The other night I attended a lecture on videogame localization that centered on the issues of balancing content against the potential to violate cultural sensitivities, either knowingly or otherwise. Predictably, the recent uproar over the Danish Mohammed cartoons figured centrally in the speaker's presentation. Ever since we got back from Denmark, people have been asking about this issue, and while I don't claim to have a monopoly of perspective on it, I do think that some crucial issues have tended to be left out of most responses to protest in the Arab world.
What bothers me most is how easily the original intent of the cartoons disappeared in the reaction by most Western pundits, who on both sides of the political divide have largely accepted this as an issue of freedom of speech and defended the cartoonists' right to express themselves. Jyllands-Posten, the original publisher of the cartoons, is the highest circulation newspaper in Denmark, but is specifically a regional newspaper that caters specifically to the peninsula of Jutland and in global terms really amounts to a small local newspaper. Traditionally, this area has been Denmark's agricultural center, balanced against the industrial urbanity of Copenhagen clustered on the far corner of the island of Sjaelland. Over the past few decades, in a manner that mirrors the Republican Party's take over of the rural Midwest and South in the United States, that region and class of people have shifted to the right and backed parties like the moderate conservative Venstre
(the current Prime Minister's party) and more alarmingly, the extreme right, anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti
(Danish People's Party). Jyllands-Posten has increasingly embraced a moderate to hard conservative take on immigration that to some degree reflects the rural class. However, most immigrants, particularly those relocating for economic and not political reasons, have concentrated in poor neighborhoods in Copenhagen and the larger cities. The immigrant population in the rural areas of Denmark remains relatively small and tends toward political refugee populations.
When Jyllands-Posten originally conceived of printing a series of cartoon depictions of Mohammed, it was in reaction to a Danish biographer's claim that he had difficulty getting Danish illustrators to depict the prophet because of fear of violating the Islamic ban on such depictions and angering the Muslim population. Jyllands-Posten's editor then commissioned the series, knowing full well that it would anger Muslims. Indeed, I would suggest that this was the original intent of the series: to flaunt a religious ban on such depictions and provoke a controversy by offending the Danish Muslim population. Only later did the editor frame this an issue of free speech. Knowingly provoking and offending a national ethnic population is foolish and just plain rude. Doing so and then hiding behind freedom of speech is cowardice. Jyllands-Posten knew full well what it was doing.
Indeed, in my opinion, this isn't even an issue of free speech. The original complaint among the Muslim community, as voiced by a council of Danish imams, centered on a desire for an apology, not censorship, as suggested by this quote from Imam Makkari, the leader of the delegation that brought this issue to the Middle East:Meanwhile, Imam Akkari, who led the delegation that sought help from the Arab World in dealing with prejudices against Denmark's Muslim community, said it wasn't his intention to stymie the right of free speech to the country's journalists.
"Our intention was never to introduce censorship or to ban criticism of issues related to religion," Akkari emphasized. In recent years though, he points out, the Danish media focused an inordinate amount of attention on Muslim communities. "But now we are worried that the problem is escalating and that some people might get the wrong idea," he said. Akkari strongly condemned the bomb threat levelled against Jyllands-Posten and is quick to emphasize that he is dedicated to "the political path of discussion." (Spiegel Online)
Even at the point that a council of Arab ambassadors approached Ander Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, they only asked him to distance himself from the cartoons, not to censor them. Only later, after Rasmussen initially refused to meet with the ambassadors by stating it was an issue of free speech and had nothing to do with him, did a contingent of imams from the Islamic Center in Denmark
take the issue to newspapers and embassies in the Middle East, at which point censorship entered into the conversation, fueled by mass, violent demonstrations at which point the issue appeared on the global news radar. It warrants pointing out that this occurred two months after the initial publication of the cartoons, which first saw print in September, 2005. (Click here for a complete timeline of events.
