I visited Denmark as a child and have fond memories of Copenhagen’s immaculate streets, bright sunlight, and touristy Viking-icon ambiance. I remember, too, visiting the Tuborg brewery and consuming a little too much free soda. I had to urinate into a bottle in the back seat of the car, pouring it out onto the spotless street when my dad came to a stoplight. Even as I defiled their public space, I had good feelings about the Danes and Scandinavians in general. Having 1/4 Swedish and 3/8 Norwegian ancestry, I already felt great pride that “my people” (or some of my people since my other roots are Swiss, German, English, and Scottish) had once won terrorized the world as they roamed it aboard their dragon-ships.
I loved the ships. The Viking longship displayed in museums remains the proudest Scandinavian achievement and symbol. In such vessels, men from tiny, under-populated, stubbornly pagan kingdoms set out from their fjords to panic and plunder hapless Christendom from Britain to Constantinople. But they weren’t all bad. Roving the seas and the Russian river routes, they established new kingdoms from Ireland to Kiev. Scandinavians ruled in Normandy, whence their Franco-Nordic descendents conquered England, and even Sicily. They settled Iceland, Greenland, and for a time some sites in what’s now Nova Scotia, five centuries before Columbus arrived in the New World. Gotta feel proud of these guys.
The Vikings were maritime Mongols, for good and for bad. To be sure they were, like the Asian nomads, efficiently brutal. But they were open-minded, cosmopolitan traders as well -- explorers, craftsmen, learners and borrowers. The Mongols were tamed by Buddhism and Islam. The Northmen (last of the Europeans) succumbed to Christianity, although with some reluctance, incorporating into it some elements of the old religion of Odin and Thor. You don’t find much intolerance in Nordic religious history. In Sicily the Normans applied a policy of religious tolerance towards Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Scandinavians sat out the Crusades in the Holy Land, but the Danes and Swedes did some crusading in the twelfth and thirteenth century, mostly against Baltic pagans such as the Estonians for economic advantages rather than religious reasons. Long after the Viking Age, Scandinavians remained pragmatic in their approach to religious issues. When the Lutheran movement offered the opportunity for a break with Rome, the Scandinavian kings embraced it in the sixteenth century.
Scandinavia has produced religiously obsessed writers and thinkers (most notably the Dane Søren Kierkegaard, whose Attack on Christendom in 1855 pitted existential religious authenticity against orthodox conformism) and pioneering scholars in non-western religious traditions. The Dane Victor Fausbøll was the first westerner to publish the well-known Buddhist text the Dhammapada in translation and in Pali in that same year 1855. Scandinavia has also long been known for irreverence and paganistic hedonism. (For a time Sweden led the world in porn production. Denmark boasts one of the highest incidences of cirrhosis of the liver in the word.) Scandinavia, true to its heritage, remains resistant to religion; it leads the world in its percentage of agnostics and atheists.
Far be it for Scandinavians to want to impose their mix of melancholy, dry humor, schizophrenic sexuality and skin-deep religiosity on other peoples. After the medieval eruption of Viking conquests, never directed from a central headquarters, the Northmen did what other Europeans did -- they established colonies. Let’s leave out the Danish conquest of Britain, the reign of King Canute over England, Denmark and Norway in the eleventh century, and the thirteenth century conquest of Estonia. Let’s leave out the conquest of the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, and the Faroe Islands, and the settlement of uninhabited Iceland and lightly populated Greenland all by the thirteenth century. When the rest of Europe started amassing colonies after the (re)discovery of America by white people, of course the maritime nations of the north expected to get their share.
