The Danish Cartoon Affair

On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, some of which were extremely demonizing in their outspoken anti-Muslim symbolism. Four months later violent protests erupted outside Danish embassies in some Muslim countries, and the terror threat against Denmark increased dramatically. Yet what happened during those four months, and could the escalation of the crisis have been prevented? Was it simply about freedom of speech and a “clash of civilizations” or were other agendas in play? Moreover, why did it happen in Denmark of all places?

The End of Diplomacy

Among the most important and often overlooked elements in understanding why the Cartoon Crisis originated in Denmark and how it escalated into the biggest international crisis in the history of Danish foreign politics since World War II, are. 1) The increasing acceptance of demonizing and antagonistic rhetoric directed against Muslims in Danish mainstream politics and the media since the mid-1990’s. 2) The lack of diplomatic efforts by the Danish government to prevent the escalating crisis. 3) The stridently patronizing and arrogant approach of the Danish government and media towards ambassadors from Muslim countries as well as the deliberate misrepresentation of their intentions displayed by the then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in October, November and December 2005.

Without these elements, an escalation of the crisis would have been highly unlikely, and the violent protests and riots seen in some Muslim countries four months after the publication of the cartoons would never have taken place. The whole affair would have most likely blown over before it became a global media phenomenon.

Yet how did it all begin?

The first crucial event after the publication of the cartoons was a letter to the then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, October 12 2005, by ambassadors from eleven Muslim countries requesting a meeting concerning (among other things) Jyllands-Posten’s Muhammad cartoons.

The ambassadors’ letter contains four main points: 1) A criticism of the “very discriminatory tendency towards Muslims in Denmark” and “the defamation of Islam as a religion.” 2) A warning of the danger of the possible escalation of the crisis. 3) An appeal to the Prime Minister to “censure those responsible” to the extent the law permits. 4) A request for a meeting with the Prime Minister.

Primarily, the ambassadors criticised what they perceive as an “ongoing smear campaign” against Islam. To illustrate their point, in addition to the Muhammad cartoons they cited several other “recent instances” of this phenomenon, e.g., Racist articles published on the website of Danish MP Louise Frevert, in which, among other derogations, Muslims were compared to “Cancer”; Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen’s speech at the annual meeting of the Conservative party, in which he called for a new cultural struggle against “medieval Muslim culture” in alleged Muslim parallel societies in Denmark; and a xenophobic local radio station, which in the summer of 2005, called upon Danes to “kill a significant part of the country’s Muslim immigrants”.

Furthermore, the letter placed great emphasis on the very real possibility of serious consequences and repercussions in the wake of these events: “We must emphasise the possibility of reactions in Muslim countries and among Muslim communities throughout Europe.”

Nevertheless, the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refuses to meet with the ambassadors and instead chooses to respond in a letter dated October 22, proclaiming that freedom of speech is “the very foundation of Danish society”.

Neither in his written response nor in public does the Prime Minister refer to the issues raised by the ambassadors, failing to comment even once on any of the specific examples of the “very discriminatory tendency” provided by the ambassadors.

Large sections of the press as well as political commentators quickly reduce the content of the ambassadors’ letter to an example of their (Muslim countries) ignorance of Democratic society. They even portray it as a direct assault on freedom of speech itself, despite the ambassadors’ repeated assurances to the contrary.

The Palestinian representative, Maie Sarraf emphasises that the purpose of the letter was never to control the press: “It’s not as if we are asking Anders Fogh Rasmussen to exercise control over the Danish media, but even Western politicians have the option to make certain recommendations to the media, and that is what we ask him to do.” (October 22, 2005).

Notwithstanding, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said of the ambassadors’ criticism that “a Prime Minister cannot intervene and control the press” (October 25, 2005), and that “the principles upon which Danish democracy is built are so self-evident, there can be no basis for convening a meeting to discuss them” (October 25, 2005).

