Monday, September 24, 2007

Naser Khader and Flemming Rose: Reflections on the Danish Cartoon Controversy

Naser Khader
Middle East Quarterly: You formed the Democratic Muslims in Denmark organization after the cartoon scandal, intending it to be the political voice of moderate Danish Muslims. How is it going?
Naser Khader: Before the cartoon crisis, I never wanted to begin a Muslim organization. I'm a firm believer that Danish Muslims should aspire to integrate into Danish life, and I felt that a Muslim political organization would serve to undermine this. But, as Islamists claimed to speak for all Muslims during the cartoon crisis rather than speaking for themselves personally or organizationally, I changed my view. Moderate Danish Muslims needed their own political voice. So, I started the Democratic Muslims in Denmark organization in response.
MEQ: What specifically did you do?
Khader: Right after the cartoon crisis broke, I recruited Mustafa Kassem, a distinguished scientist who shares my point of view. At first, we had great success because we were the opposition within the Danish Muslim community to the Islamists creating all the trouble. But later it became clear that although united in opposition to Abu Laban and other Islamist leaders, we had many differences among ourselves in the organization. For example, our views on women wearing the veil and the death penalty differed strikingly from each other. So, we hit some rocks and faced some difficulties. Recently, we decided to stay away from specific domestic issues and focus instead on our common belief that democracy is good and compatible with Islam.
Muslims of Denmark differ widely on politics and religion, and to our delight, it turns out that the largest group of Muslims were those who supported our work. A year ago, surveys showed our support at 18 percent. It has now gone down to 14 percent, but this is still a plurality and the largest group that the survey research has found. We were surprised, pleased, and inspired by this large number.
MEQ: Moderate Danish Muslims, it is said, are scared to join the network. Is that true?
Khader: Many Muslim members dropped out of the Democratic Muslims of Denmark because they were threatened. One board member was attacked physically. Young females are especially vulnerable. I remember a woman board member, a Somali, who said that she could not continue on the board because she was intimidated. When I went to visit her with a bodyguard, I encountered five to ten Muslims who were hostile to me. When I got out of the car and went to her flat, they smashed the police car. Extra police protection was brought in to help us. So there is a real and present physical danger.
MEQ: The first of your "Ten Commandments of Democracy"[3] calls for the separation of church and state. This is an extremely unpopular view among Danish Muslims, is it not? Do you have ideas on how to increase the number of Danish Muslims who share your view?
Khader: You are correct that this is not a popular notion among Danish Muslims. This is something that we are introducing into the debate. What we would like is what exists in France, namely total separation. Taking up this position is, indeed, something that makes things more difficult. Many Muslims cannot imagine a society without religious interests having a veto. We believe that there would be degeneration and severe problems should this not happen. We insist that there be a total separation between religion and the state.
MEQ: The Danish Islamist Ahmed Akkari said in March 2006, "If [Khader] becomes minister for foreigners or integration, wouldn't there be two guys sent over to blow up him and his ministry?"[4] At the time, you said you had to consider whether or not to continue in politics. A couple of weeks later you did decide to return. Why?
Khader: The cartoon crisis was overwhelming for me. I worked twenty-four hours a day. My health suffered, and my family, though supportive, was concerned about my welfare. And so when Akkari made his offensive statement, I was unsure whether I wanted to continue in politics. But after thinking about it for two days, I had no doubts. In fact, Akkari and his companions stimulated me. I figured that if I left the field, they would win. This made me angry, and I became energized. So in some sense, Akkari got me back into politics.
MEQ: Are Muslims discriminated against in Denmark? If so, how so?
Khader: Muslims are no more discriminated against in Denmark than they are elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, one has to understand that Islamism is an ideology, not a religion. And Danes are not alone in being afraid and apprehensive of this ideology. There are lots of Muslims who also don't like Islamism. Generally, Danes give you a fair shake. They accept Muslims if you declare that you are loyal to this society, to democracy. If you say that you are one of them, they will accept you. If you have reservations, they will worry. If you say that you hate democracy and that you want the Shari‘a [Islamic law], you will naturally make enemies.
MEQ: Did the publishing of the Muhammad cartoons improve or worsen the situation for Muslims in Denmark?
