I am away for the next week, so I am publishing some old material that has not previously appeared on Pandaemonium. Kåre Bluitgen’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammed has just been published in English. Back in 2005, it was Bluitgen’s failure to find artists willing to drawn pictures of Mohammad for his book that eventually led to the Danish cartoon crisis. So, here is an edited extract from my 2009 book From Fatwa to Jihad that tells the story of Bluitgen, his book and the cartoons – and why matters are not quite as they are often presented. Here, too, are illustrations from Bluitgen’s book.
From Fatwa to Jihad
(pp. 142-144, 147-151, 161-166)
Kåre Bluitgen is a soft-spoken but jovial man. A self-proclaimed socialist (and a former member of the far-left Venstresocialisterne, or Left Socialists), he lives in Norrebro, famed as Copenhagen’s most ethnically diverse area. He has long been a campaigner on third world issues and for immigrant rights. His teenage children attend the local state school, 90 per cent of whose pupils are children of immigrants. Integration, he insists, requires an understanding of different cultures from an early age.
Bluitgen is a hugely successful writer of children’s books, with a distinctive, offbeat style. In his most popular work, A Boot Fell From Heaven, God, sitting on a cloud and admiring a rainbow, drops one of his boots. Descending to Earth to retrieve it, He is met with uncomprehending hostility. Two policemen, thinking Him crazy, throw him in jail. God escapes and meets the boy who has found his boot, the only human willing to listen to Him.
Bluitgen is likely to be remembered, however, less as a writer of quirky children’s stories than as the man whose fruitless search for illustrations for one of his books led eventually to riots, death threats, and a worldwide diplomatic storm. In 2005 Bluitgen was writing a children’s book on Islam, The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammed, which he hoped would bring greater understanding of the religion to a new generation of Danes. He looked for an illustrator. The first three he approached refused to take on the job, the fourth would do so only on condition of anonymity. All were worried that they would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker brutally murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim incensed by his anti-Islamic films. Many Muslims, they reminded Bluitgen, considered it blasphemous to portray Mohammed in the flesh. Fresh in their minds was also an extraordinary incident the previous December in which a lecturer at the Niebuhr Institute at the University of Copenhagen had been assaulted by five men who objected to his reading of the Qur’an to non-Muslims during a lecture.
The leftwing newspaper Politiken ran a story about Bluitgen’s fruitless search, under the headline ‘Dyb angst for kritik af islam’ (‘Profound anxiety about criticism of Islam’). In response, Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Politiken’s rightwing rival Jyllands-Posten, asked the nation’s most renowned cartoonists to draw pictures of Mohammed. Rose said he wanted to see ‘how deep this self-censorship lies in the Danish public’. He approached forty cartoonists, 12 of whom accepted the challenge. Their caricatures were published in Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, under the headline ‘Muhammeds ansigt’ (‘The face of Muhammed’). The most controversial of the cartoons showed the Prophet wearing a turban in the form of a bomb. In another, dumbfounded suicide bombers are turned away from the gates of paradise with the words, ‘Stop. Stop. We have run out of virgins.’ ‘The modern secular society’, Rose wrote in a commentary to the cartoons, ‘is rejected by some Muslims. They 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.’ That is why, he added, ‘Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Mohammed as they see him.
And so began the infamous Danish cartoons controversy. Except that it didn’t – at least not straight away. The publication of the cartoons caused no immediate ructions, even in Denmark. About a week later, not having created the furore they had hoped for, journalists contacted a number of imams for their response. The cartoons had simply not registered with Muslim leaders, but they quickly recognised the opportunity provided not just by the caricatures themselves but also by the sensitivity of Danish journalists and politicians to their publication. Among the first contacted was Ahmed Abu Laban, infamous for his controversial views on Osama bin Laden (whom he called a ‘businessman and freedom fighter’) and 9/11 (‘I mourn dry tears for the victims’, was Laban’s response). Described by the Danish press as a ‘spiritual leader’, he was in fact a mechanical engineer by trade, and an Islamist by inclination. Having been expelled from both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates because of his Islamist views, he had sought refuge in Denmark in 1984. There he became leader of the Islamic Society of Denmark, an organisation closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. It had a novel way of swelling its importance. It declared that all Danish Muslims were members, irrespective of whether or not they had actually signed on the dotted line. In reality, fewer than a thousand worshippers nationwide attended the Society’s Friday prayers.
Abu Laban seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s 180,000 Muslims, demanding an apology not just from the newspaper but from the Danish Prime Minister, too, and organising a demonstration outside the offices of Jyllands-Posten. Yet however hard he pushed, Laban could not provoke major outrage either in Denmark or abroad. It took more than four months of often hysterical campaigning, and considerable arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, to create a major controversy.
