Rune Engelbreth Larsen
Jens-André P. Herbener
Rune Engelbreth Larsen
Since October 12, 2005, where eleven Muslim ambassadors asked the Prime Minister for a meeting in the aftermath of - among other things - Jyllands-Posten's now-infamous Muhammad cartoons, he has been misrepresenting their intentions when speaking to the Danish press. He has distorted and omitted critical phrases and warnings in their letter, simultaneously ignoring the ambassadors' own explanations of its contents, even though they have repeatedly emphasised, starting immediately after receiving his response to their letter, that they have neither expressed any desire for control of the press nor for any kind of encroachment upon freedom of speech.
The ambassadors' letter consists of four main points: 1) a criticism of the "very discriminatory tendency" and "casting aspersions on Islam as a religion" they perceive in Denmark, 2) a warning against the possible escalation of the crisis, 3) an appeal to the Prime Minister to "take all those responsible to task" under the law of the land, and 4) a request for a meeting with the Prime Minister.
First and foremost, the ambassadors criticise what they perceive as an "ongoing smear campaign" against Islam, and apart from the Muhammad cartoons they mention several other "recent examples" of this: Racist articles found on member of the Danish Parliament Louise Frevert's web site, Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen's speech at the annual meeting of the Conservative party, where he among other things called for a new cultural struggle against "medieval Muslim culture" in alleged Muslim parallel societies, and 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".
In the letter, great emphasis is placed on the serious consequences, which might ensue: "We must emphasise that this could also cause reactions in Muslim countries and among Muslim communities in Europe."
Nevertheless, Anders Fogh Rasmussen declines to meet the ambassadors and instead chooses to explain, in a letter dated October 22, that freedom of speech is "the very foundation of Danish society".
Neither in his written response nor in public does he make any reference to the rest of their complaints; he thus fails to comment even once upon any of the specific examples of the "very discriminatory tendency" given by the ambassadors.
In large sections of the press as well as in political comments, the contents of the ambassador's letter was quickly reduced to an example of ignorance of Democratic society or even an attack on freedom of speech, in spite of the ambassadors' repeated assurances to the contrary.
The Palestinian representative Maie Sarraf emphasises that the purpose of the letter never was for the government to control the press: "We are not asking Anders Fogh Rasmussen to control the Danish media, but even Western politicians have the option to guide the media in certain ways, and that is what we ask him to do." (October 22, 2005).
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said of the ambassadors' criticism that "a prime minister cannot intervene and control the press" (October 25, 2005), and 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" (October 25, 2005).
It was, however, not these principles the ambassadors had requested a meeting to discuss. Nevertheless, Anders Fogh Rasmussen asserts that the ambassadors' intentions in this matter are in conflict with the very foundations of Danish democracy.
Egypt's ambassador Mona Omar Attiah repeatedly denies having asked for anything other than a moral condemnation of hurtful or demeaning utterances: "It is a big misunderstanding when people think that we have asked the prime minister to curb freedom of speech. We have wished him to call for a responsible and respectful use of freedom of speech. And we have wanted him to take a moral position by declaring that Danish society is striving for the inclusion, not the demeaning, of Islam." (October 27,.2005).
As Fügen Ok, ambassador for Turkey, points 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." (October 28, 2005).
Even after the ambassadors' direct rejection of the Prime Ministers' biased interpretation of their letter, he continues pretending nothing has happened and even intensifies his hostility in a way which can hardly be characterised as anything but "arrogant". In response to the ambassadors' criticism and allegations that the Muhammad cartoons represent an attack on Muslims and Islam in a bigoted Denmark, he declares: "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." (October 30, 2005).
In other words, Anders Fogh Rasmussen chooses to address eleven ambassadors as if they simply do not understand what a democracy is - and completely fails to comment on the fact that they have only asked him to take a moral position on the cartoons. Afterwards, Minister of the Church Bertel Haarder reduces the whole affair to a demand for "censorship" (30.10.2005). Troels Lund Poulsen, Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Prime Minister's party Venstre states that there is no reason to "enter a dialogue with persons who want to short-circuit the democratic process" (December 20, 2005).
The Prime Minister does thus not limit himself to refuse to meet the ambassadors; he lectures them in a patronising tone, and the request for a dialogue has suddenly become an attempt to "short-circuit" Danish democracy.
Seeing the ambassadors' appeal as an attack on freedom of speech is at best a symptom of an extremely biased interpretation of the ambassadors' letter; his continued insistence upon this erroneous interpretation in the following days, after the ambassadors' careful explanations of the purpose of their letter, reveals that the Prime Minister was deliberately misrepresenting their intentions.
A sober assessment of the situation - one which would compare the ambassadors' letter with their spoken explanations of their position - would strongly suggest a simple diplomatic solution, where the Prime Minister could take a moral position and express his disapproval of the view of Islam expressed by the Muhammad cartoons. End of story.
On the other hand, the only possible interpretation of the refusal of this solution is that the Prime Minister fundamentally approves of the cartoons' insult to Islam, especially considering how easy and commonplace it would be to distance himself from the demonisation expressed by at least some of the cartoons.
It is correct that the ambassadors also ask the Prime Minister to "take all those responsible to task" for slandering of Islam, but they ask for this action to be taken under the law of the land, and this would obviously also be satisfied by a public disapproval without limiting anyone's freedom of speech in any way.
This dimension, however, is completely absent from the Prime Minister's reasoning, as well as from that of most Danish commentators, for more than four months after the ambassadors' letter of protest.
This is in spite of the fact that it would, of course, not be unheard of for the Prime Minister to criticise publicly voiced opinions; in fact, this is exactly what happened two months after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, when he criticised Martin Henriksen, Member of the Parliament for the Danish People's Party.
