in Persian icons and woven into rugs. Usually, the Prophet is depicted from the back, on a horse, or with a blotch in place of his face. Posters and pictures in the iconic style of Christian religious paintings and reproductions can be found in bazaars, Muslim homes, and on Muslim graves in French municipal cemeteries. Christians have long printed and painted Mohammed, from renaissance art, to a frieze on a wall of a government institution in Washington D.C., to religious children's books. The Danish children's book author, Kare Bluitgen, who ostensibly was unable to find an illustrator willing to draw Mohammed, has published his book with a picture of Mohammed on a winged horse on the front cover. The book is respectful and schmaltzy. The abstract in one book catalog reads: "The minute Amina conceived Muhammad, she felt as if in another world. In the unusually sharp light she saw the castles in Busra in Syria many days travel away. And all the camels in and around Mecca whispered to each other that a future leader had been conceived." You get the picture.

Self-evidently, Islamic religious law does not apply in secular societies and there can be no legal prohibition on the publication of drawings of the Prophet. The effort to impose a global ban on depictions of Mohammed is part of the religious restoration projects of the Wahhabis and the Taliban. Therefore the question is, if the Western press has a moral obligation -- and in countries with blasphemy laws, also a legal one -- to be equally respectful to Muslims and Christians? Some conservatives in this country are saying, as did the British ultra-conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who thinks respect is a basic building bloc of society, "If we mock the religious taboos of Muslims we pour scorn on the icons of Christianity." Meanwhile, writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens screamed, "Offend them!"

Freedom of speech vs. respect for the feelings of devout religious followers -- Christian, Muslim or otherwise -- is an important issue. When I did my interviews with European Muslims, many religious leaders told me that in their view the central problem was a general lack of respect for religions. They reported that in day-to-day politics they found it easier to work with the local rabbis, pastors or priests than with the politicians.

But neither Europe's growing domestic problems with religious pluralism nor a Danish newspaper's clumsy provocation of local Muslims explain the unwanted international crisis we are suddenly faced with. Rather, the cartoons apparently provided a grand opportunity to extremists: for radical elements in Islamic countries rife with internal dissent, and for right-wing extremists in Denmark and Europe, to mobilize supporters from the disaffected. Among the victims are the moderate Muslims in Europe and worldwide, who now find themselves increasingly wounded in the crossfire between xenophobes and Islamists.

By Jytte Klausen

Jytte Klausen is a professor of politics at Brandeis University and author of "The Islamic Challenge: Politics and religion in Western Europe" (Oxford UP).

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