Carsten Agger on Sun, 26 Sep 2010 10:21:25 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Danish Cartoon Affair - how and why it all began

Or, how Danish arrogance and complacency towards the extreme right
succeeded in making the world a more dangerous place to live:

( or



On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12
cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, some of which were extremely
demonizing in their outspoken anti-Muslim symbolism. Four months later
violent protests erupted outside Danish embassies in some Muslim
countries, and the terror threat against Denmark increased dramatically.
Yet what happened during those four months, and could the escalation of
the crisis have been prevented? Was it simply about freedom of speech
and a "clash of civilizations" or were other agendas in play? Moreover,
why did it happen in Denmark of all places?

The End of Diplomacy 

Among the most important and often overlooked elements in understanding
why the Cartoon Crisis originated in Denmark and how it escalated into
the biggest international crisis in the history of Danish foreign
politics since World War II, are. 1) The increasing acceptance of
demonizing and antagonistic rhetoric directed against Muslims in Danish
mainstream politics and the media since the mid-1990's. 2) The lack of
diplomatic efforts by the Danish government to prevent the escalating
crisis. 3) The stridently patronizing and arrogant approach of the
Danish government and media towards ambassadors from Muslim countries as
well as the deliberate misrepresentation of their intentions displayed
by the then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in October,
November and December 2005. 

Without these elements, an escalation of the crisis would have been
highly unlikely, and the violent protests and riots seen in some Muslim
countries four months after the publication of the cartoons would never
have taken place. The whole affair would have most likely blown over
before it became a global media phenomenon. 

Yet how did it all begin? 

The first crucial event after the publication of the cartoons was a
letter to the then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, October
12 2005, by ambassadors from eleven Muslim countries requesting a
meeting concerning (among other things) Jyllands-Posten's Muhammad

The ambassadors' letter contains four main points: 1) A criticism of the
"very discriminatory tendency towards Muslims in Denmark" and "the
defamation of Islam as a religion." 2) A warning of the danger of the
possible escalation of the crisis. 3) An appeal to the Prime Minister to
"censure those responsible" to the extent the law permits. 4) A request
for a meeting with the Prime Minister. 

Primarily, the ambassadors criticised what they perceive as an "ongoing
smear campaign" against Islam. To illustrate their point, in addition to
the Muhammad cartoons they cited several other "recent instances" of
this phenomenon, e.g., Racist articles published on the website of
Danish MP Louise Frevert, in which, among other derogations, Muslims
were compared to "Cancer"; Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen's speech
at the annual meeting of the Conservative party, in which he called for
a new cultural struggle against "medieval Muslim culture" in alleged
Muslim parallel societies in Denmark; and a xenophobic local radio
station, which in the summer of 2005, called upon Danes to "kill a
significant part of the country's Muslim immigrants". 

Furthermore, the letter placed great emphasis on the very real
possibility of serious consequences and repercussions in the wake of
these events: "We must emphasise the possibility of reactions in Muslim
countries and among Muslim communities throughout Europe." 

Nevertheless, the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refuses to
meet with the ambassadors and instead chooses to respond in a letter
dated October 22, proclaiming that freedom of speech is "the very
foundation of Danish society". 

Neither in his written response nor in public does the Prime Minister
refer to the issues raised by the ambassadors, failing to comment even
once on any of the specific examples of the "very discriminatory
tendency" provided by the ambassadors. 

Large sections of the press as well as political commentators quickly
reduce the content of the ambassadors' letter to an example of their
(Muslim countries) ignorance of Democratic society. They even portray it
as a direct assault on freedom of speech itself, despite the
ambassadors' repeated assurances to the contrary. 

The Palestinian representative, Maie Sarraf emphasises that the purpose
of the letter was never to control the press: "It's not as if we are
asking Anders Fogh Rasmussen to exercise control over the Danish media,
but even Western politicians have the option to make certain
recommendations to the media, and that is what we ask him to
do." (October 22, 2005). 

Notwithstanding, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said of the ambassadors'
criticism that "a Prime Minister cannot intervene and control the
press" (October 25, 2005), and that "the principles upon which Danish
democracy is built are so self-evident, there can be no basis for
convening a meeting to discuss them" (October 25, 2005). 

Despite the fact, the ambassadors had never requested a meeting to
discuss the principles of Danish democracy, Anders Fogh Rasmussen
nevertheless claimed that the ambassadors' intentions in this matter
were in conflict with Danish democracy itself. 

