Whose fault is the Danish boycott?

When I look at analysis of the Danish cartoon controversy, I’m struck by how so many otherwise well informed and intelligent commentators simply don’t get what’s really going on.   The basic reasons for and issues involved in this  crisis are pretty easy to grasp, but conspicuously absent from most discussions of this saga.   Instead, one finds ethereal discursions on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, ideals that actually have precious little to do with this lamentable turn of events, as his is about politics and prejudices, not constitutional rights.

Mona Eltahawy writes in MuslimWakeUp.com:

Can we finally admit that Muslims have blown out of all proportion their outrage over 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper last September?

Umm, no we can’t.  At least not in the way you mean.

The author, like so many other liberal Muslim commentators at the moment–it seems everyone’s working overtime to prove to non-Muslims how secular and progressive they are by defending the Jyllands-Posten outrageous and irresponsible attacks on the Prophet Muhammad–overlooks  basic political and cultural context to those cartoons, and ignores the significance of the openly contempuous way this supposedly high minded defense of freedom of speech was made.

In recent years, Denmark has been lurching rightward and turning increasingly hostile to Islam and Muslims (who now make up about 4% of the population).  It is becoming distressingly commonplace to see headlines about prominent Danish figures openly expressing prejudice against Islam, and mainstream parties are working increasingly closely with hardline nationalist (and, of course, Muslim-baiting) parties that were once rightly viewed as beyond the pale.  It’s gotten so bad in Denmark–and I’m sorry to say so as someone whose maternal side of the family is there and who has long taken pride in Denmark’s once enlightened policies–that a prominent pundit in neighboring Sweden declared Denmark the most xenophobic country in Europe.  By all accounts, inter-communal relations in Denmark (which for the most part are Muslim/non-Muslim relations) are becoming worryingly strained and beset with prejudice and misunderstandings.  This is the essential political and social backdrop to Jyllands-Posten’s attacks on the Prophet, and it missing from the Muslim WakeUp piece and so many other discussions.

Again, there’s also the way this so-called defense of free speech was launched by those idealists at Jyllands-Posten.  They didn’t simply exercise their right to ignore the traditional Islamic discomfort with visual portrayals of the Prophet, which is not universally shared by Muslims–as any lover of Persian art knows, there are many classics of Islamic art which also completely ignore this taboo; a few mundane sketches of the Prophet by aren’t going to roil the Ummah–with the kinds of caricatures one expects of revered political and religious figures.  Instead, they chose to slander him, portraying him as a bloodthirsty killer and misogynist.   They really went for the jugular.

Not so long ago during the 1980s, many American Christians were up in arms for much, much less in Martin Scorcese’s infinitely more respectful rendering of a religious icon in “The Last Temptation of Christ”.

There’s another fundamental weakness to all this apologia.  It rests on a demonstrably false assumption that other religions are routinely treated in this manner.  For all this, if you’ll forgive the ironic choice of words, pious talk by the secular intelligentsia about how other religions are supposedly subjected to the same harsh treatment that Islam and Muslims are now suffering in the public square, you’ll be hard pressed to think of many comparable examples.

For example, how many times have you seen Jesus Christ portrayed in a deliberately offensive and controversial manner in a Western publication that is read by millions?  How many times have you seen a portrait of Christ that is remotely uncomplimentary?  The closest analogy I can think of to this controversy in recent American history is the furor over the  “Piss Christ” art exhibit (which, while admittedly disgusting and offensive, pales by comparison to the bile of Jyllands-Posten’s “defense” of free speech)?  Did the New York Times include an insert of photos of a crucifix in urine?  Was it the exhibit televised, or even dispassionately debate, on ABC?  Has it since been repeatedly republished by other media outlets in a show of solidarity for the artist’s freedom of speech?

How about Buddha?  Moses?  Abraham?  Can’t recall  any public sniping at them in the mainstream media?  Okay, how about lesser known religious figures, like Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism), Joseph Smith (Mormonism), or Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)?  Still no potshots?  Hmm, how about our controversial contemporary and founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard ?

Really, try to find deliberate, open assaults on these revered figures that were dignified with publication by major media outlets.  Find a case where a person revered as a spiritual guide by many millions of people is intentionally and openly pilloried in a major newspaper.

You won’t succeed.  My guess is that you’ll struggle to even find a case of such an icon being affectionately parrodied with a fake nose and glasses, so reverent is mainstream media coverage of religious figures.

