by Michael Radu
In discussing the recent (and continuing, at this writing) conflict of cultures arising over cartoon representations in Denmark of the prophet Mohammed, the author links thereto the idea of freedom of expression and the concept of liberal democracy. The latter, of course, is fundamentally important to recent efforts of Washington to inject ideas of freedom in the Middle East. But in this context, are the ideas formulated by Huntington again coming to the fore? —Ed.
In September 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a less than positive manner, including one that has his turban replaced by a bomb with a lit fuse. This January, a Norwegian journal reprinted the cartoons. The result, according to Der Speigel, was that Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Jordan, have staged loosely organized, impromptu boycotts that have led many companies, including France’s Carrefour supermarket chain, to remove Danish products from their shelves. Denmark’s Jyske Bank has estimated that a one-year Arab boycott of Danish food products could result in lost revenues of 322 million euros and the loss of as many as 4,000 jobs.
For liberal Europeans, used to cartoons or comments involving Jesus Christ, the Pope, or God himself, this was just another example of media irreverence in a post-Christian country. Indeed, according to the State Department, as of January 2002, while 84.3 percent of the Danish population belonged to the official Evangelical Lutheran Church, only about 3 percent of those church members attend services regularly making them about the same number as there are Muslims in Denmark. Approximately 5.4 percent of the population is not religious and 1.5 percent atheist. There are therefore twice as many agnostics and atheists than practicing Christians. Not surprisingly, given such attitudes, when Thorkild Grosboel, pastor of Taarbaek, a town near the capital Copenhagen, and thus a state employee, stated in 2003 that “there is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life, there is no resurrection” and was fired, many Danes supported his “right” to a salary as a pastor. All of this suggests that if one looks for “crusaders,” Denmark is simply the wrong place.
Speaking in Doha, Qatar, ex-president Bill Clinton claimed that the cartoons are an “outrage” to Muslims. On the other hand, belatedly and somewhat surprisingly, many Europeans seem to understand what is at stake–quite simply, freedom of expression and, implicitly, liberal democracy in general. That is why Die Welt and Berliner Zeitung in Germany, La Stampa in Italy, El Mundo in Madrid, France Soir in Paris, and Tribune de Geneve, among others, reprinted the “offending” cartoons, in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. Even more surprising, albeit of doubtful sincerity or lasting power, the European Union told the Saudis that a boycott against Danish products will be interpreted as directed to all EU members. (The giant French supermarket chain Carrefour nonetheless went ahead and removed Danish products from its shelves.)
The reaction in the Arab/Muslim world was revealing of what may well be the most important and lasting result of the controversy. With a handful of honorable exceptions, such as Mona Eltahawy, who asked “Can we finally admit that Muslims have blown out of all proportion their outrage over 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper last September?” that reaction was defined by two elements: a fundamental lack of understanding of what democracy and freedom of the press are all about, and continued use of violence or threats to impose Islamic concepts upon non-Muslims.
As could have been expected, the worst offenders were the Palestinians, who are major beneficiaries of Scandinavian aid–which should put paid to the argument that the recent electoral victory of Hamas was simply punishment for the Fatah party’s corruption, rather than another indication of the popularity of violent Islamism. Anti-Danish (and Norwegian and Swedish) mass demonstrations have been held throughout the Muslim world and threats made against the citizens of those countries in Gaza. The Saudi and Syrian ambassadors to Copenhagen have been withdrawn, and Denmark’s diplomatic relations with Libya ruptured.
The generalized boycott against Danish products have cost the main European dairy producer, Arla Foods (which has annual Middle East sales of $488 million), $1.8 million a day. It expects to have to lay off workers, as does Novo Nordisk, the world’s largest maker of insulin. One can only wonder if the health of children and diabetics is less important than imposing Islamic values on a small, democratic European country.
By now, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Muslim World League, and the Arab League have all charged Denmark with blasphemy, desecration, and sacrilege. A protester in Kuwait said he wanted Danes “to feel the harm as a people the same way they harmed our prophet.” And the World Assembly of Muslim Youth has decried Denmark’s “culture of Islamophobia.”
It has taken a long time for Samuel Huntington ‘s concept of a “clash of civilizations” to be taken seriously in European and American elite circles, but how else could one describe mass demonstrations in the street and such strong government reactions throughout the Muslim world against the concept of a free press, which is clearly a Western invention? And we should be clear that that is what is at stake. The Danish, French, and Norwegian governments have all tried, futilely, to explain that what newspapers publish has nothing to do with government policies, and it should be obvious that neither Arla Foods nor Novo Nordisk control the editorial decisions of Jyllands-Posten. Unfortunately, in most Muslim and all Arab countries, there are no such separations. Hence, the demand for government action against the newspaper – a call going directly against the very essence of Danish and European democratic systems.
The latest assault against Western values in the name of Islam is not the first. There have been similar, albeit smaller and briefer ones, attacks on free expression for almost two decades, in the cases of novelists Salman Rushdie and Michel Houllebecq, journalist Oriana Fallaci, and Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated, all in the name of punishing insults to Islam. The Jyllands-Posten conflict, however, seems to have accomplished two things in the West. First, it has made it clear that most Muslims simply do not comprehend but nevertheless oppose Western democratic values and diversity. Second and most important, it has forced the Europeans to begin to understand and react to that fact.
February 6, 2006
Republished by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (www.fpri.org). Address inquiries to FPRI@fpri.org.