At the beginning of December 2005, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) held a summit in Mecca. A group of Danish imams compiled a forty-page dossier about the cartoons to circulate to the delegates. Two weeks later a second delegation of Danish imams toured various Middle Eastern, Near Eastern and North African countries. At the end of January, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Denmark and launched a consumer boycott of Danish goods. In response a swathe of European newspapers republished the cartoons in ‘solidarity’ with Jyllands-Posten. It was only now – more than four months after the cartoons had been originally published, more than four months of effort to create a controversy – that the issue became more than a minor diplomatic kerfuffle. The republication of the cartoons sparked off protests in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Palestine, Afghanistan and elsewhere, leaving more than 250 dead, many killed when police fired into crowds. At least a hundred died as Muslim and Christian mobs clashed in Nigeria. Danish embassies in Damascus, Beirut and Teheran were torched.
Like the Rushdie affair, the controversy over the Danish cartoons was driven not by theology but by politics. Far from Islam having always forbidden representations of the Prophet, it was perfectly common to portray him until comparatively recently. The prohibition against such depictions only emerged in the 17th century. Even over the past 400 years, a number of Islamic, especially Shiite, traditions have accepted the pictorial representation of Muhammed. The Edinburgh University Library in Scotland, the Bibliothèque National in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, all contain dozens of Persian, Ottoman and Afghan manuscripts depicting the Prophet. A 17th-century mural on the Iman Zahdah Chah Zaid Mosque in Isfahan in Iran shows a veiled figure of Mohammed; through the veil, his facial features are clearly visible.
Even today, few Muslims have a problem in seeing the Prophet’s face. The Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which, in response to the Jyllands-Posten caricatures, launched a competition for cartoons about the Holocaust ran, at the very time it was campaigning against the Danish cartoons, a photo of a mural from a contemporary Iranian building that depicted Mohammed on his Night Voyage. Three days after the first Copenhagen demonstration, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr republished the cartoons. It was accompanied by a critical commentary, but the newspaper made no attempt to blank out Mohammed’s face. Neither the Egyptian government nor the country’s religious authorities raised any objections to Al Fagr’s full-frontal photos.
Whatever the similarities between the storm over The Satanic Verses and the furore over the cartoons, however, there were also fundamental differences. The cartoon controversy showed how much the Rushdie affair itself had transformed the terrain of free speech. There had been much equivocation by politicians and intellectuals over the Rushdie affair, but no no-one seriously doubted Rushdie’s right to publish his novel. There was little equivocation over the Danish cartoons, just widespread acceptance that it had been wrong to publish, and even more wrong to republish. Writers and artists, political leaders insisted, had a responsibility to desist from giving offence and upsetting religious sensibilities.
‘I understand your concerns’, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights, told delegates at the OIC summit in Mecca, ‘and would like to emphasize that I regret any statement or act that could express a lack of respect for the religion of others.’ The European Union expressed ‘regret’ about the publication of the cartoons. ‘These kinds of drawings can add to the growing Islamophobia in Europe’, claimed Franco Frattini, EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security. ‘I fully respect freedom of speech, but one should avoid making statements like this, which only arouses and incites the growing radicalisation.’ The Council of Europe criticised the Danish government for invoking the ‘freedom of the press’ in its refusal to take action against the ‘insulting’ cartoons, its secretary general Terry Davis suggesting that their publication might have been legal but it was nevertheless immoral. Former US president Bill Clinton condemned ‘these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam’ and feared that anti-Semitism had been replaced by anti-Islamic prejudice. Russian President Vladimir Putin, not generally recognised as a supporter of Islam, suggested that the Danish government was using the excuse of freedom of expression to protect those who had insulted Islam. The British foreign secretary Jack Straw praised the British media for not publishing the cartoons and condemned as ‘disrespectful’ the decision of some European newspapers who reprinted them. After a Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet republished some of the cartoons, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to its ambassadors in the Middle East expressing regret that the paper had not respected Muslims’ beliefs.
What the response to the Danish cartoons revealed was how successful the fatwa had been – not in burying The Satanic Verses, but in transforming the landscape of free speech. Once free speech had been seen as an inherent good, the fullest extension of which was a necessary condition for the elucidation of truth, the expression of moral autonomy, the maintenance of social progress and the development of other liberties. Restrictions on free speech had been viewed as the exception rather than the norm, to be wielded carefully, and only in those cases where speech might cause direct harm. In the post-Rushdie world speech became seen as inherently a problem, because it could offend as well as harm, and speech that offended could be as socially damaging as speech that harmed. Speech, therefore, had to be restrained by custom, especially in a diverse society, with a variety of deeply held views and beliefs, and censorship (and self-censorship) had to become the norm. ‘Self-censorship’, in the words of Muslim philosopher Shabir Akhtar, ‘is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.’ Or, as the British Foreign Office declared in a message about the OIC summit in Mecca, ‘The whole international community stands with them in their staunch rejection of those who distort the noble faith of Islam. We join them in celebrating the values of Islamic civilization. Their values are our values.’