Denmark was the central Scandinavian power in the seventeenth century. For a brief time it competed with the other predatory powers to establish colonies in South Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. In every venue it lost out. Its East India Company held Tranquebar from 1620 to 1845, but sold this and other Indian properties to imperial Britain. Properties in the Nicobar Islands went to Britain in 1869. The Danish West Indies (acquired directly or purchased from France) were sold to the U.S. in 1917; we know them as the “U.S. Virgin Islands.” The Danes also had some forts in what is now Ghana, but sold them to the British in 1850. Today Denmark, and Scandinavia as a whole, retains only Greenland with its small, mostly Inuit population, as a reminder of the colonizing past. The economic empire that remains is built on iron, steel, shipbuilding, furniture -- Legos and pastry, windmills and fine beer. It allows for a good life; according to the CIA Factbook, “Because of high GDP per capita, welfare benefits, a low Gini index, and political stability, the Danish people enjoy living standards topped by no other nation.” Its affluence and reputation for tolerance has attracted political exiles from Third World countries, including revolutionaries of different stripes.
Until recently Denmark enjoyed a reputation for tolerance and respect for human rights. Many Danes sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation (1940-45), helping 6,500 of the total 7,000 Danish Jews to escape to neutral Sweden. When an Iraqi Kurdish exile accused fellow exile Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji of responsibility for the Halabja Massacre of 1988, the Danish prosecutor Birgitte Vestberg indicted him and placed him under house arrest. (Khazraji escaped the country, possibly with CIA assistance, in 2002.) To be sure Denmark is a NATO country, an imperialist country in the Leninist sense, and has sent troops to support U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. A rightwing party, the Danish People’s Party, has been able to force the government to implement some strong anti-immigration policies.
Still, as imperialist countries go, Denmark’s not a particularly reactionary one. It hosts a Peruvian exile community that promotes support for the Maoist movement in Peru; the Maoist Study Circle led a march of 12,000 in protest of Bush’s Copenhagen visit last July. The Danish fashion firm Fighters and Lovers recently announced it would be selling T-shirts with the initials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), donating five euros for each T-shirt it sells to these organizations. This would not seem a country of chauvinist bigots.
But recently the fairy tale kingdom has become the target of rage, its nationals (along with other Scandinavians) marked for attack. Its troops in Afghanistan and Iraq must live in fear that those they’ve been told they have been sent to help find them fair game in a war superseding the mundane conflicts in their countries -- a war to defend the honor of the Prophet. Who could have predicted a few months ago that little Denmark would come to be seen as an enemy of Islam, that Danish embassies would come under siege throughout the Muslim world, that the Iranian government would re-dub Danish pastries “roses of the Prophet Mohammed,” that the Danish Prime Minister would declare the controversy the country’s “worst foreign crisis” since World War II? The fury of course results from the decision of the editor of the right-wing (once explicitly pro-Nazi) Jyllands-Posten newspaper to run cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Circumstances suggest this was a deliberate provocation by editors generally hostile to Muslims. For example, the paper’s cultural editor, Flemming Rose, cordially interviewed prominent U.S. neocon Islamophobe Daniel Pipes in the fall of 2004. Pipes is a well-known Islamophobe, the founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank whose priorities include “fighting radical Islam (rather than terrorism), convincing the Palestinians that Israel is permanent, reducing funds going to the Middle East for energy purchases, slowing down the democratization process, and more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia.”
The forum initiated Campus Watch, whose mission is to blacklist and intimidate academics deemed too sympathetic to Arabs. A colleague of David Horowitz, he regularly contributes to the latter’s online FrontPageMag.com. Small wonder President Bush (through one of his recess appointments, over Senate opposition) appointed this neocon fanatic to the “U.S. Institute for Peace” in 2003, causing the Arab American Institute to protest. “For decades,” wrote AAI head James Zogby, “Daniel Pipes has displayed a bizarre obsession with all things Arab and Muslim. Now, it appears that his years of hatred and bigotry have paid off with a presidential appointment. One shudders to think how he will abuse this position to tear at the fabric of our nation.”
