Retrospect: On Cartoons, Personal Agendas and Denmark

Elsewhere on the net I'm currently embroiled in a discussion about religion. Usually I would stay far away from such a discussion - I'm a self-identified secular humanist with a strong agnostic bent and the only form of religious belief I find difficult to accept is a fundamentalist one (whether this be Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindi, Atheist or whatever) - but someone invoked the post-2005 variant upon Godwin's Law: the darn Muhammed cartoons (first published in Denmark, of course). I could not stay silent because people invoke the cartoons and the public reaction without knowing anything about the actual context. It still bothers me after all these years. So I've been toying with the good, old internet and dug out my old, old blog post (back from when I wrote really long, really smart blog posts). A lot has changed since I first posted it back in 2006. Some of the key players have died or changed allegiance. The world has moved on. I'm not longer living in Denmark and is (thankfully) no longer privy to what passes for political debate. But it makes for interesting reading, still.

I cannot vouch for any of the links to actually work anymore and looking back, it's very much rooted in early 2006. But, enjoy, if you are so inclined. I have also posted all the comments I received.

On Cartoons, Personal Agendas and Denmark

Blogged by Karie B. as Denmark, News — Karie B. Sat 4 Feb 2006 4:43 pm

Five days after I first mentioned the troubles caused by a Danish newspaper printing cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, I think it is time to relinquish my “Bookish is not a political weblog” stance. I have been looking at many blogs in the past few days - ranging from rabid right-wing bloggers to casual people who have come across the story in their local news media. And things are taken out of context. Since sixty-five percent of my readership is not from Denmark, I am giving you what it looks like from here. I’m giving you the context.

1. The newspaper is the moderate to right-wing broadsheet Jyllandsposten which is the most hostile Danish newspaper as far as immigrants, other religions and cultures are concerned. Fact? Yes, academic reports carried out in the late 1990s showed that JP printed the largest number of xenophobic comments, letters and editorials out of all broadsheets and tabloids in Denmark. While JP is respectable, it functions as a platform for several far-right commentators such as Søren Krarup and Jesper Langballe of The Danish People’s Party.

2. Prior to publishing the cartoons the paper contacted several historians and academics specialising in religion and Middle-East cultures. The newspaper was told that printing the cartoons would add fuel to fire: Denmark has a very polarised immigration debate and has in recent years seen several prominent politicians calling Muslims “war criminals”, “rapists” and “cancer tumours”. I wish I were making this up. Despite being warned of the possible consequences, JP printed the cartoons and subsequently feinted ignorance and surprise by the reactions.

3. Playing right into the hands of JP and its right-wing stance: the ongoing battle for political power within Danish-Muslim circles. Several imams have played up the hostility and sought to stir up trouble thus gaining political power themselves. Abu Laban has been the most vocal and was recently caught on camera telling Danish journalists one thing and Arab news media another.

4. The initial political response came from a prime minister whose government depend on the Danish People’s Party’s votes to stay in power. Mr Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s government has kept a very strict immigration line throughout his years in power (challenged by human rights watchers, incidentally). The prime minister refused to meet with ambassadors requesting a meeting to discuss the cartoons and did not offer any comments until the past week.

That is the context. This is my reading:

The cartoons were deliberatedly published to promote an outcry from the Muslim community - particularly the orthodox part of the community. The outcry was desirable for the newspaper in sofar as it would further a political agenda. What nobody had anticipated was that the outcry would spread outside Denmark and cause an international crisis. Various parties and groups have subsequently sought to exploit the situation to further their own interests. At the heart of the matter is that two hardline groups are facing each other, lines have been drawn and I have no idea how this is going to end. Personally I hope that, despite my misgivings, Mr Fogh Rasmussen will act as a responsible statesman and seek consensus with moderate Muslim groups and parts both here in Denmark and abroad. Hopefully he will also realise what dallying with political agendas as promoted by the Danish People’s Party means.

Now back to assembling my bookcase. Any questions or comments are welcome if you seek more information on what is essentially a domestic problem gone global.


