Monday, February 27, 2006

Dane-in-the-street view of cartoon issue

Here in Denmark the Muhammad cartoon issue continues to dominate the headlines. Politiken, the paper we get at home, has been running a special report on Egypt’s role in communicating the matter to other Islamic countries and international Islamic organizations, as well as warning the Danish government. Thus the paper has helped throw new light on the development of the affair, including to which extent the Danish government may be held accountable in any sense for the furor.

Since I don’t speak Danish it is hard to come up with a man-in-the-street perspective on the issue. Certainly it has been mentioned in passing by teachers in several of the classes I am taking at Roskilde University. The children’s book on the life of Muhammad that started the whole controversy is available at the RUC library. The book was written for Danish children of all faiths and presents the prophet’s life according to the earliest Arabic sources, including the miracles attributed to him without disclaimers—unusual in this land where schools are prohibited from endorsing any religion, and where one will not find a single textbook presenting a Jesus miracle as fact.

Many people in and out of Denmark are unaware of the dilemma faced by the publisher of this Muhammad biography in 2005—should the book contain illustrations of the prophet, which would make it more engaging to its young audience, or should it respect the Islamic injunction against images of the founder of this important religion? The book’s author defends his choice to put the pictures in, by referring to images of Muhammad found in old books in Persia, as well as on many posters and postcards available in Iran today.

When at last an illustrator was found, he (a non-Muslim by the way) agreed to make the images only if his identity were concealed. It was on hearing of the picture book’s issues that the Jyllands-Posten made its infamous challenge to what it called self-censorship.

Over the past weeks there have been demonstrations in Copenhagen and the cities of Aarhus, Aalborg, Randers and some towns. But they have been adamantly non­religious in nature, and most have called for “dialogue and mutual respect,” as one slogan expressed it. None have been violent.

In Aarhus, three demonstrations were held almost simultaneously. In one, a small group of Right-wing youths demanded apologies from the Muslim community, claiming its members were responsible for numerous crimes; in another part of the square, an equally small group of Left-wing youths attempted to shout them down. The third demonstration was participated in by Danes and ethnic Muslims, who together called for dialogue. Priests from different religions—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Tibetan—spoke their views.

In Copenhagen, a demonstration organized by Muslim university students was disrupted by participants shouting Islamic slogans. The latter were nearly thrown out by the organizers.

Opinions seem to be divided on whether the cartoons were protected speech or ethnic slurs, even within the members of one family. Many white Danes believe the cartoons were unnecessary or in poor taste. But the issue has shifted, from the merits of the cartoons to whether the Danish government, represented by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, could have in any way averted the bloodshed and self-fuelling hatred of Denmark in many Muslim countries.

In September of last year the prime minister turned down a request by ambassadors from Muslim countries to meet and discuss certain cases of anti-Muslim manifestations, the cartoons included, on the ground that no legal action could be taken against the newspaper. Rasmussen understood this—legal action—to be the ambassadors’ demand.

Following Rasmussen’s alleged snub, the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs began an information campaign on the cartoons throughout the Muslim world, according to the Politiken report. Critics, including several Danish retired ambassadors, have all along claimed that Rasmus­sen’s act was rash and undiplomatic, and some form of reconciliation would likely have been possible had he agreed to that meeting.

One of the most intriguing effects has been the polarization that has registered in recent opinion surveys. The extremely Right-wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folke­parti), known for rabidly anti-immigration, anti-Muslim public statements, has increased its support dramatically, whereas both the Social Democratic Party and the right-of-center liberal party Venstre, the prime minister’s party, have lost support. However, the leftist Socialist People’s Party and the Radical Venstre have both gained support.

With Denmark under international scrutiny, and the subject of uncontrolled hate speech, its people are taking clearer personal standpoints, based on gut response, upbringing and environment, and private fears.