Just a short round-up of today’s events in the Muhammad cartoon case (yes, I have learnt how to get a top spot on Technorati). As you probably know by now, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were attacked and burnt down by a mob in Damascus on Saturday. I cannot recall any incidents where Danish embassies have been attacked in this way in modern times.
Dynamics of an Attack
According to one version, the attack took place after riots in Copenhagen had sparked (false) rumours that a group of Neo-Nazis had burned a copy of the Koran. Neo-Nazis also clashed with extremist left-wingers and immigrants in the town of Hillerød north of Copenhagen. Both groups were relatively small.
One troubling piece of information – which may point to a different storyline – is that the Danish ambassador earlier in the day had contacted Syrian authorities and asked for protection for the embassy. This raises the question why Syrian police, which is usually very vigilant, apparently didn’t turn out in order to protect the building. The police may have been surprised by the violence – in which case we can expect some nasty clampdowns in the coming weeks – or Syrian authorities may have seen the demonstration as a way of letting out steam in a complicated political situation on the national scene.
Danish Opinion Polls
On Friday, the daily Børsen published an opinion poll which showed that two parties stood to gain from the conflict: The anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party and the multi-culturalist Social Liberal Party. The big looser was the Social Democratic Party which has held a low profile on the issue and has found it difficult to formulate a coherent strategy.
A summary of the poll can be found on Danmarks Radio’s news page.
A poll published by Danmarks Radio showed mixed support for Jyllands-Posten. According to the poll 47% of the electorate found that the paper all things considered should have published the cartoons while 46% found that the party shouldn’t have published the cartoons. 7% were undecided.
How this Saturday’s events will influence Danish opinion remains to be seen.
I suspect that one of the strange ironies in this case is that those who support Jyllands-Posten tend to be social conservatives whose values in social issues will be if not close, then relatively close to those of conservative Muslims, while the supporters of the Muslim side (sorry for using the term in such a general way) tend to be social libertarians who reject the values of traditional Muslim societies and Islamism and vice versa.
Statements of the U.S. and British Governments
The U.S. and British governments commented the cartoon case on Friday. The statements were more cautious than earlier statements by European heads of governments and the statement of the U.S. State Department spokesman was met with furious reactions by the Danish People’s Party whose spokesman called the statement “embarassing and sad” and an example of unacceptable treatment of a loyal ally. The Liberal and Conservative Parties rejected the attacks from the DPP.
As the original wordings of the U.S. and British statements may be a bit difficult to find, I will post some quotes from and links to the statements.
First, the spokesman of the U.S. State Department Sean McCormack speaking at a press briefing on Friday. You will find the transcript of the briefing and Q-and-A session here. I only quote Mr. McCormack’s prepared statement:
Our response is to say that while we certainly don’t agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy — democracies around the world — and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.
We believe, for example in our country, that people from different religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds add to our strength as a country. And it is important to recognize and appreciate those differences. And it is also important to protect the rights of individuals and the media to express a point of view concerning various subjects. So while we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view. We may — like I said, we may not agree with those points of view, we may condemn those points of view but we respect and emphasize the importance that those individuals have the right to express those points of view.
For example — and on the particular cartoon that was published — I know the Prime Minister of Denmark has talked about his, I know that the newspaper that originally printed it has apologized, so they have addressed this particular issue. So we would urge all parties to exercise the maximum degree of understanding, the maximum degree of tolerance when they talk about this issue. And we would urge dialogue, not violence. And that also those that might take offense at these images that have been published, when they see similar views or images that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic, that they speak out with equal vigor against those images.
And here is the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw speaking on a press conference, also on Friday. The statement can be found on the homepage of the Foreign Office.
Let me say this about these cartoons. I make no comment about their original publication, that is a matter for the Danish public, parliament and Danish law. But there is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not an obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory, and I believe that the re-publication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. And if I may say so, I place on record my regard for the British media who have shown considerable responsibility and sensitivity in this regard.
What we also have to remember is that there are taboos in every religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of all aspects of Christian rights and rituals in the name of free speech, nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of the rights and rituals for the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh religion, and it should not be the case in respect of the Islamic religion either. So we have to be very careful about showing proper respect in this situation.
Both Straw and McCormack are of cause addressing domestic as well as international audiences. Speculations have been made whether the U.S. and British involvement in Iraq means that the two countries have to tread more cautiously or whether the view of the trade-off between religion and freedom of speech in fact differ between the Anglo-Saxon and Continental European countries.
If you read German, you may want to read this statement made by one of the spokesmen of the German government on Friday before drawing premature conclusions. (If you don’t read German: The statement is relatively close to the one made by Jack Straw).
On Friday Slate published a balanced review of the coverage of the cartoon case in Arab media. You may also want to read Christopher Hitchens’ essay published on Saturday on the case for mocking religion. The BBC has this background article.
Finally, Wikipedia tries to follow the case but please note that the Wikipedia page has been subjected to vandalism at different times.