Despite the fact, the ambassadors had never requested a meeting to discuss the principles of Danish democracy, Anders Fogh Rasmussen nevertheless claimed that the ambassadors’ intentions in this matter were in conflict with Danish democracy itself.

Egypt’s Ambassador, Mona Omar Attiah repeatedly points out that they only requested of the Prime Minister that he distance himself morally from dehumanizing utterances: “It is a big misunderstanding when people think we have asked the Prime Minister to put limits on freedom of speech. We wished for him to call for a responsible and respectful use of this freedom. We also wished for him to take a moral position by declaring that Danish society is striving for the integration, not the demeaning, of Islam.” (October 27, 2005).

Fügen Ok, Turkey’s ambassador to Denmark points out: “We’re not stupid; we know the Prime Minister has no authority to intervene. Our intention was to encourage him to improve the situation in the country; what happened is very serious and very provocative. This is not about closing newspapers. It’s about presenting your views on the issue and trying to promote dialogue.” (October 28, 2005).

Despite the ambassadors’ direct rejection of the Prime Minister’s wilful misrepresentation of their letter, he blatantly ignores them, intensifying his hostility in a way which can only be characterised as arrogant. In response to the ambassadors’ criticism and allegations that the Muhammad cartoons represent an attack on Muslims and Islam in general within a bigoted Denmark, he declares: “In my opinion, this reveals an abysmal ignorance of the principles of true democracy, as well as a complete failure to understand that in a free democracy the government neither can, must nor should interfere with what the press may write.” (October 30, 2005).

The ambassadors’ request that those responsible for the cartoons be prosecuted “to the extent permitted by Danish law” is fully compatible with Danish jurisprudence and custom (blasphemy is illegal in Denmark). Hardly an attack on freedom of the press!

Otherwise stated, Anders Fogh Rasmussen chose to pontificate to eleven ambassadors as if they were schoolchildren who simply did not understand the definition of democracy, instead of discussing the issues raised by them, and commenting on the fact that their single request was for him to take a moral position on the issue of the cartoons.

Subsequently, Minister of the Church (and Religious affairs), Bertel Haarder reduces the whole affair to a clamour for “censorship” (October 30, 2005), and Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Prime Minister’s party Venstre – The Liberal Party of Denmark, Troels Lund Poulsen, can see no reason to “enter into dialogue with persons who want to short-circuit the democratic process” (December 20, 2005).

The Danish government it seems is not content with refusing to meet with the Muslim ambassadors: they proceed to lecture them in patronising tones and their request for a dialogue suddenly becomes an attempt to “short-circuit” Danish democracy.

Portraying the ambassadors’ appeal as an attack on freedom of speech is simply a wilful attempt at misrepresenting their intentions. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister continued his insistence upon this false interpretation, disregarding the ambassadors’ explanations and statements to the contrary.

All of this was completely absent from his reasoning. The media and most Danish commentators also ignored it.

Paradoxically, Anders Fogh Rasmussen encourages the offended Muslims to respond to the cartoons in the very manner he himself refused to respond to the ambassadors: “The Danish tradition is to call a meeting, where we can sit and talk peacefully with each other. Sometimes we disagree strongly even when the meeting’s over, and sometimes we reach an understanding of each others’ motives. That’s the Danish model. That’s what we call conversational democracy.” (Jyllands-Posten, October 30, 2005).

Apparently, “conversational democracy” does not apply to Muslim ambassadors! They were refused a meeting with the Prime Minister who obviously did not intend to discuss the matter with them, peacefully or otherwise.


It was brought to the Prime Minister’s attention on several occasions how easily he could end the conflict with no implications whatsoever for freedom of speech, but each time he adamantly refused to consider it.

The Prime Minister’s rejection of the ambassadors’ request for a meeting, his wilful misrepresentation of the contents of their letter and his denial of any anti-Muslim tendencies in Danish politics, significantly increased the rifts in Danish society between Muslims and non-Muslims as well as between Denmark and Muslims worldwide.

