The Magazine

The U.N. Plays with Lego

The anti-Denmark campaign continues.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By HENRIK BERING
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ARTISTS ARE OFTEN PRAISED for their ability to peer into the future. When the hysteria over the Danish Muhammad cartoons was at its height last month, another cartoon circulated on the Internet depicting a Lego "Danish embassy" playset--complete with embassy ablaze, Danish flags going up in smoke, and little Lego Islamists carrying placards that read "Europe the cancer, Islam the Answer." In linking Lego toys, a symbol of Denmark and of childhood innocence, with the campaign of hatred against Denmark sweeping through the Arab world, the cartoonist was more prescient than we knew.

Because who could have guessed that Lego would indeed find itself sucked into the controversy? In connection with its International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21, the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights issued an antiracism poster. Under the headline "Racism takes many shapes," it featured a very red and very recognizable Lego building block.

Lego and the Danish foreign ministry immediately protested, and the agency had to cancel the poster. Afterwards, a U.N. spokesman disingenuously claimed that the use of the building block had been entirely accidental, and with a smirk apologized if this had hurt Danish feelings. Unfortunately for Lego, you can't sue the United Nations.

The Lego poster incident is just one of the international humiliations heaped on Denmark, which finds itself in its greatest foreign policy crisis since World War II. The current Arab campaign against Denmark is seen as a warning to the bigger European nations. Autocratic regimes in the Middle East have a general interest in discouraging Western pressures for liberalization, while fundamentalists have a particular interest in presenting opposition to political Islam as an attack on the beliefs of ordinary Muslims.

In fact, Denmark has once before been the target of Arab wrath. In 1973, during the OPEC oil crisis, Prime Minister Anker Jørgensen cautiously suggested that Israel had a right to defend its borders. The Arab countries immediately upped their prices an extra notch especially for the Danes, who remember that as a rather cold winter. Not surprisingly, in the present crisis, the backing of Denmark's fellow E.U. members has been less than staunch.

The current anti-Danish campaign is well coordinated, and plays out on many fronts and forums. The special rapporteur for the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission, the Senegalese Doudou Diene, released his latest report on racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance in February. He devotes several pages to the Muhammad cartoons published by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and portrays Denmark as a nation that is profoundly hostile toward foreigners. The fact that Diene has never set foot in Denmark and that his accusations are unsubstantiated does not strengthen the report's credibility.

The absurdity of being called out by the U.N.'s notoriously corrupt human rights establishment is heightened by the fact that Denmark has been a model supporter of the U.N., always volunteering for U.N. projects, and urging respect for international norms. Some Danes hope that this naive belief in the United Nations may be giving way to a more realistic appraisal of the nature of the organization.

The past week, the focus shifted to Bahrain, site of a major conference of 300 leading Islamic lights. Not to miss out on the fun, some of the Danish imams who started the whole anti-Danish campaign went on a fresh mission to the Middle East. On their first trip back in December, you may remember, they slipped a few incendiary cartoons of their own into the briefing folder and spread the rumor that the Koran was being burned in the streets of Copenhagen.

This time around, they were in Bahrain at the International Conference for Supporting the Prophet, ostensibly on a mission to persuade their fellow imams to end the boycott of Denmark. But their image as conciliators was badly shaken when, at the same time they were in Bahrain, a French documentary aired showing a spokesman for the traveling imams, Ahmed Akkari, on camera suggesting that the leader of Denmark's Democratic Muslims organization, a moderate member of parliament named Naser Khader, should be blown up if he enters the government.

"If he becomes Foreign or Integration Minister, we should send a couple of guys to blow up both him and the ministry," Akkari said, not knowing he was on camera. Danish police are now trying to decide whether the threats were made "in jest," as Akkari subsequently claimed. A tiny man with a scraggly beard and a high-pitched voice, Akkari had not previously been known as a great comedian.