Features » Politics And Society


Who's afraid of Muhammad?

Jörg Lau explains how some cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten turned into no laughing matter

The man who catapulted Denmark into an international crisis sits in his cosy kitchen and is confused. Kare Bluitgen has generated a conflict that is robbing ambassadors and heads of state of their sleep. In the last weeks, the Saudi Arabian ambassador was pulled out of Copenhagen. On Monday, the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten received bomb threats. In Gaza, armed Palestinians stormed the EU's office, and Danish flags went up in flames. And it all began with Kare Bluitgen wanting to explain Islam to Danish children.

Bluitgen, a jovial man in his mid-40s, is one of the Denmark's most successful authors of children's literature. He is involved in the third world, has lived for years in Copenhagen's multi-ethnic Norrebro district and sends his kids to the local school, full of immigrant children, as a matter of principle. Now he's become the public enemy of many Muslims. How it came to this is a very instructive story, and not just for Denmark.

Last summer it was made known that Bluitgen was having trouble finding an illustrator for his most recent book project: the life of the prophet Mohammed, told for children. Islam forbids representations of the prophet, but Denmark is a secular country and Bluitgen had the best of intentions. Nonetheless, the illustrators he approached were wary and turned him down. The murder of the Islam-critical film maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic fundamentalist had shaken up the Danish arts scene. (news story)

This cowardice prompted Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Denmark's biggest daily, Jyllands-Posten, to get involved. Rose asked the country's most renowned caricaturists to draw the Prophet Mohammed. Rose says he wanted to see "how deep this self-censorship lies in the Danish public." Forty cartoonists were approached, twelve sent in their pictures and these were published at the end of September in the paper's weekend edition. The most provocative caricature showed the prophet wearing a turban in the form of a bomb. In another, dumbfounded suicide bombers are turned back from the gates to paradise with the words "Stop. Stop. We have run out of virgins." Others made fun of the newspaper's motivations. "The culture editors of the Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of conservative agitators," read one caption.

In the first week, there was no protest. It was only when journalists began asking fundamentalist imams in Copenhagen and Aarhus for their opinion that they explained that the caricatures insulted "all Muslims of the world." The spiritual leader of the most influential mosque, Imam Ahmed Abu Laban, used the opportunity to pose as a national spokesman. In October, he organised a demonstration in the heart of Copenhagen against the supposed Danish "Islamophobia." Shortly thereafter, he lead a delegation of Danish Muslims on a trip through several Islamic countries, to complain about Denmark. The right-wing populists saw their chance. The Danish People's Party led by Pia Kjærsgaard – known for exploiting Denmark's very generous freedom of opinion laws in its own xenophobic attacks - claimed that Danish Muslims who put their religious belief before freedom of opinion were traitors.

Eleven of the countries that Abu Laban had asked for help – among them Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Libya – sent the Liberal Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen a protest letter and demanded he clarify his position to their ambassadors. Rasmussen responded coolly that politicians do not govern the press in Denmark and that there was therefore no need for such a clarification. In December, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League called for a boycott against Denmark. Rumours clearly being spread by fundamentalist Danish Muslims got wilder. Conspiracy theorists turned Kare Bluitgen's well-intended children's book into the "news" that the Danish goverment had commissioned "a new Koran." The youth organisation of the Pakistani fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami put a bounty of 7,000 euros on the Danish caricaturists' heads. The Danish police recommended that these artists lay low for a while.

In December, the affair began to spin out of control. Twenty-two ex-ambassadors called on the Prime Minister to meet and talk with representatives of the Islamic states. Danish writers demanded a more civil tone. But Rasmussen insisted that freedom of opinion could not be the subject of diplomatic dialogue. As the pressure from abroad mounted, however, he adopted a new tone. In his New Year's speech, Rasmussen condemned all statements that "vilified people on the basis of their creed." The exercise of freedom of opinion pre-supposed mutual respect and a "proper tone."

The Danish government is in disgrace, both domestically and internationally. It has shown the country's Muslim minority that only after sanctions are threatened by Muslim countries, is it interested in their concerns. Instead of demonstrating strength of principle and respect from the outset, Rasmussen was at first haughty before giving way to pressure from undemocratic Islamic regimes. The diplomatic disaster was complete when the Prime Minister went on television this week and finally distanced himself from the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Now countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, which have no freedom of opinion, are acting as advocates for European Muslims. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran and Syria are further demanding that their ambassadors be officially heard by Prime Minister Rasmussen.

These are splendid times, however, for radicals like Imam Abu Laban and his mosque on the north-western outskirts of Copenhagen. "We don't have to proselytise, the young people are beating a path to our door," he states with satisfaction. "I have to thank the government for its stubbornness." Journalists from all over the world have come to interview him in the squalid, disused industrial facilities where his congregation gathers. Previously they counted no more than a few hundred members. But Abu Laban is now the most sought-after spokesman of the Danish Muslims.

As for the strategists of the Danish People's Party, it is not in his interest for Muslims to start seeing themselves as normal Danes. A Muslim, he explains in a friendly tone, could never be a normal citizen of a Western state. He makes a "security contract" with the secular state, but as a true believer he can never accept secularism – the separation of religion and state. He must always remain loyal to the highest religious law, the Sharia. "We Muslims must use freedom of speech," says the imam, " to the extent that it serves the goals of Islam."

The affair has made more moderate Danish Muslims hostage to the trouble-makers. But the moderates' resistance is growing. Naser Khader, a Syrian-born MP for the liberal Venstre party in the Folketing, or Danish parliament, calls himself an "ultralight Muslim". For the fundamentalists, he is a renegade. Police officers escort him discreetly when he picks up his children from daycare in the afternoon. Khader has adopted the uncomfortable position of criticising both the radical imams and the agitators in the Danish People's Party: "The campaign against the caricatures is a clear manoeuvre on the part of Muslim radicals. But when Islam is called a 'cancer' here to public approval, that only prepares the ground." Khader sees enemies of an open society at work on both sides of the debate. As a Muslim, he no longer wants to be represented by bull-headed fundamentalists. For that reason he is now putting together a "network" that will represent the secular "cultural Muslims" and the majority of immigrants who live their faith very pragmatically. "The Mohammed cartoon dispute also has a positive side. Now we know where the radicals stand. It's up to us moderates to develop an alternative. What's at stake is no less than the soul of Islam." At first sight it looks like a lost cause.

Flemming Rose, cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten, stops and thinks for a moment when asked if his provocation was not responsible for creating many new radical Muslims. "Perhaps. But by making fun in this way, we've not only created Muslims, we've also created Danes. Humour, even offensive humour, brings people together. Because by making fun of people we've also including them in our society. It's not always easy for those concerned, but that's the price they've got to pay." Notwithstanding, even Jyllands-Posten gave in to pressure on Monday, and apologised for "insulting many Muslims."

While Danish flags are burning in Gaza, Kare Bluitgen's book has been published. It looks magnificent, not least thanks to the loving illustrations. The illustrator, however, remains unnamed.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on February 2, 2006.

Jörg Lau was literary editor of die tageszeitung before joining the Berlin bureau of Die Zeit. He is author of the book "Hans Magnus Enzensberger - Ein öffentliches Leben" (Alexander Fest Verlag, 1999).

Translation: nb, jab. - let's talk european