But even if the ambassadors and imams had tried to make this an issue of censorship from the beginning, it's still not an issue of free speech in my opinion, because they have no means of censorship over Jyllands-Posten. They can ask for an apology, boycott the paper, even seek political redress, all of which they did, but all of these measures are entirely within their rights, just as it was within the rights of the Jyllands-Posten to publish the cartoons in the first place. Refusing to read something you find offensive and calling on the newspaper for its retraction isn't censorship, it's an expression of political rights, just as is asking your government to distance itself from or condemn the actions. Even if Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Danish government had complied with the ambassadors' request, had distanced themselves from or even apologized for actions not their own and condemned Jyllands-Posten for its actions, this still
isn't censorship. It becomes a matter of censorship only at the moment when a governing body intervenes to exert control over the means of expression. Jyllands-Posten can continue to print whatever it likes regardless of the condemnations of the imams, the Danish government, or me for that matter.
The reality of this situation is that Denmark and the rest of Europe are facing an identity crisis of unparalleled proportions. The Muslims who came to these areas starting in the 60s as "guest workers," are generally among the poorest and least educated (in the Western sense) people in the world, arriving from regions and countries with no tradition of democracy and no experience of voicing their concerns outside of mass, often violent, protest. The challenge facing most European nations is how to educate these populations on the central ideologies of their culture in a way that remains convincing enough to seem a preferable way of life. Much of the battle is generational; the second and third generations of immigrant children, largely products of the European education system, are much less likely to embrace radical, anti-Western variants of Islam as a long-term life choice. So given this equation, what the Jyllands-Posten controversy amounts to is a leading national newspaper saying to an ethnic population in the midst of integration: "See how superior our ideology is! We have the right to single out and insult your culture and religion. Why can't you ingrates get on board with that?" How persuasive is that in the ongoing struggle to educate and integrate immigrant populations?
The answer, obviously, is not very, and my opinion is that Jyllands-Posten knew it. As seen in the reaction by a percentage of Danes, reflected in the same Spiegel article, many Europeans are ready for the whole issue to disappear via the large-scale deportation of Islamic populations. "If you don't like it here, leave," has become a popular reaction to any complaint by immigrants (and is part of the reason why I can't see myself living there for the rest of my life). Dansk Folkeparti, in the recent Copenhagen mayoral elections, released a policy statement which read in part that "Denmark has never been a multicultural society, and never will be," which for them is a relatively mild bit of political rhetoric. I'll leave the task of disproving this ludicrous though common claim for another day. But whatever the political hype, this is obviously not a realistic reaction. The global dispersement of populations, be they national, ethnic, religious, or otherwise, has only ever increased in the 20th and 21st century. Multiculturalism is more than the battle-cry of liberal eggheads. It's a simple matter of reality: you can't turn back the spread of people and their cultures in the modern age. The real issue is how to deal with these new populations. Containining them, stifling them, or offending them is not a realistic longterm strategy, as the recent riots among Muslim populations in Paris and elsewhere so clearly indicates.
I am not condoning the actions in the Middle East. Burning embassies, rioting, and making death threats are intolerable acts and should be condemned by the Western world via the established network of foreign relations. I'm not trying to champion or idealize "the poor, benighted souls of the Middle East" at all costs and despite their actions. Indeed, I think this whole crisis is further evidence of a willingness among certain Middle Eastern populations to seize on any
reason to assail the West, regardless of reason or outcome, as evidenced by the burning of American flags and businesses despite our having nothing to do with the crisis. But the distinction that I think remains to be made by most Western commentators is between reactions by Muslims living in Europe and reactions by Muslims in the Middle East. Only after Jyllands-Posten refused to apologize and Anders Fogh Rasmussen washed his hands of the issue did the issue spread to the Middle East, fueled by the reprinting of the cartoons in other European newspapers. This is a classic example of escalation due to poor crisis management spurred by an unwillingness to embrace simple common courtesy and mutual respect when living in a multicultural society.
Just because Jyllands-Posten had the right to do what they did doesn't make it right, admirable, or excusable.
(Note, Feb. 18, '06: prompted by a e-mail exchange with a close friend and fellow scholar of Danish culture, I have made a few corrections to my original post regarding the specific chain of events from first publication. See this Wikipedia link
for more information. I think it makes a clear case that a reasonable amount of forbearance was shown initially by the Danish Islamic community. This is a crisis that has unfolded over a long time, has many facets, and many failed opportunities on all sides to avert catastrophe. On a personal note, I lived exactly one block away from the headquarters of Islamic Center in Denmark.)