There’s a reason for this double standard (and it certainly is one).  As Edward Said pointed out long ago, Islam and Muslims are the perennial exceptions to the rules of consistency, objectivity and scholarly rigor in contemporary Western policy debates.  The reasons are complex, but the pattern is unmistakable and recurring.  A newspaper can crudely and deliberately malign the Prophet Muhammad at a time when Muslims are increasingly being mocked and discriminated against throughout the West–and in a manner guaranteed to stoke the flames of prejudice and hatred, to boot–and we’re all supposed to stand by it in the name of freedom of religion?  Give me a break.  Get back to me when Jyllands-Posten
runs comparably offensive cartoons about Jews, Christians or even Rastafarians.  Then I’ll understand the “bigger picture” here.

Eltahawy observes:

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was right not to intervene, insisting the government has no say over media – the argument used by Arab leaders when they are asked about anti-Semitism in their media, by the way. But in a New Year’s speech, Rasmussen condemned “any expression, action or indication that attempts to demonize groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background.”

To portray this as a simple choice between state intervention or freedom of speech is to miss the whole point, I’m afraid.

It’s also an example, in my opinion, of how blind liberal Muslim commentators can be to the dynamics of power in Muslim/non-Muslim relations today.  Like a white  intellectual discussing American race  problems in abstract categories of right and wrong (“Black racism is just as wrong as white racism!”), such cerebral and idealistic analysis overlooks the messy ethical nuances and pyschological twists introduced by great disparities of power and the impact of long, depressing histories of discrimination and marginalization.  It is always tempting to discuss such thorny problems in a historical vacuum–in fact, this is the preferred tactic of Muslim bashers, who prefer to cast Muslims as savage natives inexplicably prone to irrational behavior and random acts of violence–but this condemns the analysis to irrelevance in the real world. But that’s another discussion.

The problem was not Prime Minister Rasmussen’s stance against censorship–a policy I support and doubt many would find this policy terribly shocking–but his unwillingness to openly disavow this outburst of rank prejudice and xenophobia by a major Danish publication.  His refusal to meet with the host of ambassadors from Muslims states worsened the situation greatly, sending the message that the Danish government was utterly indifferent, if not hostile, to the concerns of Muslims around the world.  In the process, Rasmussen gave Muslim hardliners and political opportunists the perfect pretext for stirring up conflict.

An aside:  This is where I have issues with the shows of solidarity by various other European media in republishing those cartoons recently.  Not only are they allowing Jyllands-Posten to duck  responsibility for sparking this crisis–its actions displayed grievously poor judgment, if not outright bigotry– in running those cartoons, but these other European media are creating the impression in the Muslim world that, you guessed it, Europe is united in supporting  attacks on Islam and spitting on Muslim sensibilities.  It is doing so at the very same time that it’s incessantly preaching to Muslims about religious extremism, anti-Semitism and other unsightly social phenomen in Muslim societies.  Muslims will understandably wonder at their silence on open prejudice and Islamophobia.

I understand the desire to support freedom of speech, but I’m not sure this was a particularly constructive move  and, moreover, I doubt it’ll make all that much of a difference for Denmark in the long run, anyway.  Unforunately, negative impressions born of terrible press like this is hard to undo.  This damage can only be done through diplomacy that demonstrates that this has been a colossal misunderstanding.  I don’ t think the spectacle of European media rallying to not only implicitly endorse but to greatly increase the distribution of the scurrilous drawings that caused the rift in the first place will help much.  Jyllands-Posten’s tawdry case is unworthy of this grand and politically risky gesture.

Also, it must be noted that this cause is being exploited by Middle Eastern governments to burnish their often dubious credentials of respect for religious tradition.  As one Danish commentator Rune Engelbreth Larsen noted , Jyllands-Posten should rather have exercised its vaunted right to freedom of expression not to denigrate Islam, but to mock these dictatorial and hypocritical regimes, which are now cynically exploiting this crisis for domestic political consumption.  But that fact that doesn’t change anything.  Two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right.

