The Magazine

Drawing Conclusions

A Danish political scientist revisits the cartoon controversy.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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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.

Klausen sees three possible reasons Fogh Rasmussen held his ground. First, that he simply underestimated Muslim anger at the cartoons. Second, that he was under the thumb of the DF, which, while not part of his governing coalition, supported much of his program. Her third explanation: that Fogh Rasmussen wanted to move the country in what she calls a "neoconservative" direction. This is a protean word. For Klausen it means primarily the idea that spreading democracy can serve U.S. (and by extension Western) strategic interests. She makes the provocative and well-supported point that in Egypt--where the government of Hosni Mubarak was imperiled by the democratic reforms that its American ally was urging on it--the cartoons may have been a way of pushing back.

Klausen is much less convincing when it comes to Danish-U.S. relations. Like many Europeans, she mistakes the Project for a New American Century (a tiny four-person operation with which this magazine used to share office space) for a vast think tank. The former presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were not, as Klausen writes, "members" of PNAC. Rumsfeld, moreover, was a frequent target of its attacks. And if Denmark was moving towards neoconservatism, the Bush administration was offering it little in return. On the contrary, the administration's attacks on Jyllands-Posten and its defenders were extraordinarily, even gratuitously, harsh.

Klausen shows that the mobilization against the cartoons was a new type of protest. "This was not a campaign against the capitalist exploitation of natural resources or other issues recognizable within the normal European politics of left versus right," she writes. "Demands were made in the name of the ummah, or community of believers." She does not, however, always see what a big difference this makes. Denmark, a country of 5 or 6 million people, was being attacked in the name of a community of 1.5 billion. It is not just the categories of left and right that get confused in such a case, but the categories of majority and minority.

Why shouldn't Danes have been worried, not just over their interests abroad but over the loyalties of their Muslim fellow citizens?

While never seeking to soft-pedal the real threats of violence in Denmark, Klausen argues that if you disentangle the different motivations of the protesters, you will find they were not as monolithic as they looked. Arab diplomats, Danish imams, and populist firebrands of the Indian subcontinent "shared no consensus on exactly what was the problem with the cartoons." That may be true. The question is whether that opened up to Denmark any realistic alternative path for dealing with the cartoon crisis. It probably did not.

Klausen makes the point more generally. "Western Europe's fifteen million Muslims are not a coherent political bloc," she writes. This is wrong. They are not a coherent cultural bloc. They come from different countries and speak different languages, they are of different races and classes, and they follow different schools of Islam. We do well to bear that diversity in mind. But on certain important political issues, European Muslims are about as politically coherent as it is possible for a subculture to be. Israel is one such issue. The Danish cartoons turned out to be another. The cartoon crisis was a shock for Europe in the way the O.J. Simpson trial was for the United States. It disproved the cliché about how, once you swept off the blinders of prejudice, all communities ultimately want more or less the same thing. Danish Muslims--with some extraordinary exceptions like the brave centrist Naser Khader--did not feel very differently about the cartoons than Muslims elsewhere.

"It looked as if a coordinated global protest movement was under way," Klausen writes. "But goals varied, and the protest movement was fragmented." At the risk of insisting, it is not true that goals varied. Idioms varied, rationales varied, philosophies varied, interests varied, and tactics varied, but in all branches of the protest throughout the world, the goal was the same--to bully the Danish government into bringing Jyllands-Posten to heel, and to secure for Muslim themes and iconography immunity from the mockery to which those of all other religions have been and remain subject in the West.

Danes, Klausen laments, were for the most part incapable of decoding the different rationales for Muslim protest. They "heard only that they were being told to change their laws and ways." This was indeed an unsubtle way of looking at things. But it was an accurate one.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.