  1. Comment by be — 4/2/2006 at 8:17 pm

    As Muslims we are required to respect all religions, be it people who are Christians, Jewish, Hindu

    So i’m really surprised at the pictures published in the newspaper, and also of their false nature. Maybe people should read about Prophet Muhummmad peace be upon him, and realise that he was a mercy to all mankind.

    Attacking the prophet peace be upon him by drawing such pictures is attacking Muslims directly.

    We dont draw pictures of other prophets like Abraham, Moses, Jesus, infact we respect them, and would never think to do such drawings.

  2. Comment by Kirsten Marie — 4/2/2006 at 8:22 pm

    I agree with your reading. An additional factor is the Danish megalomania. The words “the worlds best at …” have played a large part of the public debate and political agendas for the past few years, be it education, IT or whathaveyou. It seems to me that many Danes - in part due to this rhetoric - lack a basic humility towards other religions, cultures and ways of living. This may be one of the reasons why noone imagined that muslim countries read the news, not to mention react to them.

    Of course there are many factors in this debate, many of them making me feeling ashamed of my nationality. This is one of them - in my humble opinion.

  3. Comment by Karie B. — 4/2/2006 at 8:25 pm

    To me, everything about this case boils down to lack of respect, a lack of tolerance. Unfortunately this case has been seized by parties and groups seeking to further their own agendas. You might even say that by publishing the cartoons in the first place, the newspaper sought to promote their own agenda because it was well-aware of what it was doing.

    I found these columns very much worth reading.

    Kirsten: Oh yes. “The world’s best little country” is incredibly insular and self-sufficient. Still, I hope there is time to turn things around. Unfortunately people appear to run towards the Danish People’s Party and their easy solutions.

  4. Comment by Thomas — 4/2/2006 at 10:01 pm

    What amazes me most about this whole debacle, is some people’s need to go on a Middle Eastern road show to promote the drawings so that a maximum number of people would get offended. “Hey everybody, look at these drawings. They were published months ago in a newspaper none of you have ever heard of in a country most of you can’t place on a map.”

  5. Comment by Karie B. — 4/2/2006 at 10:17 pm

    Thomas: I view it as part of the political circus within Muslim circles here in Denmark. Everything’s about gaining power.

  6. Comment by Fergus — 4/2/2006 at 10:43 pm

    Thanks for your perspective, Karie. It’s funny how little we’ve been hearing about the original Danish context in the media I’ve seen (mostly UK news).

  7. Comment by — 4/2/2006 at 11:53 pm

    My thoughts exactly Fergus. It’s amazingly difficult to contextualize the situation when being bombarded with media which focuses more on the collateral consequences than “event zero”. This entry is pure blogging gold. It is why I read blogs. Thank you, Karie.

  8. Comment by Thomas — 5/2/2006 at 1:58 am

    Karie: I too believe it to be part of some domestic agenda. However I wouldn’t disregard that a sudden rush of importance for a group of people that traditionally has very limited power and cultural capital in our society, plays a part as well.

    In the drawings of the prophet they have found an issue where willing ambasadors are plenty. None of us could imagine that their modus operandus would be this successful.

  9. Comment by Jesper — 5/2/2006 at 3:05 am

    It is true that many not so nice political agendas on both sides (all right-wing) are being pushed in this affair. What stands out for me after all this turbulence is the right to and the need for critique (satire) of religion. Voltaire wrote in the 18th century a play called Mahomet (Muhammed) ou le fanatisme, which showed the follies of fanatical religion (I wonder what a modern installment at the Royal Theater would do) - since Islam was not a target like today (just an example of orientalism) it was considered a critique of the (christian) jansenist movement at his time (By the way in my view Krarup and Langballe is the appalling protestant equivalent to jansenism) - this critique of religion I believe is still much needed today. I agree with Karie that we need tolerance but it has to go with critique. (You can tolerate only what you oppose, otherwise its not tolerance). Voltaire knew this and was one of the founders of the idea of tolerance in Europe with his Traite sur la tolerance. Since this is bookish I`ll push a book: Roger Pearson´s Voltaire Almighty (London, 2005) - great book - and of course Voltaire himself.