Khader: The publishing of the cartoons was a wake-up call to many of Denmark's neighbors—particularly the Swedes who are inclined to ignore such problems—that they have to pay attention to radical Islam. They cannot go on blindly with their multicultural hopes. Instead, they must come to terms that there are radical extremists in their midst who need to be dealt with. This also applies to Norway and to a lesser extent to other non-Scandinavian countries.
Inside Denmark, the cartoon crisis made clear that Muslims are not united and that there is a real difference between the Islamists and people like myself. Danes were shown that talk of "the Muslims" was too monolithic. They discovered that there is a more subtle, complex nature to the Islamic community in Denmark, that it is not homogenous.
MEQ: Did this have practical consequences?
Khader: Yes. This distinction has led directly to a positive effect on the hiring of Danish Muslims. Business owners realized that there are Danish Muslims loyal to the Danish state and society. Those who had hitherto been skeptical of employing Muslims, worried that they would be getting Islamists, now understand that there is a segment—something on the order of 15 percent, one﷓sixth of the Muslim population—that is overtly, strongly loyal and would be great hires.
On the other hand, it had the negative impact that those who are fearful of Muslims are now all the more so.
It also had the effect that Muslims outside Denmark see the country as a David fighting Goliath. Now Denmark is on the map. Before the cartoon crisis, people in my little hometown in Syria thought that Denmark was someplace in Canada. Now they know that Denmark is a separate country and that it is in Europe. It gave Denmark a presence that it never had before.
The crisis also put Denmark on the Islamists' map, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Many would say that this is not a good development. Personally, I couldn't care less. In fact, I believe that Denmark should boycott states such as Saudi Arabia that have the Shari‘a, that we should not have trade with them. I realize this is a difficult goal to implement, but I think that Denmark should keep this in mind.
Flemming Rose
MEQ: In a February 19, 2006 opinion piece in The Washington Post, you stated that you commissioned the Muhammad cartoons "in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam." Do you think that publishing the cartoons achieved your goal of battling self-censorship? If so, could you give some examples of where and how this reversal has manifested itself?
Flemming Rose: It remains to be seen, but publication of the cartoons definitely raised the level of consciousness about self-censorship. A lot of people have said to me, "You didn't achieve your goal because we have more self-censorship than we did before." But, if you go back before the cartoon controversy, there were many instances of self-censorship that went unnoticed.
MEQ: For example?
Rose: An installation at the Tate gallery in London called "God Is Great" by the late British avant-garde artist John Latham. The exhibition depicted the Bible, the Talmud, and the Qur'an torn into pieces and layered in a piece of glass. After the July 7 bombings, the museum removed that piece of art without seeking permission from the artist, or asking the police if they saw any threat in exhibiting this piece of art, or consulting with representatives from the London Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities about an appropriate course of action. There was no public reaction to this; there was no talk about self-censorship although it was an obvious case.
Then, after the publication of our cartoons, a similar incident occurred in Berlin. A Mozart opera, Idomeneo, in which the producer planned to show the severed heads of the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, and Poseidon, was cancelled due to religious concerns. This time there was a tremendous public outcry and outrage, including even a lot of German Muslims, and the opera was staged. So I think that it is fair to say that the publication of the cartoons raised European consciousness about self-censorship, and it remains to be seen whether in the long run it will increase or decrease it.
MEQ: Some argue that the self-censorship that exists in Danish society protects Muslims who would otherwise be discriminated against in some form or another in Denmark. How do you reply to that?
Rose: That is wrong. People who raise that point make an intellectual mistake. They do not differentiate between what I would call good behavior—you could call it political correctness—and submitting themselves to self-censorship. This is because they want to show good behavior and are also afraid. A good example of this was the illustrator who refused to illustrate a children's book about the life of the Prophet. He is on the record in two interviews saying that he insisted on anonymity because he was afraid.[5] This is self-censorship, not political correctness. There is a very important distinction to be made here between what you perceive as good behavior and a fear keeping you from doing things that you want to do. Also, it is discriminatory toward Muslims to say that we should not make fun of their religion when we are making fun of everybody else's religion. As I wrote at that time, I'd like to think that in some sense, the cartoons were an act of inclusion because we were not asking more or less of Muslims but exactly the same as of everybody else. Danish Muslims should be treated as adults, not as a weak minority needing special treatment like small children.
