Rune Engelbreth Larsen
The Cartoon Crisis and Danish Islamophobia

It is common knowledge that Western societies in the last decade unfortunately have been experiencing a growth in anti-Islamic movements and outspoken islamphobia. However, this is undoubtedly worse in Denmark than in other Western societies.

Although Islam is by far the second largest religion in Denmark, islamophobic propaganda has relegated Islam to the shadows in provisional mosques in backyards and basements, and as a consequence Denmark is the only country in Western Europe without a major mosque that is actually build for this purpose.

Nationalists from The Danish People's Party has been dominating the political agenda for almost a decade with outspoken hostility towards Muslims. They openly compare Islam to Nazism and claim Islamic values to be inferior and barbaric. Today such views are regularly expressed by elected politicians with considerable influence and power, and The Danish People's Party is the most important political ally to the Danish government.

In other words - it was no coincidence, when a number of degrading Muhammad cartoons was published exactly in Denmark in September 2005.

The infamous cartoons were only one of the most recent examples of widespread islamophobia, but although this incident received worldwide attention, most people are still unaware of how the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen prevented a diplomatic solution of the crisis and thereby allowed islamophobia to remain a mainstream phenomenon.

Since October 12, 2005, where eleven Muslim ambassadors wrote a common letter and asked the Danish Prime Minister for a meeting about islamophobic tendencies in Danish society, he has constantly been misrepresenting their intentions when speaking to the Danish public. The Prime Minister has distorted and omitted critical phrases and warnings in their letter, simultaneously ignoring the ambassadors' own explanations of its contents.

First and foremost, the ambassadors criticised what they perceive as an "ongoing smear campaign" against Islam, and apart from the Muhammad cartoons they mentioned three other "recent examples" of this: 1) Racist articles that compared Muslims to "cancer" found on the website of Louise Frevert, who is a member of Danish Parliament, 2) Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen's speech at the annual meeting of the Conservative party, where he called for a new cultural struggle against "medieval Muslim culture" in alleged Muslim parallel societies, and 3) a xenophobic local radio station, which in the summer of 2005 called upon Danes to "kill a significant part of the country's Muslim immigrants".

Nevertheless, Anders Fogh Rasmussen declined to meet the ambassadors and neither in his written response nor in public did he make any reference whatsoever to their concerns.

In large sections of the press as well as in political comments, the ambassadors were almost seen as enemies or voices from the Dark Ages, who had attacked Danish freedom of speech, in spite of the ambassadors' repeated assurances to the contrary.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen said of the ambassadors' criticism that "it is so patently obvious what kind of principles the Danish democracy is built upon, that there can be no reason to book a meeting to discuss it" (Oct. 25 2005).

It was, however, not these principles the ambassadors had requested a meeting to discuss. But still Anders Fogh Rasmussen asserts that the ambassadors' intentions in this matter are in conflict with the very foundations of Danish democracy.

Egypt's ambassador repeatedly denied having asked for anything other than a moral condemnation of hurtful or demeaning utterances, and as the Turkish ambassador likewise pointed out: "We aren't stupid, and we know the Prime Minister has no authority to intervene. Our intention was to ask him to improve the situation in this country, for what happened was very serious and very provocative. This is not about closing any newspapers, but about stating your points of view and call for a dialogue." (Oct. 28 2005).

Even after several ambassadors' direct rejections of the Prime Ministers' biased interpretation of their letter, he kept pretending nothing had happened and even intensified his hostility. In response to the ambassadors' allegations that the cartoons represent an attack on Muslims, he declared: "In my opinion, this reveals an abysmal ignorance of the principles of a true democracy as well as a complete failure to understand that in a free democracy, the government neither can, must or should interfere with the press." (Oct. 30 2005).

In other words, Anders Fogh Rasmussen chooses to address eleven ambassadors as if they were uneducated ignorants who simply do not understand anything about Danish society - and completely fails to comment on the fact that they have only asked him to take a moral position on the cartoons.

The government's continued insistence upon this erroneous interpretation in several months, after the ambassadors' explanations of the purpose of their letter, reveals that the Prime Minister and other key-politicians were deliberately misrepresenting the ambassador's intentions.

A sober assessment of the situation would suggest a simple diplomatic solution, where the Prime Minister would express his disapproval of the view of Islam expressed by the cartoons. End of story. But surprisingly this solution is continually refused, month after month.

The Prime Minister even asks the Muslims to react to the cartoons in the very manner he himself denied: "The Danish tradition is to summon a meeting, where you can sit and talk peacefully with each other. Sometimes you disagree strongly even when the meeting's over, and sometimes you reach an understanding for each others' motives. That's the Danish model. That's what we call conversation democracy." (Jyllands-Posten, 30.10.2005).

Apparently, 'conversation democracy' does not apply to Muslim ambassadors.

It was Danish islamophobia that initiated the crisis with the provocative Muhammed-cartoons. Unacceptable death-threats and violent attacks on Danish embassies followed four months later, but it was still the Prime Minister's manipulative omissions and distortions throughout the previous months of intense conflict that resulted in the greatest international crisis in Danish post-war history.

This whole conflict has only benefited the extremists, who wish for a clash of civilizations in stead of a respectful co-existence based on dialogue and mutual understanding. The Danish People's Party is today the third largest political party in Denmark, and during the crisis opinion polls almost made it the second largest.

The spread of islamophobia is unquestionably at the core of their policy, and the party is more or less depicting Islam as an apocalyptic threat. Muslim's in Denmark are only waiting to outnumber everybody else, so they can eliminate or remove all non-Muslims, as a member of the European Parliament from Danish People's Party has actually stated. And this is not an isolated statement: Islam has been called "the ideology of Evil", "a fascist ideology", a "plague", a "terror-organization", and has been described as "totally inhumane" and as an "all-consuming hatred". The Quran has been classified as "religious nazism" and Mosques has been described as "monstrosities" - all by leading politicians from The Danish People's Party.

How can we oppose islamophobia of this kind, when the Danish Prime Minister repeatedly and categorically has denied the very existence of any anti-Islamic extremism in the political debate, in spite of such obvious propaganda?

I see no other way than the continued effort to keep documenting and criticizing this dangerous development - and spreading this documentation to the international media and human rights movements. The only way to put a pressure on Danish politicians and open the eyes of larger parts of the public is by increased international awareness of the fact, that Denmark is not merely witnessing marginalized examples of rightwing-rhetoric, that can be found in all Western societies, but rather an extraordinary accept of islamophobic propaganda.

Therefore I hope that today we take a small step in direction of an increased international awareness of these matters, that can help us eliminate the foundation of islamophopbia and discrimination in Danish society.

May, 2006

This text was given as a speech at the conference on Islamophobia in Copenhagen May 13th 2006 and includes a brief summary of another article, that analyzes how the (lack of) Danish diplomacy was the crucial factor in escalating the Crisis: The cartoon crisis - how and why it all began in Denmark.