The newspaper interview, appearing under the title, “The Threat of Islam,” was conducted in Pipes’ office in Philadelphia. Rose had apparently traveled there specifically to conduct it. In it, Pipes articulates the MEF’s line that the problem is Islamism, not terrorism, and expresses amazement “that Europe is not more alarmed about the challenge that Islam poses, considering plummeting birth rates and a weakened perception of its own history and culture.” Just what the Danish People’s Party wants to hear! There are about 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, a country of 5.4 million citizens, but given their intolerance plus their birthrate, hey, it’s angst time, time to take firm measures based on alarm!
This same Flemming Rose elected to solicit cartoons of Muhammad a year later. He was essentially exploiting a news story carried in another newspaper, the more mainstream Politiken, about the well-meaning effort of a non-Muslim Danish journalist to author a book about Islam for children. The story describes his difficulty in finding an illustrator, due to artists’ fears that they might be attacked for involvement in such a work. The Jyllands-Posten played this up as evidence that “some Muslims . . . demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context . . . That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.”
Islam, of course, forbids the artistic depiction of the prophet. I don’t know whether the writer had intended to feature images of Muhammad in his book, or to tell the story of Islam without doing so. In any case, by inviting cartoonists to specifically violate that religious proscription, the Danish paper wasn’t merely tweaking its nose at “religious feelings” of minor importance. Indeed, the Jyllands-Posten had spurned cartoons satirizing Christianity in 2003 on the grounds that they might “provoke an outcry.” Does it not follow that the intention here was precisely that -- to provoke an outcry?
There is a predictable explosive dialectic here. The provocation results in protests; the protests become news stories; editors, either wishing to provide background or inclined to fan the flames, replicate the offending caricatures; the story incubates over several months until it’s known in the streets of Muslim capitals, and embassies start to burn. And the Daniel Pipes of the world preach “I told you so” about the intolerance of Islam.
I have the feeling that had the cartoons appeared five years ago, solicited on whatever pretext Mr. Rose might have conjured up at the time, the uproar would have been smaller. But that was before the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and an array of abominable images assaulting the world’s conscience. Images of bloodied children, victims of American bombs, honestly broadcast by al-Jazeera. Images of naked Muslim men in American detention smeared with feces, draped in women’s underwear, obliged to simulate sex acts for the camera. That was before the perfectly plausible stories of U.S. forces desecrating the Quran in front of their prisoners. That was before the Bush administration pronounced its fatwas against the governments of Syria and Iran, before it anointed Ariel Sharon “a man of peace,” before it announced its refusal to deal with a Palestinian leadership emerging the way the U.S. has officially recommended for the benighted states of the Islamic world: through a democratic election. That was before the U.S. and its western allies announced they would not allow Iran to do what international law allows it to do: enrich uranium.
There is a widespread perception in the Muslim world that the “War on Terror” is in fact a mere euphemism for a modern Crusade against Islam. Almost all the targets -- nations, persons, movements -- are in some sense Muslim, whether secular or religious, Shiite or Sunni, Arab or Persian or Pashtun. Most (including the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hizbollah, Hamas, Yassir Arafat isolated and vilified by the Bush administration before his death) have had no intimate connection to al-Qaeda. But in targeting them, Washington knows it can exploit anti-Muslim fear and ignorance among Americans and (it hopes) Europeans including the Danes.
Pipes, in the interview cited above, stressed that the U.S. should work with “moderate Muslims” against the “Islamists”. Of course they all say that. They can’t say, “Islam’s the enemy” because they need to work with Muslim puppets, and they can’t declare war on one fifth of humankind and hope to win. (They know that the Christian fundamentalists will do these things for them anyway, and endorse whatever attacks on Muslim targets they undertake.) But the Jyllands Posten’s decision to not only depict the prophet, but to show him as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban, seems intended to unite all Muslims already provoked by outrages enough, to the breaking point. It seems designed to produce more images of fanaticism -- that can be proffered as evidence that there really is a “clash of civilizations” here.