MEQ: Do you wish that other Western journalists would join you in the push against self-censorship? Are you satisfied with the record of other journalists and editors that they have learned from this? Do you feel that they are pulling in the same direction, or do you feel exposed and lonely?
Rose: I do not feel lonely, but I think it is a mixed bag when it comes to speaking about specific countries and when you go inside the journalist community in every country. It was a surprise to me that more European newspapers republished the cartoons than those in the United States. Unlike the major U.S. papers, several of the big European newspapers republished the cartoons. There are two narratives here: There are those who say that the controversy was about self-censorship—about denying a religious group special treatment in the public domain. That is my narrative. Then, you have another narrative saying: This was not about free speech or self-censorship; it was about a powerful newspaper insulting a minority. This was a fair argument until the moment when the threats were issued. The twelve cartoonists and I received death threats; newspapers were closed in Russia and in Malaysia, and newspaper editors were jailed in Jordan and Yemen. At that point, it became an issue exclusively about free speech.
MEQ: A French publication is being sued for reprinting the cartoons in question and an opinion poll in France on February 6 showed 79 percent of those polled thought it unacceptable to ridicule a religion publicly and 78 percent ruled out parodies of Jesus, Muhammad, or Buddha.[6] Does this poll suggest that you failed to diminish European self-censorship?
Rose: Although the vast majority of people in France are saying that one should not be allowed to ridicule a religion, at the same time, the same majority would not support a verdict banning the publication of the Muhammad cartoons by [the French satiric weekly] Charlie Hebdo. So, it depends on the way the questions are being asked. But there is a fundamental problem in Europe that has to do with the secular state of our society. We have forgotten what it means to be religious. Because we have forgotten, we are afraid of ridiculing religion, and we are restraining ourselves from treating religion the same way that we treat every other ideology. It is the same thing as when you've lived in a homogeneously white society, and you see a black person in town for the first time. I think the secular trend is very strong, but there is a search for identity. If you compare today to earlier, the difference is that you can go in and out of an identity today. I can be Christian today if it fits my need and my longing for identity, but in two or three weeks, I can be something else. It is a big challenge for Europeans to be confronted with a minority in their midst of whom some do have a very strong religious identity.
MEQ: That's something incomprehensible to Europeans?
Rose: Yes, that is why we do not know how to deal with it—because it is so strange. It is very difficult for us to identify when we see this religious identification in a minority. We have to treat minorities well. We have in Western Europe this kind of self-hatred stemming from our colonial past and things like that. Logically, we should treat Islam as we treat Christianity. We have been criticizing, challenging, and ridiculing Christianity for decades if not centuries. But we do not do the same with Islam because we have lost our sense of religiosity and are afraid of insulting or being accused of insulting a minority. In my mind, this is not a question of insult but of equal treatment.
In Denmark, time seems to be on our side. If I go back a year and compare the way I am being treated in the public domain in Denmark, it has definitely changed. People show a lot more understanding of my position than a year ago. The publication of the Muhammad cartoons was the first very clear-cut case in which it was possible to criticize the oppressive features in Islam or Islamism without risking being labeled racist.
MEQ: Do you see a connection between Ayatollah Khomeini's edict against Salman Rushdie and your own struggle? Could the cartoon controversy be viewed as the latest episode in a continuum of self-censorship started in 1989?
Rose: I spoke to [historian of Islam] Bernard Lewis about this, and he said that the big difference between our case and the Rushdie affair is that Rushdie is perceived as an apostate by the Muslims while, in our case, Muslims were insisting on applying Islamic law to what non-Muslims are doing in non﷓Muslim countries. In that sense, he said it is a kind of unique case that might indicate that Europe is perceived as some kind of intermediate state between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world.
If you go back to 1989, the question of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe was not that high on the agenda. It was not a political issue in the same sense. It has become a hotter issue than it was back then, and there are other implications that were not factors in the Rushdie affair—that is, the question of integration and immigration.
MEQ: Do you expect further such cases?