  10. Comment by Sylvia — 5/2/2006 at 9:12 am

    I’m glad you said something. I find the ferocity of the Muslim reaction very disturbing and, frankly, very frightening.

  11. Comment by Karie B. — 5/2/2006 at 11:08 am

    Jesper: Great point and reference, thank you. The great thinkers of the French Enlightenment is one of my (many) black holes, unfortunately. And they are so relevant to this discussion, of course, as we are essentially exploring the ideas of the Enlightenment.

  12. Comment by padmini — 5/2/2006 at 1:02 pm

    Satire is a necessary tool for democracy, but effective satire is only produced in awareness of context and audience. Satire can be a tool to inform, to raise awareness, and to critique commonly perceived flaws in a political system, and I’m afraid none of these cartoons do any of these things. There is a difference between critique and ridicule, and these publishers of these cartoons have knowingly crossed that line in order to, as you have very rightly pointed out, further their own interests. I have read elsewhere that: “Consistency would also be a virtue. The anger directed at these cartoons by certain Muslims would carry more weight if pictures that crudely insult Jews and Christians were not found regularly in the Middle East.” One Christian doctrine it seems at least The Times hasn’t heard of is an eye for an eye makes everyone blind.

  13. Comment by Adam A. — 5/2/2006 at 4:35 pm

    Even though I agree that the publication of these comics were indeed unnecessary and stupid, you should still consider how Islam is hindering democracy and freedom of press. Some interesting - and to me appealing - thoughts on the subject can be found here.

  14. Comment by Ole — 5/2/2006 at 4:58 pm

    Adam - I haven’t seen Islam do a thing. It was people doing everything. Just people, like you & me.

  15. Comment by Thomas — 5/2/2006 at 5:27 pm

    Amen. Just don’t include me, Ole.

  16. Comment by Adam A. — 5/2/2006 at 5:28 pm

    Yes, sure, they’re regular people, but that only makes it even more confounding. How can such a large group of people show such hatred against the people of another country? (It’s evidently the Danish flag they are burning, not JP’s logo.) They have to understand that not everyone in the world have the same principles as they do. (I’m not saying that JP did a good thing, just that the Muslims are to blame as well). The western society has accepted Islam – we do not make death-threats to all criticism against us - it’s time Islam accepts our ways of living.

  17. Comment by Dave — 5/2/2006 at 9:07 pm

    Adam, am I missing something, or is the Muslim faith completely divorced from the Western world and it’s population? Britain has a huge Muslim population, as do many european countries… or are all these protesters on our streets immigrants/asylum seekers? I think you’re confusing the Muslim community with individuals WITHIN the Muslim community - And confusing Islamic states with Islam.

  18. Comment by Erik — 6/2/2006 at 12:20 am

    Freedom of Expression is for infidels, right? And we all know what we do to them…

    This blog is an intellectually very dark room, filled with the stench of moral relativism and reversed racism.

  19. Comment by Adam A. — 6/2/2006 at 8:30 am

    I never said I only meant the people living in Islamic states. Ok, it’s true that the muslims living in the west protest too, and they are truly somewhat integrated. But the anger and hate still have to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is Islam. Read the link i posted, it sums it up pretty well. “To be fair, we do not know what percentage of the Muslim population is involved in these protests, but very few Muslims have spoken out “against” the protests. One (one) newspaper in the entire Islamic world has dared publish the cartoons, asking Muslims to be reasonable about the fact that these are just cartoons, and that Westerners routinely caricature everybody. The editor of that newspaper was fired the following day and now risks going to jail.”

  20. Comment by Ole — 6/2/2006 at 5:29 pm

    Caricature is not inherently a good thing, IMHO.

  21. Comment by Svend — 7/2/2006 at 7:39 pm

    Thanks for the great post, Bookish. Many of the comments are very enlightening, as well.

