In an earlier post I promised to take a look at the politics surrounding the Muhammad cartoons. For the sake of clarity I shall divide the parties into a Red and a Green corner. In case anyone wonders: Red signifies Danes, Green Muslims.
The Red Corner
Among the Danish media, Jyllands-Posten occupies a unique position. It is easily the most conservative of the national Danish newspapers and it is the only major paper published outside of Copenhagen.
Commentators are always happy to point out that the paper voiced its support for Europe’s fascist dictators back in the 1930s – see this column by the Swedish Social Democratic journalist Olle Svenning as the latest example of this kind of argument – but in this context it is more interesting to note that Jyllands-Posten was the newspaper which during the 1980s gave voice to criticism of the liberal refugee and immigration policies advocated by the Social Democrats, the Social Liberal Party and the Socialist Party.
And what a voice that was: The priests Søren Krarup and Jesper Langballe started their public careers as contributors to the op-ed pages of Jyllands-Posten and even if the paper has no relationship to them today, there is still an implicit link between Jyllands-Posten and the Danish People’s Party in many people’s minds.
Among today’s columnists you will find Ralf Pittelkow who started his public life along with his wife Karen Jespersen in the small but highly visible Left Socialist Party before starting a rightward move which has made Pittelkow a sort of the poor man’s Samuel P. Huntington cum Bernard Lewis.
But to make a long story short: Krarup, Langballe, Pittelkow and Jespersen are the kind of people who will argue that The West is presently locked in a deadly battle with Islam. If you are a Muslim you are by definition Anti-West and if you are a true Westerner you also have to be Anti-Islam.
The editors of Jyllands-Posten may formulate this more politely, but in essence the paper will interpret any criticism of the Muhammad cartoons as a case of multiculturalist appeasement towards the enemy.
This may sound thoroughly paranoid but it is worth noting the context of the Danish debate. If you look at the lastest Eurobarometer – that’s the Eurobarometer 63 performed during the spring of 2005 before the London bombings, the table on page 26 – you will see that Danes worry less about the economy but more about crime, immigration and terrorism than the average Europeans do. In fact, in these three subjects Denmark constitutes a cluster with the U.K, the Netherlands and Spain.
Given that Denmark is not Sicily, does not have a border to Morocco and has not been the target of any terrorist activities since the Second World War this may seem surprising.
Economic factors play a role in the explanation: The very low rates of employment among non-European immigrants mean that immigration from countries like Turkey, Pakistan and Somalia is costly to Denmark. Thus it should not come as a surprise that Danes are skeptical of further immigration from the Middle-East and other Muslim countries.
Political factors are important as well: Islamist terror groups have defended attacks in Spain and other countries with reference to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and this means that Denmark is a possible target for Islamist terrorists. Consequently, any kind of Islamist propaganda will be seen as a veiled threat to Danish security.
Finally, Danish politics play a role. The Social Democrats’ inability to formulate a coherent set of policies on immigration and integration during the 1990s was one reason why the party lost touch with its electorate and suffered severe defeats in the 2001 and 2005 elections. Immigration policies aren’t the only explanation for the Social Democrats’ misery, but playing the Muslim card will expose Social Democratic weakness and enhance the position of the centre-right parties.
The Green Corner
Who are the people in the Green Corner then?
If you ask the proverbial man in the street the answer will probably be “Muslim Extremists”. One reason for this is that the Danish Muslim community – if you can speak of a community and not a number of distinct communities – has never really found its voice in the public debate. This has left the field open to extremist movements like Hisb ut-Tahrir whose meetings are followed closely by Danish media or individual clerics whose exact status in the community can be hard if not impossible to gauge for non-Muslims. The general rule seems to be: The higher you shout, the more likely you are to be quoted in Danish media.
On the other hand it would be wise to assume that we do not know exactly what Danish Muslims think about the Muhammad affair. Most have stayed quiet and some has voiced their opposition to the statements and initiatives by representatives of the Danish Islamic Congregation.
From a Danish or perhaps rather non-Islamic Congregation perspective it is obvious that the clerics and other representatives made a number of bad moves that haven’t exactly strengthened the Muslim community’s position in the Danish society.
Asking the Prime Minister to intervene against Jyllands-Posten was one such move. The Prime Minister refused with the comment that courts and not politicians decide whether or not the rules of free speech have been broken. Conclusion: Muslims don’t – or won’t – understand how a polity governed by law works.
Appealing to the ambassadors of a number of Arab and Muslim countries to act on their behalf was an even worse move – it was met with a very cold shoulder from the government – but the most disastrous move was probably to send a delegation to Egypt and other Arab countries to raise support. Even if the Egyptian government is allied with the U.S. it is not exactly known as a defender of civil or political liberties and Egypt is home to the Muslim Brotherhood.
As almost no Danes read or understand Arabic, rumours about what had been said soon started to circulate and reports about the coverage of the visit in Egyptian media helped to raise a fairly strong opinion against the Islamic Congregation. It was among other things suggested that the delegation had made gross misrepresentations of the original cartoons and painted a false picture of the relationship between Jyllands-Posten and the Danish government. All of this culminated in Pia Kjærsgaard’s statement that the Congregation had acted as traitors engaging in fifth column activities against Denmark.
The question is whether this really was a case of self-defeating behaviour or whether there was some kind of rationale behind the actions of the Islamic Congregation.
It is possible that the cartoon case gave some factions in the Muslim community a chance to deepen relationships to central institutions in the Islamic world such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Claiming a direct relationship to such institutions could be an important tool if you want to enhance your own position in the Danish Muslim community even if the price would be paid in a loss of outward status – or the chance of achieving status – in the Danish society.