Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" -- latest roundup

Without any protestations of apology for my long absence from blogging (I've been busy, so there), here are some snapshots of some of the recent newsworthy events concerning the "Cartoon Row":

On the occasion of the holiday that marks the anniversary of the Danish Constitution, June 5, politicians all over Denmark traditionally give speeches on the state of democracy in the country. This year, Pia Kjærsgaard, the leader of the islamophobic Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) unsurprisingly picked as her topic the threat to Danish democracy posed by Muslims, foreign and domestic. Ms. Kjærsgaard was speaking at Lykkesholm Slot, a conference center located in a scenic manorial estate built in the 17th and 18th centuries. The place, one of Hans Christian Andersen's favourite hangouts, was the venue chosen by Kjærsgaard to deliver an interesting diatribe that shines as an example of misinformation.

Intent on attributing the escalation of the crisis into actual violence to the malicious actions of domestic imams and hostile foreign (Islamic) nations, Kjærsgaard claimed that, from the publication of the cartoons until the sudden outbreak of attacks on Danish embassies, months later, "nothing happened", implying that the attacks came out of the blue. In this, she is not alone. Several Danish newspapers have presented the events in this fashion. It simply isn't true, however. They choose to ignore the many protests, both inside and outside Denmark, that took place in the months leading up to the outbreaks of violence.

As I have written in earlier posts, these outbreaks of violence are in themselves conveniently timed for Syria and Iran, and there is reason to be suspicious regarding their supposed spontaneity. But to say that they came after months of "nothing" is to completely warp the fabric of truth.

Standard practice for Dansk Folkeparti, of course.

You may remember Iran's rather quaint response to the caricatures... Showing once again their clear belief that anything unpleasant that comes their way is somehow related to Israel's imperialist agenda in the Middle East, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri decided to respond to the caricatures by soliciting caricatures from all over the world, lampooning the Holocaust. The mind boggles at the convoluted illogic behind this, but never mind that -- the caricatures (1100 of them, from over 60 countries) were collected, and over 200 of them are now on show in Tehran, according to aljazeera.net.

Of course, as crude and purposely offensive as this exhibition of Holocaust-related caricatures is, it is unlikely to elicit quite the same over-the-top response as the Danish caricatures that set off the original crisis. As British blogger Robert Hinkley put it:
"Meh, whatever. As a result I expect a total of zero buildings to be set on fire or stormed by gunmen, no embassies to be closed nor ambassadors recalled, and nobody to be killed in rioting."
That pretty much sums up my own expectations.

Two prominent political debaters in Denmark, Tøger Seidenfaden (editor-in-chief of the moderate daily Politiken) and Rune Engelbreth Larsen (controversial author and lecturer, with an eclectic and very odd CV including leadership of the oddball Minority Party and editor of the even-more-oddball intellectual magazine Faklen) recently co-authored a book dealing with the "Cartoon Row". Titled, predictably, "The Caricature Crisis" (Karikaturkrisen, Copenhagen, Gyldendal, 2006. ISBN 87-02-05166-4), the book has produced a lukewarm debate in the press. It has been criticized in the right-wing press as being unduly critical of Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his handling of the crisis, and in the left-wing press for being uncritical of Seidenfaden's own contributions to the crisis. Leftist daily Information went so far as to say that Seidenfaden was attempting a "whitewash" of his own actions.

For a press release dealing with the publication of the book, which presents the propositions within it in a more neutral tone than they are presented in the text itself, look here. Note that I agree with many of the propositions as they are presented in the press release, but there is a noticeable difference between the relatively bland press release, and the book itself.

Based on a cursory reading of the book (I'm going to have to devote more time to its individual propositions in later blogposts, I feel certain, but let's be pleasantly superficial here, for once), I would say that the critics are right. Seidenfaden and Engelbreth haven't produced a neutral analysis of the crisis -- rather, this is one angle on the subject, slightly misrepresented as more unbiased than it actually is.

In fact, as several critics (left, right and center) have remarked, it is decidedly odd to see Seidenfaden (generally respected as an intelligent man with serious credentials) teaming up with Engelbreth, a man whom many would regard as an outright crackpot.

Technorati tags: , , , , , , ,

Friday, May 26, 2006

All in the family

I love history. It's a wonderful subject, filled with odd anecdotes and quirky facts that make you exclaim: "Well, I never would have expected that!"

Let's take a look at one of those surprising facts from history. Be warned, it is obscure, unverifiable and possibly untrue -- so the word "fact" may be stretching it a bit. But I guess it'll do for a "fact" until the real thing comes along.

To set the scene for our little surprise, we need to go back in time to Spain in the age of the Reconquista. As you may know, much of the Iberian peninsula was conquered by Islam in the early middle ages -- and by 1492, the same year Columbus "sailed the ocean blue", the middle ages and the Moorish occupation of the peninsula were over. This era of reconquest of Spain and Portugal by Christian forces is called, borrowing the word from Spanish, the Reconquista.

In between the beginning of the Moorish establishment in Spain and the end, there was a long period of wars, accommodations and intermittent coexistence. Like the crusader kingdoms in the Levant, the Christian and Muslim rulers of Spain often found good political reasons to make alliances across the divide of religion.

One of these Christian monarchs was Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile (born before June 1040, dead July 1, 1109), the first king to style himself "king of all Spain", and one of the larger-than-life figures of El Cantar de Mio Cid, "The Lay of the Cid".

Alfonso had many wives. He was married at least five times, and the recorded parentage of his children is rather vague. Genealogies tend to mention the probable mother of a particular child from among his list of wives, and a number of alternate possibilities (this, by the way, is why I mentioned earlier that this story is unverifiable).

At any rate, let's focus on one of Alfonso's wives in particular. She has several names. In official genealogies, she appears as Isabella of Denia (born about 1071, died 1107).

Isabella is almost certainly the mother of Alfonso's only son, Sancho (who never attained the throne, having predeceased his father at the Battle of Ucles in 1108). She is also variously listed as the possible mother of Alfonso's other children Sancha and Elvira Alphonsez. They're both pretty interesting, so let's have a closer look at them.

Sancha married Rodrigo `El Franco' Gonzales de Lara, and counts among her descendants the Portuguese King Dionisio Henriques (1261-1325), whose descendants number every single Catholic royal family in Europe.

Nor did Elvira's blood line go into historical obscurity. No, not at all. Her first husband was Raymond IV, count of Toulouse, and her second was Roger II Guiscard of the Norman kingdom of Naples. From these marriages, Elvira had several children, including King William I `the Bad' of Naples and Sicily, and Roger III de Hauteville. From the latter gentleman, many if not all of the dynasties of the German kingdoms and princely states descend.

Etcetera, etcetera.

Oh, heck, let's cut to the chase: so far as I can reliably determine, an index of the descendants of Alfonso VI and Isabella would be a complete listing of every single European royal family, most of the nobility, and many of the prominent families of the élites of other nations (including the United States of America, which, like the late Roman republic, is more of an aristocracy than a republic).

Just for instance... Isabella's the 23 times great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Or, in another line of descent, the 24 times great-grandmother of Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales.

So why is that line of descent so interesting? Good question.

Well, Isabella wasn't born with that name. Actually, her name used to be Zaida. Nor was she a Christian, until she was forcibly converted to Catholicism. She was, in fact, the daughter of the deposed Emir of Sevilla, Abul-Kasim Muhammad ben Abbad al-Mu'tamid (born to wealth and power about 1040, died in poverty 1095).

Again, so what?

Well, the Emir of Sevilla wasn't just a nobody. In fact, he came from a pretty prominent lineage. More precisely, 16 generations before he came along, one of his ancestors had founded a new world religion.

That's right, Abul-Kasim Muhammad ben Abbad al-Mu'tamid was a lineal descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

In other words, so is every single royal family in Europe.

That sort of puts an interesting perspective on the entire issue of Islamic marginalisation in Europe, doesn't it? It opens up all sorts of job opportunities for down-on-their luck European nobility and royalty. "Convert to Islam, and you'll be a candidate for Caliph..."

Facetious, I know, but interesting. Still, I promised you a curious fact, and I hope you'll agree that I've delivered, as promised.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It's aliiive.....!

“Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain once remarked... and I have good reason to repeat the remark here, having been on hiatus for over six weeks.

I could tell you a sob story about how dreadfully life has treated me, and how heavily burdened I've been... but the truth is that there are just 24 hours in a day. Being but frail mortal flesh, I still have to use some of them to sleep (I'm working on that problem, but my lab rats keep dying, dammit). Therefore, I've simply not had the spare time to blog.

That hasn't really changed, honestly -- I'm still in arrears on most of my work commitments. But I've decided that it was time to stop neglecting my blogging, and start neglecting some of my other spare-time commitments. So if the guys on the 涼宮ハルヒの憂鬱 translation project are reading this, now you know at least one of the reasons why I appear lazy, of late.

So, now that I'm "back in the saddle", I'm wondering what to offer you -- you, my loyal and devoted readers (all nine of you). I've been flogging the Muhammad cartoon controversy until it is well and truly a dead horse, and I think you deserve a little change of pace. So in the next posts, I'm going to give you some material that isn't concerned with the cartoons. Not directly, anyway.

But never fear, Random Platitudes is still going to be a political / historical blog. Any other material will go in "sister" blogs, as previously mentioned. My focus, as always, is on civil liberties, history, politics and the exposure of hypocrisy (as I see it).

I invite you to join me once more, and to share with me your thoughts along the way.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 9

(continued from Part 8)

As noted in the earlier parts of this narrative, the crisis over the Muhammad caricatures was eagerly seized upon by many different parties, each with their own agendas. Among those already mentioned are:
  • Kåre Bluitgen, arguably the instigator of the entire affair. His profit from the crisis has been immediate and tangible, with his fairly inconsequential book on Muhammad now already in its fourth printing, only months after its first publication.

  • Various Danish politicians, notably Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen; MP Pia Kjærsgaard, leader of the Danish People's Party; and Naser Khader, MP for the Danish Social-Liberal Party; and others. All of these used the crisis to promote their own agendas.

  • Danish imams, notably Ahmed Akkari and Abu Laban, who hastily seized upon the controversy, making a bid to raise their prestige in the Islamic community, and perhaps to obtain more funding from abroad.

  • The governments of most Islamic nations, but especially Egypt, Syria and Iran. Again, the crisis itself was used by these states to promote agendas that were entirely disjunct from it.

  • Confrontationalist religious leaders and activists in the Muslim world, notably in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Indonesia; as well as their counterparts in the more radical quarters of the Christian West, particularly in the United States. Although the crisis itself had a strong religious element, the focus of these groups was not on the issue of the crisis itself, but rather on the opportunity it afforded to enhance their own prestige, and to brand members of other religions as barbaric and inimical. Whether it was through instigating riots in Pakistan or inciting anti-Muslim prejudice through private radio and TV stations in the U.S., the religious confrontationalists were out in force, and clearly delighted at having a controversy to make use of.

In short, a whole host of persons and groups thronged to make use of the opportunities afforded them by the crisis -- opportunities for raising their own media profile and making their own issues known to the public.

Others, for somewhat more petty reasons, found the crisis to be a golden opportunity. One of these was Danish journalist Lasse Ellegaard, employed at the Danish daily Politiken. Ellegaard had a long career as a journalist, with jobs at most major Danish newspapers, including Jyllands-Posten and the respected left-wing newspaper Information (of which he was Editor in Chief from 1992 to 1994).

In clear emulation of war correspondents like Peter Arnett, Ellegaard had made a name for himself as one of those journalists who was always in the thick of things. In recent years, he'd been covering the Middle East, and he somehow often managed to find himself in the midst of dangerous situations, at risk to his own life... at least, that was the case when he reported them. Ellegaard enjoyed a mixed reputation -- some Danish journalists, who gave full credence to his reports, regarded him highly as an exemplar of war correspondents. Other, more cynical, souls noted that his reports seemed rather excessively dramatic.

Around the beginning of March 2006, Ellegaard had already made a number of reports from the widespread anti-Danish protests in the Middle East. His opinion was eagerly sought after by various interested parties, since he was considered an expert on the issue. For instance, he was booked to take part in a seminar on the topic "Publish and be damned? Free speech, religious hatred and the cartoon controversy" at the London Book Fair in March 2006, along with Fay Weldon and Abdul-Rehman Malik.

For the early March 2006 (#4) issue of Journalisten, the official magazine of Journalistforbundet (the Danish Journalists' Union), Lasse Ellegaard wrote a short piece on the chilling effects of the crisis upon the safety of Danes in the Middle East, titled "Er du tysker?" "Ja," svarede jeg uden videre. Optegnelser om et rolleskift som dansker i Mellemøsten. ("'Are you German?' 'Yes,' I replied immediately; Notes on a change of rôle as Dane in the Middle East").

In this remarkable article, morose in tone, Ellegaard described how he had been asked by a hotel employee whether he was German, and had replied in the affirmative. From this, he went on to describe how this unthinking denial of his nationality was the result of a self-censorship born of fear -- and how he continued to adopt other nationalities in his journalistic work in the region, in response to the perceived risk of being Danish in the Muslim world.

As peripheral as this article was, I am given to understand that it made a great impression in some journalistic circles -- the same circles which held Ellegaard's self-dramatizing style in high regard. Not everyone shared this view, nor did everyone agree with his assessment of the dangers of the Middle East.

Lene Frøslev, Middle East correspondent for the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende, chose not to be furtive about her nationality. In an article in the early April 2006 (#6) issue of Journalisten titled Laad os begrænse hysteriet ("Let us limit the hysteria"), she described how she had openly admitted her nationality, and had been met with no hostility or threatening behaviour. A telling excerpt from her article describes her meetings with the supposedly hostile Muslim world:

"Jeg ankom fra Cairo til Damaskus, 15 timer efter at hooligans – formentlig statshyrede – havde sat ild til den bygning, der huser den danske ambassade.

'Dansk?' spurgte de interesserede hos paspolitiet i lufthavnen.

'Ja,' smilede jeg.

'Velkommen til Damaskus!'


Mens Lasse Ellegaard fandt det nødvendigt at afsværge sig dansk identitet over for en tilfældig hotelkarl i den sikre og rige del af Beirut, så havde jeg ingen problemer med at spørge til folks mening om Muhammed-tegningerne i den for journalister ’forbudte’ Hizbollah-zone."

("I arrived in Damascus from Cairo, 15 hours after hooligans - presumably in the employ of the government - had set fire to the building housing the Danish embassy.

'Danish?', the airport customs officers asked interestedly.

'Yes,' I smiled.

'Welcome to Damascus!'"


Whereas Lasse Ellegaard found it necessary to disavow his Danish nationality to a random hotel employee in the wealthy and safe district of Beirut, I experienced no problems asking people's opinions of the Muhammad caricatures in the 'forbidden-to-journalists' Hizbollah zone.")

As Frøslev made it clear, the eagerness to attribute hostility and threat to the general Muslim population of the Middle East (most of whom probably couldn't care less) was not just a feature of the political and religious debate, it was also gratefully appropriated by elements of the media (of which Lasse Ellegaard was merely a sample) to enhance the cachet of their rôle as daring seekers of news, in the oh-so-dangerous wide world outside Denmark. Worse still, media reports exaggerating the scale of the crisis and the potential risk fed fuel to extremists who were all too happy to make use of it.

Continued, sort of, in the August roundup

Correction: Lasse Ellegaard, mentioned above, notes that he was Editor in Chief of Information from January 1, 1990 til September 1, 1994. He chooses not to comment on what he describes as my "casting aspersions on his journalistic integrity".

Technorati tags: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 8

(continued from Part 7)

As the boycott of Danish goods continued to affect Danish exports to the Middle East, the Danish company that was under most pressure was Arla, a dairy goods conglomerate responsible for most of the Danish dairy exports, as well as most of the domestic market. Arla had recently had an unpleasant encounter with the effects of consumer boycott -- they had for several years been subjected to a domestic boycott, resulting from public outrage at their bullying tactics towards minor competitors.

The domestic boycott had not been overwhelmingly effective, but had nevertheless resulted in an overall loss of Arla's market coverage in Denmark of several percentage points. This translated to a great deal of money, and Arla had learnt its lesson. Faced with a potentially equally harmful boycott (the Islamic countries constituted a much larger market, but with much less market penetration than Denmark, for a net result of approximately similar levels of potential harm), Arla was well aware of the potential damage to their interests, and wisely chose to play it safe and avoid antagonizing Muslim consumers further.

For this reason, Arla had, in mid-February, formally renounced any support for the caricatures and Jyllands-Posten, and undertaken an intensive advertising campaign in the Middle East, trying to convince the consumers not to punish Danish companies for the activities of a single Danish paper. Humanitarian aid (to organisations like the Red Crescent) was part of the campaign, aimed at winning back the consumers of the Islamic world.

While this was going on, the huge and influential Danish shipping, transport and industrial conglomerate, A.P. Møller (Mærsk Line), continued its activities in the Middle East unabated. Most national governments were not going to let a little thing like consumer outrage get in the way of critical infrastructure development and transportation, and A.P. Møller knew that very well. The development by Mærsk of a USD 5 billion off-shore oil field in Qatar continued unabated. At an energy conference in Doha, on February 19 2006, the Qatari Minister of Oil, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah made it clear that the caricatures were not going to change the way Qatar dealt with Mærsk.

Not surprisingly, Arla's willingness to disavow Jyllands-Posten was viewed in some quarters in Denmark as a disloyal and cowardly surrender to economic pressure. The perception was that the Danish companies were far more interested in making money than in standing up for Danish political and moral values.

With this, pressure grew upon PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen to make it clear that the government continued to stand on the principles of free speech, and that the business affairs of these companies did not reflect official government policy. Because the government consisted of two intensely pro-business, pro-market parties, this was even more important.

Moreover, many Danish intellectuals (and in particular, the Danish PEN club association of writers) had come out against the government and the caricatures, branding them culturally insensitive and deliberately confrontational.

It was time for Anders Fogh Rasmussen to take an aggressive stance, and rein in the strays. He'd done so often before, in crisis situations, by forcefully attacking political opponents as well as any voices of dissent within his own party ranks. As brutal as this approach often seemed, it usually worked, leaving his opponents cowed and their criticisms forgotten or overshadowed. In late February, he decided to once more go on the offensive. It was to be one of the most potentially self-destructive decisions of his political career.

Speaking with the pro-government newspaper Berlingske Tidende on February 26, Fogh Rasmussen strongly criticised both the PEN club and the media in Denmark, for failing to take a stand against Islamic aggression. He was especially vitriolic towards the "intellectual elite" who had "failed to defend the free speech that they made their own living off". It was his stated opinion that the intellectuals and the media, "motivated by distaste for the Danish People's Party, for Jyllands-Posten, and for the government" had let themselves be guided by their own prejudice into adopting a double standard.

Referring to the matter of his failure to fully inform the Folketing's committee on foreign affairs (see part 6), he remarked that this was an immaterial matter in the face of the scale of the emergency.

This, too, was a standard crisis management tactic used by Fogh Rasmussen -- ignoring scandals to begin with, and when they could not be ignored, not denying them, but adopting a "pragmatic" attitude that they were minor compared to the "real issues".

Attacking the media and the intellectual elite was standard fare for Fogh Rasmussen. What was not so common was the fact that, lumped in with these two groups, he also accused the Danish companies operating in the Middle East of being "unprincipled", and sacrificing civil rights for monetary gain.

To the Danish companies (which were frantically scrambling to salvage their markets from the long term political and economic fallout of Fogh's catastrophic decision to "tough it out" with the Muslim ambassadors), this attack was shocking. After all, the Danish government was considered to be pro-business, and the Danish mercantile/industrial sector were the financial backers of both government parties. Not unreasonably, this attack was received by Danish industrialists as an act of rank disloyalty.

The very next day, Niels Due Jensen, chairman of the board of directors of the Danish company Grundfos, responded sharply to Fogh's comments, in the pages of Jyllands-Posten. Grundfos, the world's leading producer of pumps, naturally had strong economic interests in the oil-producing Middle East. Niels Due Jensen had previously called for Jyllands-Posten to apologize, and clearly felt that the prime minister's remarks were aimed at him (among others). In an unusually direct statement, Due Jensen said:

"Både statsministeren og Jyllands-Posten har totalt mistet jordforbindelsen i Muhammed-sagen. For princippets skyld kæmper man for ytringsfriheden. Det er også i orden, men når man samtidig krænker millioner af andre mennesker med det, er det ikke i orden længere.
"Jeg er dybt uenig i statsministerens kritik -- og i øvrigt med den kritik, som Jyllands-Posten løbende fremfører mod danskere og erhvervsledere, der har en anderledes mening end dem selv. Vi har ytringsfrihed i Danmark, selv om den kan være upopulær. Jyllands-Posten er selektiv i sit syn på ytringsfrihed. Anderledestænkende bliver tævet og latterliggjort af Jyllands-Posten. Det skulle man holde sig for god til."

("Both the prime minister and Jyllands-Posten have totally lost contact with reality in the Muhammed case. For the sake of principle one fights for freedom of speech. That's all right, but when one simultaneously offends millions of other people with it, it is no longer all right.
"I strongly disagree with the prime minister's criticism -- and furthermore, with the criticism that is continually made by Jyllands-Posten of Danes and business leaders who have a different opinion than they do. We have freedom of speech in Denmark, however unpopular it may be. Jyllands-Posten is selective in its view on freedom of speech. People with differing opinions are {verbally, ed.} beaten up and ridiculed by Jyllands-Posten. This should be beneath their dignity.")

Another Danish business leader, Hans Skov Christensen, CEO of The Confederation of Danish Industries (DI, Dansk Industri), had also previously called for an apology, but disingenuously claimed not to feel targeted by Fogh Rasmussen's criticism. DI had always been in line with government policies, he diplomatically remarked.

But in many sectors of business, irritation with the PM's remarks was evident. As several sources put it, the government had all along made strong efforts to salvage Danish business interests in the affected regions, and had cautioned everyone against confrontational policies -- it seemed unreasonable to turn around and attack the businessmen for keeping a low, non-confrontational profile, as they had been instructed to by the government.

On several separate levels, the decision to attack Danish businessmen for their supposed lack of principles was a major blunder by Fogh Rasmussen. Whether or not the accusation was true, Fogh seemed to have forgotten that the businesses represented the political and financial base of support of both the government parties. On the one hand, the PM's own party, Venstre, was originally largely an agrarian party. Though the agricultural lobby had become less important, they were still a significant part of Venstre's constituency. Furthermore, Venstre's political platform was poro-business and strongly in favour of free markets. Attacking the major agricultural and industrial exporters meant attacking his own supporters. It couldn't help but be seen as a major breach of confidence.

Similarly, the Conservative Party, Fogh Rasmussen's much-neglected and abused junior partners in government, were very strongly involved with Danish mercantile and industrial interests. For them, being involved in Fogh Rasmussen's attack on business leaders meant being tarred with the same brush, without the compensation of being viewed as "taking a stand on principle". They were being taken along for the ride, with or without their consent, and the ticket price was getting expensive.

(Continued in Part 9)

Technorati tags: , , , , , ,

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Interlude: Selected quotations on the "Cartoon Row"

I'm currently backed up with other writing obligations, so instead of a lengthy chapter in my ongoing dissection of the "Cartoon Row", I'm going to temporize by offering you some selected quotations from various sources, in connection with the controversy.

It is often the case with quotations that they are taken out of context, but I've tried not to abuse this, and I've sourced them all as carefully as possible.

Here you go:
"Evil forces journeyed out on a tour of the Muslim world. The Islamic Society in Denmark, with the imam Abu Laban at their head, spread lying and spiteful propaganda against the country that has received them with open arms. That the case has developed into an international conflict is solely due to deliberately misrepresented messages regarding both Jyllands-Posten and the government, as well as the Danish People's Party.

And look at the mess it has gotten us into..."

- Pia Kjærsgaard, Danish MP and leader of Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People's Party), writing in her weekly newsletter, January 30 2006.
An interesting quotation, that illustrates the way the xenophobes in Denmark choose to interpret the affair. One can't help but note the use of the word "evil" and the phrase "welcomed with open arms" (here used in contrast, to illustrate how ungrateful and perfidious the imams supposedly are).

"If anyone should apologise, it is Saudi Arabia. Apologise for its open contempt of human rights, its scorn for freedom of religious expression, and its systematic repression of equal rights.


Saudi Arabia should be ashamed of itself, and an apology for offending that country with satirical drawings amounts to falling at the knees of fundamentalism.

My message to Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries that joined the boycott is: You insult my democratic conviction. Say sorry."

- Naser Khader, Danish MP for Radikale Venstre (Danish Social Liberal Party), writing in the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende, January 31 2006.

"...in the Muslim world, we are not used to laughing at religion, our own or anybody else's. This is far from our understanding. For that reason, these cartoons are seen, by average Muslims and not just radicals, as a transgression against something sacred, a provocation against Islam."

- Tariq Ramadan, in the International Herald Tribune, February 5 2006.

"Fogh is dead in Europe. From now on, he's just the guy with the Muhammad case."

- Anonymous source close to Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen, quoted in the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende, March 19 2006, describing the remoteness of Fogh Rasmussen's chances of ever getting an important position in an international organisation after his eventual retirement.
I'm generally unhappy with using anonymous sources, but this one was just too good to leave out. Also, please note that Berlingske Tidende is a conservative paper that is usually extremely supportive of Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his government.

"We regret that there has been this misunderstanding. It was never our intention. We're sorry that it has caused these hurt feelings and offense in Denmark. {...} It was never our intention to link Denmark and racism, or LEGO and racism in this way."

- José Luis Díaz, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Danish television channel DR, March 21 2006, in response to Danish outrage at an anti-racism poster produced by the UN, using a LEGO brick, a poster that had been perceived in Denmark as a comment on the "Cartoon Row" (even though the UN had previously used LEGO in the context of posters, e.g. for the UNHCR's series of "LEGO refugee" posters, in 1994 & 1997).
Apparently, the UN has no difficulty apologising over hurting people's feelings, intentionally or otherwise. Perhaps Anders Fogh Rasmussen could take a hint from this.

That's what I have to offer, this time. I'll return, soon, with another installment in my series of articles on that great soap opera of our times, the "Cartoon Row".

Technorati tags: , , , , , , ,

Monday, March 20, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 7

(continued from Part 6)

As February 2006 drew to a close, the domestic political situation for the government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen was essentially unchanged. The opposition had at no time managed to muster a united stance on the issue of the caricatures. The major opposition party, the Social Democrats, was leery of seeming too "immigrant-friendly", knowing that this would cost them votes to their main competition, the xenophobic Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti).

It may seem strange that voters would jump from a center-left party to a party that is often perceived as an extreme-right party. However, the situation is less clear-cut than that. The Danish People's Party appeals to voters not only on a xenophobic platform, but also with a centrist pro-welfare agenda which is at odds with the Liberalist-Conservative government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, but which is very close to the Social Democratic agenda. As a result, the jump from Social Democrat to DPP is a short one, requiring only a xenophobic shift.

The opinion polls supported this view; in late October 2005, before the crisis developed, the Social Democrats mustered the support of 22.5% of the voters, and the DPP were at 12.8%. A month later, in mid-November, both parties had gained slightly, as the initial stage of the crisis polarised opinions for and against xenophobia. The Social Democrats were now at 26.2% and the DPP at 14.0%. However, as the crisis wore on, and the Danish public began to feel more and more beleaguered by what they viewed as an essentially unfair foe, the opinion polls shifted. As the Social Democrats continued to lie low, they lost any initiative, and this showed in the polls. By mid-February 2006, they were down to 21.8%, and the DPP was up to a remarkable 17.8%, their largest voter support ever.

Clearly, the DPP were gaining as a result of a public perception that they represented a "tough stance" on "Islamic aggression" towards a Denmark that increasingly considered itself the wronged party. Equally clearly, the Social Democrats were losing through lack of leadership. A strategy of "borgfred" was announced early on, but only served to make the Social Democrats look ineffectual. Borgfred (literally, "peace in the castle") is a Danish political term that stems from the fact that the seat of parliament is Christiansborg Palace, and which means that the opposition refrains from attacking the government in a time of national crisis, as a matter of good conduct. Worse still, when Anders Fogh Rasmussen failed to reciprocate by not attacking the opposition, this failed strategy gave him the initiative. Even worse, the Social Democrats couldn't "reopen hostilities" without seeming unpatriotic and petty. For the Social Democrats, it was a no-win situation.

Not so for the opposition Danish Social Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre), which had previously made working for a stable multi-ethnic Danish society a key plank of their platform, and which included a number of prominent moderate Muslims in their ranks. For the DSLP, the situation was a gift, and their polls reflected this. In late October 2005, they stood at 9.6% voter support, slightly above their latest election result of 9.2%). By mid-November, they had dropped back a bit, but as they began to make their position known, they made great advances. By mid-February 2006, they stood at 12.1% voter support, a respectable advance.

One strong influence on this advance was that of the prominent Muslim member of the DSLP, Naser Khader. In response to the crisis, he had been instrumental in forming a moderate Muslim political network, Demokratiske Muslimer ("Democratic Muslims"), which strove to bring a moderate Muslim viewpoint to the debate, both in Denmark and in the Islamic world.

The DSLP's stance on the crisis was strongly disapproving of the government's handling of the process, but equally critical of the motives behind the protests in the Islamic countries. In a statement issued by the party's parliamentarians on February 22 2006, the criticism rained heavily on both sides:
"Uanset om man er enig eller uenig i de 11 ambassadørers henvendelse til regeringen, så forudsætter demokratiet ytringsfrihed, ligeværd og dialog. Når 11 ambassadører henvender sig og beder om et møde, så er der 11 regeringer bag. Derfor er det i sig selv en diplomatisk provokation at afvise ønsket om møde. Afvisningen bliver også en afvisning af dialog og kommer til at virke som manglende respekt for ligeværd.

"Der er mange dagsordener bag de aktioner, der har udviklet sig som en steppebrand i muslimske lande. Vi støtter regeringens bestræbelser på at få urolighederne stoppet, og vi tager stærkt afstand fra afbrænding af ambassader og trusler mod danskere. Vi tager også afstand fra alle ekstremister, der har bidraget til at få udviklingen ud af kontrol.

"Vi er enige i, at JP har ret til at offentliggøre tegninger og tekst, der provokerer og prøver grænser af. Den ret til ytringsfrihed vil vi forsvare hver dag. Men vi har også selv ret til at have en mening og ytre os om det, vi læser i en avis. Det er vel det, der er meningen med provokationerne i bl.a. JP.

"Muslimers integration i Danmark går ikke gennem 'hån, spot og latterliggørelse', hvilket var en del af JP’s begrundelse for tegningerne. Og vi bryder os bestemt ikke om det had, der vises ved afbrænding af Dannebrog."

("Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the 11 ambassador's letter to the government, democracy presupposes freedom of speech, equality and dialogue. When 11 ambassadors ask for a meeting, they represent 11 governments. It is therefore a diplomatic provocation in itself to refuse the request for a meeting. The refusal also becomes a refusal of dialogue and gives the appearance of a lack of respect for equality.

"There are many agendas behind the events that have developed like a bushfire in the Muslim countries. We support the government's efforts to bring the unrest to an end, and we strongly deplore the burning of embassies and threats towards Danes. We also deplore all extremists who have contributed to bringing the development out of control.

"We agree that JP [= Jyllands-Posten] has the right to publish illustrations and text that provoke and test limits. That right to freedom of speech is something that we will defend every day. But we also have the right to have an opinion about what we read in a newspaper. Isn't that what the intent of the provocations in JP, among others, is?

"The integration of Muslims in Denmark does not proceed through 'scorn, mockery and ridicule', which was part of JP's justification for the drawings. [RP's note: this was, in fact, a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of JP's original article, which merely said that any religion must be willing to put up with these things in a free society] And we definitely do not care for the hatred that is shown by burning the Danish flag."

The DSLP, thus, were profiling themselves as the party of choice for moderates who supported multi-ethnic society, and showing a demonstratively even-handed attitude of disdain towards extremists on both sides. Other parties had a less clear stance.

The voter support of the Danish Liberal Party (Venstre), the party of the prime minister, made no significant advances during the period, nor did they suffer any significant losses. This was probably the net result of losing one set of voters and gaining another (those who didn't care for Fogh Rasmussen's arrogant approach to the crisis, and those who approved of it). On the other hand, the supporting government party, the Conservatives, suffered a slight setback, probably for the same reason as the Social Democrats. The Conservatives had never been politically far from the Social Democrats, since the two parties represented more or less moderate mirror images, on either side of the center. As a result, they had the same weaknesses to the DPP's magnetic effect on the more xenophobic voters.

The most interesting party to study, in the polls, was the tiny Christian Democratic Party (Kristendemokraterne). In a time of crisis coloured by religion, one would think that this party, ever a marginal presence in Danish politics, would profit in the polls. Not so, however. Only minor deviations took place in their poll results throughout the period. It should be remarked, in this context, that the semi-official stance of the Christian Democrats was in support of the Muslim moral outrage at the caricatures, on the grounds that they were offensive to people of faith, whatever the faith. The Christian Democratic view was that the caricatures marked a secular lack of understanding of the very concept of anything being sacred and beyond mockery.

This may be taken as indicating that the focus of the crisis, as least in the minds of the voters of Denmark, was not a religious struggle between Christians and Muslims, but a cultural clash. It was a collision between the cultural background and expectations of the (secularised and Western) nation of Denmark, and the cultural background and expectations of the (religious and Middle Eastern) Muslim communities in Denmark -- a collision that grew to involve other nations as well. Hence, instead of moving their votes to the Christian Democrats, the voters shifted to the DPP, whose xenophobia were more clearly culturally oriented than religious.

(Continued in part 8)

Technorati tags: , , , , , ,