    I came to some similiar if perhaps more opinionated conclusions

    One factor that I think we tend to overlook is the modern media. In today’s media context of instant (mis)communication and political tensions, a screaming headline or disturbing image can do far more damage than a broadside from a battleship.

    Also, while there’s no question that Denmark is suffering greatly at the hands of Muslims now from this phenomenon, I think Muslims are normally the ones on the receiving end (e.g., How many pics have you seen of friendly, smiling Iranian demonstrator in the mainstream media?). That doesn’t justify extremism or overreactions, of course. I just note that context as food for thought.

  22. Comment by Abdurrahman R. Squires — 8/2/2006 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks for your intelligent and thoughtful comments. They’re especially relevant since they’re coming from someone in Denmark. When such controversies arise, I think decent level-headed people like yourself need to get involved. As the saying goes, all evil needs in order to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

    I’ve chimed in on this debate, thus my blog has some recent postings on the cartoons controversy, the most recent of which is:

    Danish Cartoons, Double-Standards and Daniel Pipes

    Thanks again,

  23. Comment by Baraka — 8/2/2006 at 7:40 pm

    Thanks for providing more context to the situation.

  24. Comment by Arnie — 16/2/2006 at 9:07 am

    I take a completely different view on this whole issue. I started right at the very top of the controversy regarding insulting cartoons about Muhammed the prophet and here is what I found. First Muhammed was not a prophet….he does not pass the test. A prophet will prove himself by describing several future events and if they are 100% true he can then claim to be a prophet. Muhammed did no such thing and does not qualify. He then is simply a man who started his own religion. He is at rest in the grave awaiting the ressurection. Won’t he be surprised when he realizes it is the Jewish God of the Old Testament who is in charge. Not Allah. Allah was a carved idol in the arabian desert pagan temple surrounded by 364 other Idols. I was getting too complicated to keep track of them all so they picked the idol labled “God is One” (Allah) and discarded the rest. Muhammed was not a prophet so there is no cartoon that can insult a prophet who does not exist. This is not complicated. This is not my opinion. It is simply history.May peace be upon you all

  25. Comment by Erik — 28/2/2006 at 11:43 pm

    “What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?” wrote Jihad Momani in the Jordanian newspaper Al-Shihan.

    I ask the same question:

    Why is it more offending to muslims to make a cartoon of the prophet than to blow up a wedding in his name?

    Where are the mass demonstrations, where are the clerics united in demanding an end to the misuse of Allah and the prophet?

    According to the reaction of the publication of the cartoons, it IS more offending to draw a cartoon.

    Where is the logic?

    Where is the sense of proportion?

  26. Comment by picture of zoroastrianism — 12/3/2006 at 12:52 am

    Thank you!

  27. Comment by svend — 22/6/2006 at 5:51 am

    BTW, I just noticed your comment, “Yes, academic reports carried out in the late 1990s showed that JP printed the largest number of xenophobic comments, letters and editorials out of all broadsheets and tabloids in Denmark.”

    Can you give any suggestions on how I might track one of these reports down?

    I’d be eternally grateful. :)

  28. Comment by Malene Busk — 13/7/2006 at 12:50 am

    Dear all, thanks for your international discussion. I’m late in discovering it, but have been involved in the discussions in Denmark.

    Karie made her small summary of the events ’seen from Denmark’ - well, just as all Iranians don’t see the world in the same way, all Danes don’t see the same. No culture is undivided - this should not come as a surprise after insights handed down from Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, feminism, deconstruction etc. (Still, it seems it has to be repeated once in a while when the cultural-relativists reduce every person to his birthplace).

    Karie summed up already, but I would like to tell the non-danes of this site one important context, a very local, Danish discussion preceeding the cartoons. A copenhagen author and teacher in a public school attended by many immigrants, Kåre Bluitgen, (leftwing, no Danish Peoples Party) was writing a childrens book on the life of Muhammad, but when he wanted it illustrated, three illustrators declined the invitation, saying that they were too afraid to do it. Finally the editor found an artist willing to do the job, but on the condition that it was anonymously. This move from the editors side provoked quite some debate. Some thought that it was principally wrong to publish anonymously, as if there was something to be ashamed of. Others thought that it was a simple PR-stunt from the author and editor, since everybody knew (!), that there was nothing to be afraid of: who on earth would take offence of some Muhammed-drawings?! Still others saw a pattern of self-censorship, repeating itself at museas, books, films and other expressions in the whole of Europe, where people were afraid of real or imagined muslim sensitivities before ‘the muslims’ had even said anything.

