A Danish political scientist revisits the cartoon controversy.
Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Jytte Klausen's book on the Danish cartoon crisis of 2005-06 opens in an unusual way--with a hand-wringing preemptive apology from Yale University Press for not reprinting (despite its profession to be "an institution deeply committed to free expression") the 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that gave rise to the eponymous crisis in the first place. Yale's decision, justified on the grounds that re-publication "ran a serious risk of instigating violence," jars with the spirit of Klausen's book, which is patient and deeply informed and seeks to complicate our understanding of an event that is easily oversimplified. Klausen, a Brandeis political scientist, an expert on Europe's Muslim elites, and a native Dane, may exaggerate the possibilities for common ground at the time of the crisis. Yet a willingness to go out on a limb can be helpful in approaching a topic like this. Yale has served Klausen poorly in refusing to follow.
In the late summer of 2005, Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Arhus-based daily Jyllands-Posten, heard that a famous children's author was having trouble finding an illustrator for a book on Muhammad. Cartoonists were scared that getting involved in the project would draw the attention of angry Muslims. So Rose decided to test how much of a chilling effect the fear of radical Islam was having on the cultural life of his country. He commissioned 42 cartoonists to draw a picture of Muhammad as they saw him. A dozen responded. Rose printed their work. Many of Denmark's 200,000 Muslims, who make up about 4 percent of the population, were upset. Two weeks later they protested peacefully in front of Copenhagen's city hall.
Four hardline Danish imams went further. They contacted the Egyptian ambassador, Mona Omar Attia, and in December sent a delegation to Cairo with a portfolio containing the cartoons--and some images of violent anti-Muslim pornography. Talk about the cartoons began to circulate. Islamist opposition politicians worldwide began to use it to their ends. On February 3, the television preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, called for a "day of rage" against the cartoons. Over the following week, mobs of young Muslims demonstrated, rioted, and rampaged in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, not to mention England and France. Over 200 people died. Credible death threats were made against the cartoonists and editors.
This is a book with a villain in it: the then-Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is now the secretary-general of NATO. Klausen calls him "the prime minister who would not say sorry." To the Danish Muslim community leaders, Danish businessmen, Muslim diplomats, and others who urged that he apologize for the actions of Jyllands-Posten, Fogh Rasmussen had a consistent reply. To issue a government apology for a private act of free speech would be to compromise a principle basic to Denmark's democracy. "You cannot apologize," he said, "for something you have not done."
Klausen, as ever, believes there is more to it than that. Shortly after the publication of the cartoons in September 2005, eleven ambassadors from Muslim countries sent a letter to Fogh Rasmussen expressing their displeasure with the cartoons. But not just with the cartoons, Klausen insists. Muslims saw them as part of a "coordinated campaign of denigration," which included racist speech on the radio and provocations by politicians in the anti-immigrant Danish People's party (DF). This was the opportunity, in Klausen's view, that Fogh Rasmussen should have seized to forestall the violence that erupted four months later.
Those who do not share Klausen's view (this reviewer included) will respond that the diplomats' letter did two things that made a productive response impossible. First, the letter made a veiled threat of violence. ("We may underline that it can also cause reaction in Muslim countries and among Muslim communities in Europe.") Second, it sounded a Qaddafi-esque note by urging Denmark to "take all those responsible to task under the law of the land." Klausen notes, though, that the Organization of the Islamic Conference sent a different version of the letter that omitted this insistence on arresting those responsible. But how was Fogh Rasmussen to reply to the second, nicer letter without being seen to knuckle under to the threats in the first, nasty one? At any rate, 80 percent of Danes opposed an apology.