The Council of Europe (CoE), an organisation of 46 European countries, has criticised the Danish government for invoking the “freedom of the press” in its refusal to take action against “insulting” cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The CoE Committee of Ministers discussed the case during a meeting in Strassburg last week. In a statement the Committee said that “a seam of intolerance” is noted in certain Danish media – a reference to the Danish cartoon case.
According to Islam it is blasphemy to depict the Prophet Muhammad. Last Summer a Danish writer complained that he could not find an artist to illustrate his book about Muhammad because illustrators feared retaliation by Denmark’s Muslim immigrant population. This prompted Jyllands-Posten (JP), Denmark’s largest newspaper, to test whether the threat of Islamic terrorism has restricted the freedom of expression in Denmark. JP asked a considerable number of artists to draw a picture of Muhammad to illustrate an article about freedom of speech in a multicultural society. Only 12 artists were prepared to do so. As can be seen here, some of them criticised JP and its editor, Carsten Juste, claiming that the request was a “provocation” and a “PR stunt.” On September 30, JP published all twelve cartoons, including the ones criticising the paper.
JP’s test led to outrage among the Muslim immigrants living in Denmark, to violent street protests and to terrorist threats against the paper and the cartoonists, some of whom had to go in hiding. It also resulted in a diplomatic crisis when eleven ambassadors to Copenhagen, including the ambassadors of Bosnia and Turkey, asked to meet Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for an urgent meeting to discuss the matter. They wanted him to call JP to account for “abusing Islam in the name of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression.”
Rasmussen refused to meet the ambassadors, making it clear that in Denmark the government does not interfere with the freedom of the press. “This is a matter of principle. I will not meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so,” he said, adding that those who felt offended should bring their grievances to the courts. “As prime minister, I have no power whatsoever to limit the press – nor do I want such power.”
The case escalated into a major diplomatic crisis, even though, apart from the Danish press, it has been hardly been reported upon in the international mainstream media. There were violent protest demonstrations and strikes against the cartoons in the Indian state of Kashmir and in Pakistan, after which Denmark warned its citizens not to travel to Pakistan. Egypt cut off its talks on human rights with Denmark while the Egyptian Grand-Imam Muhammad Said Tantawy condemned the Danish government. Tantawy is the religious leader of Egypt, appointed by the Egyptian president, and chancellor of the prestigious al-Azhar University, one of the Sunni Muslims’ most important centers of learning. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised his Danish colleague during bilateral talks last month.
On 7 December, the 56 member countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) unanimously condemned Denmark for its refusal to act against alleged “islamophobia” in the press. In a letter to the OIC Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, deplored the Danish newspaper’s “lack of respect for the religion of others” and announced that the UN experts on racism would take the matter up with the Danish government.
The Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali called upon European leaders to support Rasmussen in his refusal to compromise on the principle of freedom of the press, but in vain. Last week, the Council of Europe issued a warning that publications with xenophobic elements are increasing in Denmark and urged the Danish government to “take action.” The CoE’s Committee of Ministers asked Copenhagen to “increase its efforts in protecting the rights of especially Muslim immigrants living in Denmark.” According to the Committee “a seam of intolerance within Danish society is noted, inter alia, in the political arena as well as in certain media.” The CoE added that it is also concerned that “[Danish] legislation, such as the reform of the Aliens Act, and policy, such as the Government’s policy towards integration, may contribute to a climate of hostility towards different ethnic and religious groups.”
Instead of supporting their government, 22 prominent Danish former career diplomats criticised Prime Minister Rasmussen this week. In an open letter to the national daily Politiken the former diplomats write: “It would have suited democracy in Denmark if the prime minister had met the request for a meeting that was put forth by eleven foreign ambassadors from Muslim countries.” According to the former diplomats Denmark is witnessing “a sharpening of tone, which can only be regarded as persecution of the minority that consists of Muslim citizens.”
Their criticism, however, did not impress Rasmussen. The letter by the former ambassadors was “very misguided and sad,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman Troels Lund Poulsen said yesterday. “They are willing to compromise freedom of expression by taking a moral stand. The Muslim ambassadors wanted a dialogue with Rasmussen in order to stop the drawings. It doesn’t serve any purpose to enter into a dialogue with people who want to stop the democratic process. Rasmussen did the only right thing,” Poulsen said.
Meanwhile, Carsten Juste, Jyllands-Posten’s editor, has welcomed efforts to end the cartoon controversy. Moderate Muslim groups in Denmark proposed to stop demanding apologies from JP and organise a “celebration” to show the moderate side of Islam. Juste welcomed the idea. “I consider it a chance at reconciliation,” he said. “While it’s important to protect freedom of speech, there is also a need among Danes to gain more knowledge of Islam and Mohammed.”
Jihad Against Danish Paper, 22 October 2005
Cartoon Case Escalates into International Crisis, 27 October 2005
Out of the Iranian Frying Pan into the Danish Fire, 29 October 2005
Pigs Do Not Fly, 17 November 2005
Bounty Offered for Murdering Cartoonists, 4 December 2005
UN to Investigate Racism of Danish Cartoonists, 7 December 2005
Dispatch from the Eurabian Front, 9 December 2005