An important new book on the Danish cartoons affair has been censored by the continuing threat of violence. It is another defeat for free speechby Oliver Kamm / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Cartoons that Shook the World By Jytte Klausen (Yale University Press, £20) Populist parties of the European right have gained prominence in recent years. Much of their message derives from hostility to the supposedly alien influence of Muslim populations. Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who in October 2009 successfully appealed against a home office decision to bar him from Britain, denounces the “Islamification” of Europe. The Danish People’s party calls for the defence of the country’s Christian identity against Muslim immigration. The British National party, with two seats in the European parliament, declares that Islam is a cancer. In November, voters in 22 out of Switzerland’s 26 provinces supported a ban proposed by the Swiss People’s party on the construction of minarets.
These divisions were exemplified in, and amplified by, an extraordinary dispute in 2005. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A few months later demonstrations broke out on every continent bar Latin America. Muslims declared outrage at the “blasphemy.” The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus were torched, with the patent connivance of the Syrian authorities. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s puppet-president, hosted a global convocation of Holocaust deniers. Voices of ostensible moderation, such as the Vatican, averred that the right of free speech did not imply the right to offend the sensibilities of religious believers.
For all its newsworthiness, the Danish cartoons affair remains obscure. Jytte Klausen, a Danish academic in the US, has written what must rank as the definitive account. It is a model of investigation and exposition. She demonstrates that the global ructions were not some spontaneous eruption of anger, but a campaign orchestrated for political advantage by a series of actors. These were, successively, Muslim campaigners in Denmark; the government of Egypt seeking to shore up its Islamic credentials; and militants working to undermine governments in Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and other countries with an entrenched Islamist opposition.
The initial internationalisation of the protests was driven by a deliberate lobbying effort by the Egyptian foreign ministry, which invited the protesting Danish imams to Cairo in December 2005. The decision was taken then to intensify diplomatic protest on the absurd ground of a right to be protected against the denigration of religious figures. Klausen traces this history with exemplary clarity. There is no one else who has managed to explain with scholarly disinterestedness but a deep concern for liberal values the…