Part of leadership is distancing yourself and your government from unhealthy trends in your society, even if only rhetorically–Had those cartoons been of Ariel Sharon with horns on his head you and matzoh dripping with Gentile blood, you can be sure he would have said something for the record, and rightly so.–and leaders speak out all the time on far less weighty matters.  Leaders also meet constantly with representatives of important constituencies (and, as the calamitous impact of this brewing boycott has shown, those ambassadors definitely represented an important constituency). Unfortunately, the government under Rasmussen sent a clear political message to Danish Muslims and Muslims around the world by refusing to take these concerns  seriously until it was far too late.

The other thing that many observers fail to understand is that this is basically a case where hardliners lashed out, as they periodically do, at an already scapegoated and vulnerable minority and, for a change, found themselves on the receiving end.    It’s not unlike a bully who makes a habit of picking on the smallest kid in the schoolyard finding himself in hot water when he happens to pick a child who unbeknownst to him enjoys a large family.  Zealots picked a fight that they thought was safe and now we’re supposed to fret when they, in a stroke of poetic justice, suddenly find themselves hugely outnumbered?

I’m very saddened by this surreal crisis, which is as unnecessary as it is unfortunate, but we need to think about who started it.  It is exceedingly tragic that Danes around the world and the Danish economy are being caught in the crossfire and it is my fervid hope is that this bizarre episode will be defused quickly, but Danes need to understand how this came about. Is it fair that Denmark should be in this pickle for the actions of a few?  (A question that has a familiar ring to Muslims.)  Certainly not.  But neither is it fair that the founder of Islam should be singled out for such singular abuse, nor that such outbursts of contempt for Muslims and Islam should be increasingly commonplace in Danish politics. It’s a sure-fire recipe for confrontation.

It’s also my hope that Denmark, whose political climate has really taken a nasty, xenophobic turn in recent years vis-a-vis its Muslim minority, learns something from it.  As they quite understandably rail against Denmark’s suddenly precarious situation–Danish business leaders are in a panic at the prospect of a boycott, security officials are increasingly worried about the risk of terrorist attacks in retaliation, and there are cases of hackers indiscriminately attacking websites in Danish–I think rank and file Danes ought to stop in the midst of all this mayhem and ask themselves, “Have I played a role in bringing this confrontation about?  Do I tacitly support the denigration and scapegoating of immigrants?  Did I condone Jyllands-Posten’s entirely unnecessary expression of contempt for Muslims and their beliefs?”  If you did, I submit with all due respect you’re not a completely innocent bystander after all.  Some would argue that the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.  Perhaps, you need to reexamine your attitudes towards your Muslim neighbors to ensure that you’re not part of the problem that landed Denmark in this bizarre mess.

Finally, regardless of what side we come down on, let’s get something straight:  We all have a right to boycott the products of those who we feel
insult us.  This insight applies especially to all these pie-in-the-sky libertarians who  promote the Free Market as the solution to all the world’s problems.   If that describes you, realize that boycotts are your omniscent Invisible Hand at work.  A boycott is not extremism or terrorism. (I’m reminded of all the claptrap by pro-Israeli apologists in the American media in the past about the great “injustice” and “extremism” of the old Arab boycott against Israel, as if Israel had a right to Arab money while it built settlements on Palestinian land and regularly ignored Palestinian human rights.)  In all but the most unusual of circumstances, boycotts are a peaceful and legitimate protest. In fact, they are often the only effective means of protest left to the masses in our day of globalization, unresponsive governments, unrestrained multi-national corporations, and co-opted media.   It’s often the only way the little guy can be heard (just ask Rosa Parks).

The bottom line is this:  Shortsighted leadership by an administration beholden to hardliners let what should have been a minor local hiccup in
inter-communal relations mushroom into an international, geopolitical cause celebre and icon of Muslim frustrations.  Prime Minister Rasmussen’s ham-handed response has made Denmark, no doubt unfairly, into the latest poster child for the Clash of Civilizations.  Frankly, it should come as no surprise that a boycott should be in the works, tragic though its consequences for normal Danes may be.

Muslims didn’t start this fight–obnoxious hardliners on the other side did.  Hopefully these unsavory elements in Denmark (and bigots and xenophobes everywhere) will remember this lesson next time they’re tempted to score cheap points at the expense of a small, embattled community.  It’s a small, interconnected world.  Like in kindergarten, you never know when your bullying might backfire on you.

Update (2006-02-07): See this subsequent post for overwhelming evidence of Jyllands-Posten’s hypocrisy.

Also, click here if you want to see all the posts on the topic of the Danish cartoons on a single long page.