See what we’re up against, fellow westerners? See the intolerance that challenges our way of life? Look at these crazies, torching an embassy, just on account of some line drawings? See why we have to stay the course in confronting the Islamic terrorists? See why we’d be stupid not to be alarmed? That’s the message. To the extent that this ongoing episode encourages that sort of fear, it suits the purposes of what Martin Luther King once called “the biggest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
“The truth,” Hegel once said, “is the whole.” Viewed myopically, this affair involves the freedom of speech including the freedom to satirize or denigrate figures whom some people revere. I do that all the time. I’m all for such freedom. Long live irreverent humor -- the humor of Voltaire, of Diderot, of Monty Python (Life of Brian), the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead and the denizens of South Park! Humor is a powerful tool in lessening the grip of irrational, unscientific beliefs. One can respect people’s faiths is the ways that matter most without signing away one’s right to make light of their teachers and prophets.
But that’s not the issue. The big picture here is that a ruling-class organ in an advanced industrial country deeply involved in the U.S. attack on the Muslim world chose to hurt and incite that world, and that the inevitable response to the provocation is now a big news story skewed deliberately to further demonize that world. Progressive forces with no special sympathy for Islam (such as the Committee of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, representing the Maoists of Nepal among others, which has agitated against Islam and religion in general) have denounced the provocative cartoons on that basis. “Maoists”, according to a RIM statement, “are against these cartoons not for religious reasons but because they are an expression both of the domination of much of the earth’s people by the rulers of a handful of imperialist powers and of the oppression their system is based on. By exposing and opposing these Nazi-like incitements to religious hatred from a revolutionary viewpoint, we can strengthen the unity of the world’s people against these rulers and build understanding freed from the shackles of any religion.”
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In the works of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) there is a little story called “The Jewish Girl” (Jødepigen) composed in 1856. Not surprisingly it upholds the Christian faith, but treats Judaism with respect and contains one of the few references to Islam found in Andersen’s corpus. Sarah, a Jewish girl is placed into a public school where by prior agreement she receives an exemption from the Christian religion class. But rather than stand out, she sits through the class, exposed to the Christian scriptures although forbidden by her late mother’s will to convert. Yet so great is her interest in the gospel taught, her instructor demands of her father that she either be allowed to read the New Testament and convert, or withdraw her from the school. Reluctantly her father in deference to her late mother’s intentions takes her out of the school and places her in service. There, asked to read the New Testament to her elderly employer, she dies of exhaustion before opening the book, although intuitively realizing in her final moments the truth of the Christian faith. She is buried outside the wall of Copenhagen’s Christian cemetery. “But”, Andersen concludes, “God’s sun, which shines upon the graves of the Christians, shines as well upon that of the Jewish girl; and the hymns which are sung beside the Christian graves sound also beside her grave outside the wall.” It’s a mixed message, to be sure: Andersen’s Christianity is the truly revealed religion, but God cares about Jews too.
Within this narrative there’s embedded a story the Jewish girl hears during her lessons about a Hungarian Crusader once captured by a Muslim Turk. He’s forced into slavery, mistreated by the pasha, but redeemed by his wealthy family allowed to return home. Later the Crusader rejoins the campaign, setting out again to do battle with Islam, and this time he captures his former tormentor. Rather than requiting mistreatment with the same he offers his captive freedom. “The teachings of Christ tell us to forgive our enemies and love our fellow men. God is love! Go in peace to your home and loved ones, and be gentle and good to all who suffer.”
The Muslim, in this fanciful story penned long after the real crusades, then requests to be taught “the faith which is so full of such love and mercy; it is great and divine! In that faith let me die; let me die a Christian!” Just as Kierkegaard was penning his “attack on Christendom” and Fausbøll his scholarly researches on comparative religion, Andersen was expressing what was then the limit of Danish tolerance for Muslims. The Muslim could become good by changing what he was. Perhaps Denmark is fixed, a century and a half later, at that level of consciousness. In any case, there’s “something rotten” in any country where rational religious indifference coexists with irrational religious provocation. Having missed the medieval wars of the Cross, Denmark’s found itself waging one, thanks to some stupid images published by crusading fools.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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