Egypt's Ambassador, Mona Omar Attiah repeatedly points out that they
only requested of the Prime Minister that he distance himself morally
from dehumanizing utterances: "It is a big misunderstanding when people
think we have asked the Prime Minister to put limits on freedom of
speech. We wished for him to call for a responsible and respectful use
of this freedom. We also wished for him to take a moral position by
declaring that Danish society is striving for the integration, not the
demeaning, of Islam." (October 27, 2005). 

FÃgen Ok, Turkey's ambassador to Denmark points out: "We're not stupid;
we know the Prime Minister has no authority to intervene. Our intention
was to encourage him to improve the situation in the country; what
happened is very serious and very provocative. This is not about closing
newspapers. It's about presenting your views on the issue and trying to
promote dialogue." (October 28, 2005). 

Despite the ambassadors' direct rejection of the Prime Minister's wilful
misrepresentation of their letter, he blatantly ignores them,
intensifying his hostility in a way which can only be characterised as
arrogant. In response to the ambassadors' criticism and allegations that
the Muhammad cartoons represent an attack on Muslims and Islam in
general within a bigoted Denmark, he declares: "In my opinion, this
reveals an abysmal ignorance of the principles of true democracy, as
well as a complete failure to understand that in a free democracy the
government neither can, must nor should interfere with what the press
may write." (October 30, 2005). 

The ambassadors' request that those responsible for the cartoons be
prosecuted "to the extent permitted by Danish law" is fully compatible
with Danish jurisprudence and custom (blasphemy is illegal in Denmark).
Hardly an attack on freedom of the press! 

Otherwise stated, Anders Fogh Rasmussen chose to pontificate to eleven
ambassadors as if they were schoolchildren who simply did not understand
the definition of democracy, instead of discussing the issues raised by
them, and commenting on the fact that their single request was for him
to take a moral position on the issue of the cartoons. 

Subsequently, Minister of the Church (and Religious affairs), Bertel
Haarder reduces the whole affair to a clamour for "censorship" (October
30, 2005), and Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Prime Minister's party
Venstre - The Liberal Party of Denmark, Troels Lund Poulsen, can see no
reason to "enter into dialogue with persons who want to short-circuit
the democratic process" (December 20, 2005). 

The Danish government it seems is not content with refusing to meet with
the Muslim ambassadors: they proceed to lecture them in patronising
tones and their request for a dialogue suddenly becomes an attempt to
"short-circuit" Danish democracy. 

Portraying the ambassadors' appeal as an attack on freedom of speech is
simply a wilful attempt at misrepresenting their intentions.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister continued his insistence upon this
false interpretation, disregarding the ambassadors' explanations and
statements to the contrary. 

All of this was completely absent from his reasoning. The media and most
Danish commentators also ignored it. 

Paradoxically, Anders Fogh Rasmussen encourages the offended Muslims to
respond to the cartoons in the very manner he himself refused to respond
to the ambassadors: "The Danish tradition is to call a meeting, where we
can sit and talk peacefully with each other. Sometimes we disagree
strongly even when the meeting's over, and sometimes we reach an
understanding of each others' motives. That's the Danish model. That's
what we call conversational democracy." (Jyllands-Posten, October 30,

Apparently, "conversational democracy" does not apply to Muslim
ambassadors! They were refused a meeting with the Prime Minister who
obviously did not intend to discuss the matter with them, peacefully or


It was brought to the Prime Minister's attention on several occasions
how easily he could end the conflict with no implications whatsoever for
freedom of speech, but each time he adamantly refused to consider it. 

The Prime Minister's rejection of the ambassadors' request for a
meeting, his wilful misrepresentation of the contents of their letter
and his denial of any anti-Muslim tendencies in Danish politics,
significantly increased the rifts in Danish society between Muslims and
non-Muslims as well as between Denmark and Muslims worldwide. 

Simultaneously, the Danish government chose to overlook the fact that
the ambassadors' letter warned about possible "reactions in Muslim
countries", and a few days later - still in October 2005 - the Egyptian
government warned the Danish ambassador in Cairo about "a possible
escalation of the problem". 

As early as October 29, the Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar Attiah, makes
very clear recommendations: "The Egyptian Embassy urgently appeals to
the Danish government to adopt a more serious approach to the problem in
order to avoid an escalation, and expects at the very least, a statement
from the government confirming its disapproval of these types of
drawings as well as any violation of Islam in general." An Egyptian
official who described the sort of reaction his government was calling
for suggested the same: e.g. "an official statement condemning the
mocking of Islam and its Prophet". 