Rose: Yes. This is just the first major case in the twenty-first century. We will see several others and maybe not only with Muslims. There was the Behzti ["dishonor" in Punjabi] affair in Birmingham where a Sikh author wrote a play, Behzti, which caused grievances among the Sikh community. There were threats to burn down the theater. The issue here is cultural difference as a cause of conflict.
If you go back to the establishment of the United Nations and the United Nations charter of human rights, it was taboo to speak about cultural differences because of World War II and Nazism and fascism. There was a strong belief that while there were societies dominated by nationalism and also tribal societies, every single culture was moving in the same direction toward melding into one worldwide culture. Ironically, this was discriminatory in a way—to think that everyone else should become like our part of the world. But it didn't work out that way. So, the multiculturalists and cultural relativists appeared, espousing that if everybody cannot be the same, then you have to accept everybody as they are. Muslim immigration was not such a hot issue at its inception because it was passively believed that if Muslims and representatives of other minorities live long enough among us, then they become like us. But now even European progressives would admit that this multicultural model has failed. And this has given rise to the debate about Britishness and, here, about what it means to be a citizen in Denmark.
MEQ: My assessment is that, in the end, the debate that you began about self-censorship has become more, a debate about the Shari‘a and its application in the West.
Rose: Exactly. Initially, I thought otherwise. When I wrote the accompanying text to the publication of the cartoons, I said that this act was about self-censorship, not free speech. Free speech is on the books; we have the law, and nobody as yet has thought of rewriting it. This changed when the death threats were issued; it became an issue of the Shari‘a trumping the fundamental right of free speech.
MEQ: You've said that you did not anticipate the response from the Muslim world to the cartoons. Yet, you saw what happened to Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses and other lesser cases. Was a massive reaction not something you might have anticipated? Given the history of Rushdie and the others, how do you answer those who would say to you that you should have known that this was asking for trouble?
Rose: This is untrue. I never could have imagined this. Along the lines of Bernard Lewis's argument regarding the difference between my case and Rushdie's, I never thought that the Muslim world cares about what infidels are doing in the land of infidels. I continued to believe this for several months after the cartoons were printed.
The explosion in the Middle East and the Muslim world came five months after the publication of the cartoons. Even then, one could argue that it was propelled by converging political agendas of different groups of Middle East powers. Take the burning down of the Danish embassy in Damascus, for instance. [7] Syria is officially a secular power, but of course, they used the cartoons as an excuse to stand out as defenders of Muslims and appease the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the same case with the outrage in Egypt. In Denmark in the fall of 2005, several experts on Islam went on the record saying this will never become a big international story.
MEQ: If you knew the outrage that publishing the cartoons would generate, would you still have commissioned them?
Rose: That's like asking a rape victim if she regrets wearing a short skirt at the discotheque Friday night. I have been asked that question many times, and no matter how you answer, it is problematic. If I say, I do not regret and think it was the right thing to do, a lot of people would say that I am a cold-hearted, cynical character. On the other hand, if I say that this was the wrong thing to do, I would give in to the kind of intimidation that I am trying to fight.
I do not think that one can turn newspapers into real life. For example, I do not accept the direct linkage between cartoons and the killing of innocent people in Nigeria. We have published interviews with representatives of the Copts in Egypt and the Berbers in Algeria. None of these people think that it was the wrong thing to do. So, on balance, I do not regret it. We have had a very fateful debate in the Western world, and it has spilled over into Germany, France, Spain, and other countries. Sometimes you need a disruptive event of this kind to focus attention on crucial issues. The debate we have had about how to balance what free speech means on the one hand with how to respect peoples' religious feelings on the other has been very important. Denmark, after this affair, is far better prepared to deal with the conflicts caused by cultural differences resulting from globalization both within Danish society and across borders.
[1] See Pernille Ammitzbøll and Lorenzo Vidino, "After the Danish Cartoon Controversy," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007, pp. 3-11.
[2] Jyllands-Posten (Copenhagen), May 7, 2007.
[3] "The Ten Commandments of Democracy," Naser Khader website, accessed May 14, 2007.
[4] TV-DR1, Danish National Broadcasting Corp., Mar. 25, 2006.
[5] Weekendavisen (Copenhagen), Jan. 27, 2006.
[6] Deutche Welle (Bonn), Feb. 7, 2007.
[7] BBC News, Feb. 5, 2006.

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