The main offices of Jyllands-Posten are in Aarhus, Denmark’s principal port, situated on the Jutland peninsula. The town is also home to one of Denmark’s most radical mosques, the Grimhøjve. The mosque was run by a Salafist organization called ‘Equality and Brotherhood’ and its main preacher (until he left for Libya in 2007, ‘disgusted’, he said, by the consequences of democracy) was Raed Hlayhel, an Islamist who, according to a Jyllands-Posten transcript of his sermons, believed that ‘women can be Satan’s instruments against men’ and must covered from head to toe. Even more than Abu Laban, Hlayel was the man who directed the campaign against the cartoons. He helped organize the Copenhagen demonstration on 14 October, made contact with Middle Eastern embassies and headed the delegation of Danish imams to Arab countries in December. He was, with Laban, the public face not just of the anti-cartoons campaign but also, for many Danes, the public face of Islam.
Aarhus was also home to a very different kind of Muslim leader. Bünyamin Simsek is a city councilor who helped create an network of Muslims in opposition to the cartoon protests. Simsek is religious – he attends mosque, does not drink or eat pork and fasts at Ramadan. But he is also secular. In his front room is a photo of Kemal Attaturk, the secular founder of Turkey. ‘There is’, Simsek says, ‘a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society’.
Simsek was born in 1970 in Kizilcakisla, a small Anatolian village in the heart of Turkey, a cluster of houses and dirt roads gathered around the mosque. His father, Ali, trained as a Muslim cleric and often preached in the mosque. But the preaching did not pay the bills. So in 1972 Ali decided to emigrate to Denmark to work in a small timber factory in town of Aarhus. He spoke no Danish – he still does not – and as a ‘guest worker’ expected to stay a few years and then return home. Within a few months, however, he changed his mind and brought his family to join him.
The Simseks were religious, conservative and deeply attached to their Turkish roots. Every summer the whole family would return to Kizilcakisla. When Bunyamin was 17, Ali decided it was time for an arranged marriage. ‘I did not know I could say no’, says Bunyamin. ‘I had been brought up to honour my parents and to respect their wishes. What my parents said was law.’ Ali chose Sorgul Ceran as Bunyamin’s bride, a young woman from Kizilcakisla whose father had been a close friend of Ali’s since his school days. She was eight years older than Bunyamin, and had never set foot in Ankara, let alone Aarhus.
The couple were married in Kizilcakisla. A year later she received Danish residency papers and finally joined her husband. The cultural gap between them turned into a chasm. ‘My wife wore a veil and that was a problem for me’, Simsek says. ‘When you come to somewhere like Denmark, you have to adapt, give up something to get something, but she would not. I was going out with Danish friends, but it was awkward with Sorgul. I felt I could not show her in a veil.’
Bünyamin was not just estranged from his wife, he had also fallen in love with another woman. Fatma Oektem had been born in Aarhus, but her grandfather had emigrated to Denmark from the Simseks’ home village of Kizilcakisla. She was religious, but Westernised and emancipated.
When Bünyamin announced that he wanted a divorce from Sorghul, his father disowned him (though the two have since become reconciled), as did many within Aarhus’ 3000-strong Turkish community. ‘They reacted as they might have back in Kizilcakisla. It was like we were back in the village not in Aarhus. They were talking about bringing dishonour on the community. Women were shouting at Fatma, “It’s because of you that we can’t our husbands out of the house”.’
But while the hostility was nasty, they also had support from within the Turkish community. ‘Many Muslims are here are like us. They attend mosque, but they are also Westernized. They recognize they live in Denmark not Turkey.’ Bünyamin and Fatma eventually got married in 1999.
Then came the cartoon controversy. By that time Simsek had joined Venstre, Denmark’s main liberal political party, and become in 2002 a city councilor. Appalled by the way that Hlayel and Laban had come to be seen as the authentic spokesmen for Muslim concerns, Simsek set up a network of Muslims opposed to the Islamists and helped organize a counter demonstration to the cartoon protests. ‘We wanted to show that not all Danish Muslims are Islamists’, he says. ‘In fact very few are. But it is the Islamists like Raed Hlayhel and Abu Laban who get all the hearing.’