    The culture-editor (not the political editor, who, as Karie wrote, has been largely supportive of the governments discriminatory laws against immigrants) and his crew at Jyllands Posten then had the idea of getting some empirical evidence instead of the - mostly ideological - talk. It is actually not such a bad idea. Many discussions lack simple knowledge. They asked every member of the Danish association of illustrators if they would draw Muhammed. 12 said yes, and the first evidence seemed to have been made: it was indeed possible to find illustrators, who were not afraid to draw Muhammed and sign it with their name. They mostly belonged to the ‘there is nothing to be afraid of’-line. Quite sympathetic, it was an idea saying that: stop your fearful imagination, muslims are not raving madmen, they are not going to put the world on fire because of drawings, come on, don’t be xenophobic!

    This evidence came in handy with the right wing paper’s criticism of the left wing author and editor for making cheap PR. Several of the cartoons mock this author and is hardly understandable beyond this Danish context. These drawings were simply day-to-day comments on an ongoing cultural debate of editorial ethics.

    But then the shit hit the fan. And suddenly it turned out not to have been so ridiculous to be afraid. Cartoonists still live under protection as does the editor and a muslim MP defending free speech. That it was rational, not at all phobic, to be afraid, was the second piece of evidence, that the experiment threw into the discussion and I am not sure how well that one suited the original intention of the paper, namely to show ‘no danger, plenty of willing cartoonists’. But evidence had spoken: it was actually and sadly dangerous to draw Muhammed.

    But how to react on threats, fear, bullying, burning flags, fatwas and violence? Here the discussions seemed to divide people, across old lines of identification with left or right, native or immigrant, schooled or ignorant. Some people would say: since it is dangerous and cost money for the industry, artists should just comply and not draw Muhammed, or even better: not and never make fun of any religion anymore. Others would say the opposite: since it has become dangerous to express critiscism of religion, it is more necessary than ever to get up and do it, many, together, again and again, to protect the right of free thought for everybody, also religious people, and a democratic discussion of views protected from any violence and discrimination. I belong to the last group.

    I am trying to formulate a left wing stand, which is not polluted with hidden-reactionary religious awe and without the sentimental insistence on ‘otherness’ as a black box, where culture is used to determine the individual beyond all reasonability. Enlightenment and human and civil rights are by no means ‘Western’ and definately not ‘Christian’ as the right wing (the Danish Peoples Party etc) likes to claim. Rights movements and rational criticism exist in all ‘cultures’ where oppression, discrimination, suffering and stupidity exists - ‘the Others’ are not a unity: peoples of other countries are just as complex and divided as in the countries we know: in progressives and reactionaries, in religious and freethinkers, in satirists and doom-preachers and many more, just like we know it from the society in which we happen to be born.

    Why should progressives of Denmark try to please the reactionaries of Egypt? Or of Turkey? Why should we not side with the progressives in Egypt and Turkey in a common struggle against censorship, misogyny, violence, homophopia and authoritariansm?

    I know that many progressive immigrants in Europe (Germany, France, Britain, Holland and Denmark at least) are absolutely disillusioned by being let down by what they expected to be European ‘progressives’ or left wing. They see old feminsts suddenly defending the veil, while their iranian sisters burn it in desperate protest. Old hippies are suddenly speaking out agains ‘provocation’, and that one should dress more properly, if people get defended. Old anti-authoritarian 68’s are suddenly praising the patriarchial family-structures ‘of traditional cultures’ as more ‘profound than western culture’ and attacks the democratic raising of kids to question and think and express. What is going on - who are the reactionaries now?