Henriksen had claimed that Islam was "always, from the very beginning" a "terrorist organisation", of which Anders Fogh Rasmussen complained on December 2: "I strongly object to any claim that Islam as a religion could be considered a terrorist organisation. This is simply not a decent way to behave in a debate. We do have and must have a far-reaching freedom of speech which we need to protect, but that is also based on a respect for other people's religious beliefs."
So even though the Prime Minister objects to a written claim that Islam should be a terrorist organisation, it does not occur to neither him nor to anybody else that this objection might limit freedom of expression in any way - all he is doing, after all, is to voice an opinion; the very thing which he categorically refuses to do in connection with the Muhammad cartoons, even though one of these cartoons communicates exactly the same message as Henriksen has formulated in writing.
It can, therefore, hardly be much of a surprise if some Muslims are bewildered - especially if you consider that Muslim organisations in Denmark are almost routinely pressed to dissociate themselves from statements and actions from extreme Islamists, even though they have no part in them themselves.
Things do not appear less strange when Anders Fogh Rasmussen asks the offended Muslims to react to the cartoons in the very way he himself refused to react when asked by the Muslim ambassadors: "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, October 30, 2005).
Apparently, 'conversation democracy' does not apply to Muslim ambassadors.
On several occasions, it is made completely clear to the Prime Minister how easily he could end the conflict with no implications whatsoever for freedom of speech or of the press, but each time he adamantly refuses to even consider it.
The Prime Minister's arrogant rejection of the ambassadors' request for a meeting and his mendacious representation of the contents of their letter as well as of their subsequent explanations should have consequences. The fact that he even suppressed a clear warning against a possible escalation of the conflict only serves to aggravate what could result in Anders Fogh Rasmussen resigning from office.
As has been mentioned, the ambassadors' letter warns about possible "reactions in Muslim countries", and a few days later, the Egyptians warn the Danish ambassador in Cairo about "a possible escalation of the problem" as is clear from an account from the Egyptian government from February (Politiken, February 18, 2006).
The Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar Attiah makes a very clear recommendation already on October 29: "The Egyptian Embassy urgently appeals to the Danish government to treat this case with greater earnest in order to avoid an escalation, and expects that it will at least issue a statement to confirm its disapproval of these cartoons and any other insult to Islam." This is the same suggestion as that given by an Egyptian official, who towards the end of October described the sort of reaction his government was calling for: "For example, an official statement condemning the mocking of Islam and its Prophet".
On November 18, the Egyptian Foreign Secretary Ahmed Aboul Gheit goes on to emphasize what several ambassadors already told the Danish press, namely that nobody asked the government to "close or censor the newspaper", but that they had hoped for some sort of official statement. He even details how little he think the Danish Prime Minister could get away with in order to stop the entire affair from escalating: "Gentlemen, you must understand that my hands are tied. I cannot act against it, but I would like to declare that this is not my opinion". (Politiken, November 18, 2005).
In other words, what the Egyptian Foreign Secretary wants is a significantly milder disapproval than the one implicit in the Prime Minister's subsequent objection to Martin Henriksen's claim that Islam is a "terrorist organisation". After this, Mohammed Shaaban of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs even referred explicitly to the Prime Minister's disapproval of Martin Henriksen's statement (December 7, 2005) and fails to understand the fundamental distance between this case and the Muhammad cartoon controversy.
The entire affair has given the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs the distinct impression that "there are actually people in the Danish goverment who like what they see" in the cartoons.
And still, the Danish government pretends to have no idea what it has been asked for - namely, a moral position of the message of the cartoons. In spite of the constant flow of repetitions from government officials, the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Per Stig Møller still speaks as if he has heard nothing: "The Constitution states that censorship can never be reintroduced. If Jyllands-Posten has hidden behind freedom of speech to violate the law against blasphemy, that should be for the courts to decide." (November 8, 2005).
He might just as well have recited the weather report.
So time and again, the government neglects to comment the many specific requests from Muslim ambassadors and other offical agents from the Muslim world who ask for no more than a statement of disapproval from the Danish government, which might be compared to the Prime Minister's objection to Martin Henriksen of the Danish People's party.
Shortly after Christmas, the Secretary General of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ISESCO threatens with calling for an economical and political boycott of Denmark among its 51 member states. The Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar Attiah emphasises that the Secretary General's threat should be taken seriously: "He's not the only one to call for a boycott. There is a public sentiment which may mean that people stop buying Danish products." (December 27, 2005).
Even though Attiah believes that a diplomatic solution could still be found, she warns that there are also "elements in the Middle East who are not as interested in solving problems through dialogue as we are". The Danish government has chosen to remain blind and deaf to the political reality for nearly three months, and still there is no trace whatsoever of some sort of recognition of the gravity of the situation.
To the contrary: Anders Fogh Rasmussen even criticises 22 Danish former embassadors for "bad timing" when they, in an open letter published in Danish newspaper Politiken on December 20, criticises his handling of the case - at that point, the Prime Minister believes the affair is nearly over.
A fatal lack of judgement after three months of permanent escalation of a more than ominous conflict scenario.
So since mid-October, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has maintained and constantly professed a very serious misrepresentation of this affair in spite of repeated warnings against a possible escalation of the crisis and ultimately a trade boycott without one single time even listening to what the Muslim ambassadors have to say.
The result is only too well-known, since things started to get completely out of hand in late January. Whatever you think of Jyllands-Posten's initial provocation, and how unreasonable and exaggerated the reaction may be four months after the publication of the cartoons, it is still the Prime Minister's manipulative omissions and distortions throughout the three months of intense conflict that resulted in the greatest international crisis in Danish post-war history.
By Rune Engelbreth Larsen (translated by Carsten Agger)
Published in Politiken, February 23, 2006