On November 18, the Egyptian Foreign Secretary Ahmed Aboul Gheit,
emphasizes what several ambassadors have told the Danish press: that
nobody asked for the newspaper "to be closed or for it to be censored",
they had simply hoped for some sort of official statement. He goes as
far as to detail all that was required of the Prime Minister to prevent
the crisis from escalating: "Gentlemen, you must understand that my
hands are tied. I cannot act against it, yet I would like to declare
that this is not my opinion". (Politiken, November 18 2005). 

The escalating crisis could probably have been contained if the Danish
government had distanced itself from the image of Islam depicted by the
cartoons, without doing any damage to the freedom of the press in the
process. End of story. 

Instead, the Prime Minister responded to the ambassadors' letter by
misrepresenting their intentions whenever he spoke to the press. He
distorted and omitted critical phrases and warnings in their letter,
simultaneously ignoring the ambassadors' own explanations of its
contents, even though they have repeatedly emphasised, starting
immediately after receiving his response to their letter, that they have
neither expressed any desire for control of the press nor for any kind
of encroachment upon freedom of speech. 

The entire affair gave the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister the
distinct impression that "there are actually people within the Danish
government who like what they see" in the cartoons. 

Yet the Danish government continues to ignore the continuous requests
for a clear indication of its moral position regarding the message
behind the cartoons. Despite the constant flow of clarifications and
repetitions of this request from numerous foreign government officials,
the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Per Stig MÃller in November 2005
still chooses to overhear everything: "The Constitution prevents
censorship from ever being reintroduced. If Jyllands-Posten, claiming
the protection of the constitution has violated the blasphemy law, then
that's the business of the courts." (November 8, 2005). 

Time and again, with equal condescension, the Danish government
neglected to comment the many specific requests from ambassadors and
other official agents from Muslim governments and the Islamic world in
general, who ask for no more than a statement of disapproval from the
Prime Minister. 

Shortly after Christmas 2005, the Secretary General of the Islamic
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ISESCO, threatened
calling for an economic and political boycott of Denmark among its 51
member states. The Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar Attiah emphasised that
the Secretary General's threat should be taken seriously: "He's not the
only one calling for a boycott. The public sentiment is such that it may
lead to people not buying Danish products." (December 27, 2005). 

Even though Attiah still believed in the possibility of a diplomatic
solution, she warned that there were also "elements in the Middle East
who are not as interested in solving problems through dialogue as we
are". Nonetheless, the Danish government chose to ignore the political
reality for months, showing no understanding of the gravity of the

On the contrary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen criticised 22 former Danish
ambassadors for "bad timing", when they in December 2005 in an open
letter criticised his handling of the case, which they found had
prevented a diplomatic solution. 

Since mid-October, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has maintained this wilful
misrepresentation of the situation despite repeated warnings of a
possible escalation of the crisis, including the possibility of a trade
boycott, never once heeding the opinions or advice of the ambassadors. 

There is plenty of documentation after events began to spiral of control
in late January. Whatever one's opinion of Jyllands-Posten's initial
publication of the Muhammad cartoons, and how exaggerated the violent
reactions may have been four months later, it was still the Danish Prime
Minister's wilful manipulation and distortion of events throughout the
three months of conflict that resulted in the greatest international
crisis in post-war Danish history. 

This so-called Muhammad Cartoon Controversy has succeeded in
establishing a rift between Denmark and many ordinary Muslims worldwide,
as well as providing a host of anti-Muslim movements in the West with
ammunition in their proclaimed struggle for 'freedom of speech'. A
struggle which often seems to be nothing more than an excuse for the
'right' to demonize Muslims! At the same time radical Islamists have
benefited from the cartoons by 'proving' that freedom of speech and
other human rights serve to legalize blasphemous and Islamophobic
hatespeech, whereas various types of anti-Semitism on the other hand are
often considered serious offences. 

Unfortunately, these double standards are the rule rather than the
exception, enforcing an ongoing conflict that stimulates anti-Muslim
tendencies in the West, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Western
tendencies in the Muslim world. In this way, the fundamental weakness of
Danish diplomacy, coupled with a constant flow of anti-Muslim rhetoric
and provocations in Denmark have played a key part in deepening the
religious and ethnic rift that unfortunately dominates parts of the
international political arena today.

Rune Engelbreth Larsen is an historian of ideas and columnist in the
Danish newspaper Politiken. His English-language web site is 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: