Jyllands-Posten’s acrobatics & Salon piece

Salon has a great piece, aptly entitled “Rotten judgment in the state of Denmark”, by an American-based Danish academic, Jytte Klausen.

Here’s an excerpt:

This all would have been very well if the paper had a long tradition of standing up for fearless artistic expression. But it so happens that three years ago, Jyllands-Posten refused to publish cartoons portraying Jesus, on the grounds that they would offend readers. […]

[…] The paper wanted to instigate trouble, just not the kind of trouble it got. And in this mission it acted in concert with the Danish government. “We have gone to war against the multicultural ideology that says that everything is equally valid,” boasted the minister of cultural affairs, Brian Mikkelsen, in a speech at his party’s annual meeting the week before Rose’s cartoon editorial last fall. Mikkelsen is a 39-year-old political science graduate known for his hankering for the “culture war.” He continued, “The Culture War has now been raging for some years. And I think we can conclude that the first round has been won.” The next front, he said, is the war against the acceptance of Muslims norms and ways of thought. The Danish cultural heritage is a source of strength in an age of globalization and immigration. Cultural restoration, he argued, is the best antidote.


This also in:

The editor of Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose, has penned a predictably disingenuous and myopic defense of his decision to publish the cartoons that unleashed Armageddon.

Am reproducing it below, with a few comments interspersed in [bold brackets].


Why I Published Those Cartoons

Childish. Irresponsible. Hate speech. A provocation just for the sake of provocation. A PR stunt. Critics of 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad I decided to publish in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten have not minced their words. They say that freedom of expression does not imply an endorsement of insulting people’s religious feelings, and besides, they add, the media censor themselves every day. So, please do not teach us a lesson about limitless freedom of speech.

I agree that the freedom to publish things doesn’t mean you publish everything. Jyllands-Posten would not publish pornographic images or graphic details of dead bodies; swear words rarely make it into our pages. So we are not fundamentalists in our support for freedom of expression.

But the cartoon story is different.

Those examples have to do with exercising restraint because of ethical standards and taste; call it editing. By contrast, I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously — and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.
[In a way, I agree.  The intention wasn’t so much to “provoke,” as to put those uppity, non-assimilating Muslim immigrants in their place.

It was an unmistakable message to an already unpopular and misunderstood minority  that there was no room for dialog.  If they don’t like it, they can leave.  That’s the real message here. This was new way of declaring Danmark for danskere! (“Denmark for Danes!”, a xenophobic nationalist slogan I remember seeing written in graffiti in Jutland–“Jylland” in Danish–a decade ago.) ]

At the end of September, a Danish stand-up comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran

[As is to be expected, Mr. Rose is comparing apples to oranges.

He neglects to note that most Danes are far more secular and laid-back about religion than many if not most Muslims  (especially those in the diaspora), which makes such an act, however tasteless, far less likely to actually do emotional harm.

He also neglects to acknowledge, much less factor in the significance of, the different social and psychological dimensions to an act of protest by fellow member of a community concerning his religion or tradition–e.g., a non-Muslim Dane, who is most likely of Christian background, defiling the Bible–compared to an act of protest by an outsider publicly denigrating another group’s religious traditions and background.  If he thinks that Danes, secular leanings or no, would have indifferently shrugged off a Muslim publicly urinating on the Bible, he’s incredibly naive.

And then there’s the fact that a member of a tradition or community has, in a certain sense, more moral authority to publicly criticize and/or mock that tradition, as it is their tradition as well.  They are a part of that discursive community and are just as affected by it as those within the community who may take offense.

Here’s a more familiar example:  As a person who is very conscious of and pained by America’s continuing racial problems,  neglect of the poor, and other social problems in America’s inner cities, I might share some of Bill Cosby’s controversial opinions about the supposed failure of Black parenting today.   (I feel that, as serious as the problems are, he goes overboard, but that’s another discussion.)  But it means something very, very different politically, socially and intellectually if that message comes from me, a white American who has never experienced racism and who is (whether by background or by training) unqualified to lecture African-Americans about racism and their lot in American society.

To make this distinction is not to succumb to political correctness–it’s to acknowledge the social and political reality in a complex, multi-ethnic society.  Cosby may have offended many inside his community, but he is a black American who came out of poverty in the ghetto who is trying, however imperfectly, to provide constructive criticism to other members of his community.  He’s not an outsider who suddenly chooses to create a high-profile, demeaning confrontation that is guaranteed to sow strife and misunderstanding in an already tense environment.]

This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship. Last September, a Danish children’s writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. – Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. European translators of a critical book about Islam also did not want their names to appear on the book cover beside the name of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.

[Ah, the “children’s book” drivel.  He makes it sound like we’re talking about a cute Richard Scarry story about cats driving buses and dogs riding bicycles, even though the author in question, Kåre Bluitgen, is actually infamous among Danish Muslims for bashing Islam and provoking Muslims.  This harmless children’s author once proposed splattering the Quran with menstrual blood–yet another noble defense of free speech!–to teach Muslims some kind of lesson about gender or something.

Those artists were most likely far less fearful of simply drawing the Prophet–Books appear periodically featuring renditions of the Prophet despite the taboo, and without Muslims rising up in a frenzy.  For example, I have a beautiful French coffee table book style biography of the Prophet published in the 1990s sitting on my nightstand that features a contemporary painting of him riding a camel.  It’s a nice cover, actually, and a beautiful book.  To my knowledge, there were no riots in France or elsewhere over this book’s publication.–than of associating themselves with the project of a zealot that is guaranteed to be a deliberately offensive and highly controversial.]

Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London bombings. (A few months earlier, to avoid offending Muslims, a museum in Goteborg, Sweden, had removed a painting with a sexual motif and a quotation from the Koran.)
[Horror of horrors.  The museum decided to err on the side of caution in a time of increasing tensions and escalating violence.  People are killing each other, and those spineless curators are shying away from hard-hitting exhibits designed to push people’s buttons.   What an absolute outrage!

Boy, we Westerners are truly under siege.  The Turks are at the gates of Vienna all over again.

Again, so what?  Such programmatic decisions are made all the time.  Exhibits are postponed or canceled based a variety of factors, one of which is their likelihood of creating needless controversy or untimely headlines.

Mr. Rose also neglects to mention how his newspaper has been known to defend Christian religious sensibilities against secular mockery.  In addition to the much remarked upon case where Jyllands-Posten rejected humorous cartoons of Christ, in the 1980s the newspaper positively thundered against a scandalous mural (which depicted a naked Christ with an erection).  The editor at the time, who’s still actively involved with the paper, demanded the mural’s removal and scornfully mocked objections about free speech.]

Finally, at the end of September, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with a group of imams, one of whom called on the prime minister to interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam.
[Even Danish commentators are admitting that Rasmussen did far too little, far too late.  He was clearly far more concerned about alienating his hard-line right-wing supporters in the Danish People’s Party than in defusing this building crisis.  Until he was forced to.]

So, over two weeks we witnessed a half-dozen cases of self-censorship, pitting freedom of speech against the fear of confronting issues about Islam. This was a legitimate news story to cover, and Jyllands-Posten decided to do it by adopting the well-known journalistic principle: Show, don’t tell. I wrote to members of the association of Danish cartoonists asking them “to draw Muhammad as you see him.” We certainly did not ask them to make fun of the prophet. Twelve out of 25 active members responded.

We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. [As my Danish grandfather used to say, Sludder! (“Rubbish!”) Pure and simple.] And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims. [Ah, that’s so sweet.  Funny, though, how I don’t remember other immigrants being “welcomed” this way…]

The cartoons do not in any way demonize or stereotype Muslims. In fact, they differ from one another both in the way they depict the prophet and in whom they target. One cartoon makes fun of Jyllands-Posten, portraying its cultural editors as a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. Another suggests that the children’s writer who could not find an illustrator for his book went public just to get cheap publicity. A third puts the head of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party in a lineup, as if she is a suspected criminal.
[Sikke noget vrøvl. (“What a bunch of nonsense.”)  See above comments.]

One cartoon — depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban — has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet.
[Here we are being treated to some stunning hermeneutic acrobatics!

The founder of a religion that is constantly associated in the media with suicide bombing and terrorism is depicted with a bomb in his turban and our first reaction is supposed to be some cerebral literary theorgy-style analysis of his turban symbolizing the “outside world”?  That’s a counter-intuitive reading, to put it mildly.

Then there’s the small fact that this cartoon’s isn’t being run in, say, Al-Ahram–an Egyptian newspaper run by and catering to Muslims–but rather Jyllands-Posten, a right-wing non-Muslim publication known for hostility towards Muslims and whose editor Mr. Rose is an avid admirer of Daniel Pipes, perhaps the most infamous Muslim baiter in Western academia.  This isn’t exactly a forum known for balance in its coverage of Islam and Muslims.]

On occasion, Jyllands-Posten has refused to print satirical cartoons of Jesus, but not because it applies a double standard. In fact, the same cartoonist who drew the image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban drew a cartoon with Jesus on the cross having dollar notes in his eyes and another with the star of David attached to a bomb fuse. There were, however, no embassy burnings or death threats when we published those.
[He didn’t mention the time one of his predecessors angrily demanded in an op-ed the removal of a mural of Jesus that he found pornographic, going so far as to even mock those who fretted about free speech.

A symbol of money and business (i.e., dollar signs) versus a sign of death and destruction, and a very, very clear allusion to an exceedingly sensitive and controversial topic of debate in the Middle East (namely suicide bombing and the extent to which it is sanctioned by Islam).  Doesn’t seem like much of a contest.

As for the  Star of David example, though I do not know the specifics of this case, I’m quite confident that the situation was radically different.  Such a artistic choice could well be offensive and calculated slur to  provoke Jews, or it could be a commentary on Israel’s  tumultuous place in the Middle East.  My guess is the latter, as the Danish media aren’t known for known for running anti-Semitic cartoons.  Remember, the Star of David is on the Israeli flag and thus the symbol of Israel.  Any pictorial political commentary on Israel is likely to include it.  If it was a slur against Judaism, though, I’d condemn it just as wholeheartedly.  But I highly doubt this is what happened.]

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? [No, it merely intended to put Muslims in their place.] It certainly didn’t intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. [An interesting move.  He’s implying that Muslims need to “do as the Romans do” and conform to mainstream Danish expectations about the role of religion in one’s personal life.] But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.
[Another fallacious comparison.  Most Muslims aren’t demanding that he toe their line on depicting the Prophet.  They’re asserting their legitimate expectation not to be publicly mocked.  It is people like Flemming who are demanding “submission”.  That was the obvious motivation of JP’s crusade for “free speech”.]

This is exactly why Karl Popper, in his seminal work “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” insisted that one should not be tolerant with the intolerant. [The cheek of some people, invoking Popper to justify  intolerance and an increasinly closed society.  Curious how we don’t see Rose objecting very loudly to those on the Danish right who are being “intolerant”.  Did he speak out when a prominent Danish far-right leader said that Danish converts to Islam should be deported and that conversion to Islam is a sign of mental illness?] Nowhere do so many religions coexist peacefully as in a democracy where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. In Saudi Arabia, you can get arrested for wearing a cross or having a Bible in your suitcase, while Muslims in secular Denmark can have their own mosques, cemeteries, schools, TV and radio stations.  [Yes, in spite of people like Rose.]

I acknowledge that some people have been offended by the publication of the cartoons, and Jyllands-Posten has apologized for that. But we cannot apologize for our right to publish material, even offensive material. [You should apologize for being selective in whom you choose to offend in the name of free speech, though.] You cannot edit a newspaper if you are paralyzed by worries about every possible insult. [No, you can’t, but that means you have to accept the consequences of your actions when you alienate major segments of your audience.]

I am offended by things in the paper every day: transcripts of speeches by Osama bin Laden, photos from Abu Ghraib, people insisting that Israel should be erased from the face of the Earth, people saying the Holocaust never happened. [With these sorts of confrontations, such extremes aren’t all that surprising, are they?  Rose sure isn’t doing his part to reduce tensions.] But that does not mean that I would refrain from printing them as long as they fell within the limits of the law and of the newspaper’s ethical code. That other editors would make different choices is the essence of pluralism.

As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak. The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic. [More irrelevant guff.  As I’ve said before, let me know when JP runs anything remotely comparable about Christianity or Judaism.]

The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.

Since the Sept. 30 publication of the cartoons, we have had a constructive debate in Denmark and Europe about freedom of expression, freedom of religion and respect for immigrants and people’s beliefs. Never before have so many Danish Muslims participated in a public dialog — in town hall meetings, letters to editors, opinion columns and debates on radio and TV. We have had no anti-Muslim riots, no Muslims fleeing the country and no Muslims committing violence.  [No, but you’ve had a steady stream of polarizing invective in the Danish public square against Islam and Muslims, a phenomenon that your cartoons were guaranteed to exacerbate.] The radical imams who misinformed their counterparts in the Middle East about the situation for Muslims in Denmark have been marginalized. [Misinformed? Exaggerated in some cases, yes, but the basic message was correct.  People like Rose chose to humiliate Danish Muslims and it blew up in their faces.] They no longer speak for the Muslim community in Denmark because moderate Muslims have had the courage to speak out against them.  [I don’t know much about this new “Moderate Muslim” group, but I worry it’s a bunch of secularized intellectuals who out of touch with the Muslim community and therefore irrelevant.  Do I smell a Scandinavian “PMU” in the oven?]

In January, Jyllands-Posten ran three full pages of interviews and photos of moderate Muslims saying no to being represented by the imams. They insist that their faith is compatible with a modern secular democracy. A network of moderate Muslims committed to the constitution has been established, and the anti-immigration People’s Party called on its members to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, i.e. between Muslims propagating sharia law and Muslims accepting the rule of secular law. [In other words, the bigots have finally found some “negros” they like.  Their seal of approval on these new Muslim leaders hardly strikes me as a  good sign.] The Muslim face of Denmark has changed, and it is becoming clear that this is not a debate between “them” and “us,” but between those committed to democracy in Denmark and those who are not [willing to abandon their beliefs and religious practices in order to assimilate into an increasingly intolerant “secular” (read: open to Christianity and Judaism only) society].

This is the sort of debate that Jyllands-Posten had hoped to generate when it chose to test the limits of self-censorship by calling on cartoonists to challenge a Muslim taboo. Did we achieve our purpose? Yes and no. Some of the spirited defenses of our freedom of expression have been inspiring. But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten’s headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.  [In other words, we need to declare war for the sake of peace.  Such sublimely Orwellian logic.]

Still, I think the cartoons now have a place in two separate narratives, one in Europe and one in the Middle East. In the words of the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the integration of Muslims into European societies has been sped up by 300 years due to the cartoons; perhaps we do not need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe. The narrative in the Middle East is more complex, but that has very little to do with the cartoons.
[This trite provocateur speaks for a handful of marginal secularized intellectuals and has about as much impact on or insight into the Muslim community as Bozo the Clown.  Her bitter and tendentious analysis is laughably irrelevant.

And she is either blissfully uninformed on or utterly indifferent to the impact of this tragic conflict on the cause of inter-communal harmony in Europe, as this has only polarized the debate even further. And it has strengthened hardliners in both sides of the divide.

But she wants more more more.  Like some empty-headed skinhead, she seems to be eagerly awaiting the the Great Race War where the civilized West finally puts these uppity brown people in their place.  Someone should inform her how well her xenophobic allies on the Right will treat her when that glorious day of Aryan glory restored arrives.

Perhaps she has a point, though.  It’s often been noted how the Enlightenment paved the way for  the grossest forms of intolerance in the name of Rationality and Freedom in the 20th century.  For example, it’s been argued that there could have been no Holocaust without the Enlightenment. To the extent these fateful cartoons do move us towards the dawn of some new era, I suspect rather than moving 300 years forward we’ve moved 7 decades back,  much closer to a Kristallnacht against the new “Jews” of Europe.]

Update (2006-02-22):
I’ve provided more information in a subsequent post on the incongruously polemical and reactionary politics (at least for an author of children’s books) of Kaare Bluitgen, including a citation for the infamous “menstrual blood” quote.

See also my earlier “Whose fault is the Danish boycott?” which explains why I think the lion’s share of guilt for this disaster for Danes and Muslims alike lies on the shoulders of Jyllands-Posten and the Danish far right.

Update (2006-02-24): Fixed my incorrect translation of the verb at stænke in Bluitgen’s famous quote as “to smear”.  Actually, it means “to splash” or “to splatter”.

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