Simsek is not an isolated voice. ‘I never felt offended by the cartoons’, Naser Khader says. ‘But I did feel deeply insulted by the Islamist response to them. I felt astonished that the tradition for religious satire in the Middle East had so disappeared, and that a satirical stance on religion has become the privilege of the West. And I was offended that freedom of speech has become the preserve of the Western world.’
Khader is one of the best known Muslims in Denmark, an MP and founder of the Demokratiske muslimer movement aimed at rallying democratic, secular Muslims. People like Raed Hlayhel and Abu Laban, he says, had been waiting for something like the cartoons. They appeared ‘at the right time, and in the right place’ to be exploited by Islamists who wanted to foment ‘confrontation’ which could be milked for ‘money and support
Khader calls himself Muslim though, unlike Simsek, he is not religious. The family backgrounds of the two men are, however, strikingly similar. One of five children, Khader was born in Damascus in 1963, the son of a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother. The family moved to Denmark when he was 11, his father working as an unskilled labourer and never managing to learn Danish. ‘Working for 8 hours in a factory’, Khader recalls, ‘he was too tired to go to school and learn Danish. Back then, as unskilled foreign labour, you didn’t have to speak Danish to get work.’ Khader himself wanted a different kind of life. After studying economics at Copenhagen University, he entered politics and in 2001 became an MP for Danish Social Liberal Party. He left the Social Liberals shortly after the cartoon controversy broke out to form his own Liberal Alliance, which won 5 seats in the 2007 general elections. ‘My old party’, he says, ‘decided that it was wrong of Jyllands-Posten to publish the cartoons and that it should apologize to Muslims. I could not accept that.’
The attitude of the Social Liberals is, Khader believes, typical. Liberals have, in his eyes, ‘formed an unholy alliance with Islamists. The Prime Minister when he needed to talk to Muslims, talked to islamists. Just months before the cartoon controversy, the Prime Minister had invited Abu Laban to a conference on terrorism. People like me kept saying, “They only represent a few people”. But nobody listened. The government thought if they talked to someone who looked like a Muslim, then they were talking to real Muslims. I don’t look like what they think a Muslim should look like – I don’t have a beard, I wear a suit, I drink – so I’m not a real Muslim. But the majority of Muslims in Denmark are more like me than they are like Abu Laban.’
Khader recalls a conversation he had with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, the left-wing newspaper that first broke the story of Kåre Bluitgen’s difficulty in finding an illustrator but which was highly critical of the Jyllands-Posten caricatures. ‘He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims. I said I was not insulted. He said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’
The echoes of the Rushdie affair are, I told him, unmistakable. Twenty years ago, we had the same kinds of debates in Britain. Critics of Rushdie did not speak for the Muslim community any more than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within Muslim communities. Today the radical, secular clamour, which found an echo in The Satanic Verses, has been reduced to a whisper, largely because it has been strangled by multicultural policy. In the 1980s, however, it beat out a loud and distinctive rhythm within the Babel of British Islam. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. They succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the authentic voice of the Muslim community.
‘That’s what I’m frightened of here too’, said Khader. ‘The cartoons were not about Mohammed. They were about who should represent Muslims. What I find really offensive is that journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims.’
The liberal idea of ‘authentic’ Muslim Bünyamin Simsek says, plays into the hands of racists because every Muslim comes to be seen as backward, reactionary and fundamentalist. Simsek used to work as a flight attendant for a Danish charter airline. Passengers would try to guess where he originated. ‘They’d say Greece, Italy or Spain – but never Turkey. They think I’m nice, so they don’t imagine I could be Turkish. Turkey, for them, is Islam, and Islam is fundamentalism.’ When he told them he lived in Aarhus, they simply would not believe it.
Such racism has led many Muslims to reject the integrationist arguments of politicians like Naser Khader. ‘A black man could only become integrated when he started behaving like a white man’, Salman Rushdie wrote of Britain’s race relations policy in his 1982 television essay ‘The new Empire Within Britain’. Many Danish Muslims feel the same today about Danish integration policy. To integrate seems to be to give into racism. Even Bünyamin Simsek betrays an ambivalence. There is, he says, always a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that means that he, with his dark skin, could never be fully Danish. While he rejects the arguments of the Islamists, Simsek is also resentful of the attitudes of Danes. ‘The Danes say one thing, that they want to integrate us, and do another’, he says. The liberal authentic Muslim and the racist backward fundamentalist become one and the same figure, who is always the outsider.
‘Every story one chooses to tell’, Rushdie suggested in his novel Shame, ‘is a kind of censorship, it prevents other tales’. The tale that is told about what it is to be a real Muslim, helps prevent other tales from within Muslim communities, helps silence other Muslim voices.