Simultaneously, the Danish government chose to overlook the fact that the ambassadors’ letter warned about possible “reactions in Muslim countries”, and a few days later – still in October 2005 – the Egyptian government warned the Danish ambassador in Cairo about “a possible escalation of the problem”.

As early as October 29, the Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar Attiah, makes very clear recommendations: “The Egyptian Embassy urgently appeals to the Danish government to adopt a more serious approach to the problem in order to avoid an escalation, and expects at the very least, a statement from the government confirming its disapproval of these types of drawings as well as any violation of Islam in general.” An Egyptian official who described the sort of reaction his government was calling for suggested the same: e.g. “an official statement condemning the mocking of Islam and its Prophet”.

On November 18, the Egyptian Foreign Secretary Ahmed Aboul Gheit, emphasizes what several ambassadors have told the Danish press: that nobody asked for the newspaper “to be closed or for it to be censored”, they had simply hoped for some sort of official statement. He goes as far as to detail all that was required of the Prime Minister to prevent the crisis from escalating: “Gentlemen, you must understand that my hands are tied. I cannot act against it, yet I would like to declare that this is not my opinion”. (Politiken, November 18 2005).

The escalating crisis could probably have been contained if the Danish government had distanced itself from the image of Islam depicted by the cartoons, without doing any damage to the freedom of the press in the process. End of story.

Instead, the Prime Minister responded to the ambassadors’ letter by misrepresenting their intentions whenever he spoke to the press. He distorted and omitted critical phrases and warnings in their letter, simultaneously ignoring the ambassadors’ own explanations of its contents, even though they have repeatedly emphasised, starting immediately after receiving his response to their letter, that they have neither expressed any desire for control of the press nor for any kind of encroachment upon freedom of speech.

The entire affair gave the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister the distinct impression that “there are actually people within the Danish government who like what they see” in the cartoons.

Yet the Danish government continues to ignore the continuous requests for a clear indication of its moral position regarding the message behind the cartoons. Despite the constant flow of clarifications and repetitions of this request from numerous foreign government officials, the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Per Stig Møller in November 2005 still chooses to overhear everything: “The Constitution prevents censorship from ever being reintroduced. If Jyllands-Posten, claiming the protection of the constitution has violated the blasphemy law, then that’s the business of the courts.” (November 8, 2005).

Time and again, with equal condescension, the Danish government neglected to comment the many specific requests from ambassadors and other official agents from Muslim governments and the Islamic world in general, who ask for no more than a statement of disapproval from the Prime Minister.

Shortly after Christmas 2005, the Secretary General of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ISESCO, threatened calling for an economic and political boycott of Denmark among its 51 member states. The Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar Attiah emphasised that the Secretary General’s threat should be taken seriously: “He’s not the only one calling for a boycott. The public sentiment is such that it may lead to people not buying Danish products.” (December 27, 2005).

Even though Attiah still believed in the possibility of a diplomatic solution, she warned that there were also “elements in the Middle East who are not as interested in solving problems through dialogue as we are”. Nonetheless, the Danish government chose to ignore the political reality for months, showing no understanding of the gravity of the situation.

On the contrary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen criticised 22 former Danish ambassadors for “bad timing”, when they in December 2005 in an open letter criticised his handling of the case, which they found had prevented a diplomatic solution.

Since mid-October, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has maintained this wilful misrepresentation of the situation despite repeated warnings of a possible escalation of the crisis, including the possibility of a trade boycott, never once heeding the opinions or advice of the ambassadors.

There is plenty of documentation after events began to spiral of control in late January. Whatever one’s opinion of Jyllands-Posten’s initial publication of the Muhammad cartoons, and how exaggerated the violent reactions may have been four months later, it was still the Danish Prime Minister’s wilful manipulation and distortion of events throughout the three months of conflict that resulted in the greatest international crisis in post-war Danish history.

This so-called Muhammad Cartoon Controversy has succeeded in establishing a rift between Denmark and many ordinary Muslims worldwide, as well as providing a host of anti-Muslim movements in the West with ammunition in their proclaimed struggle for ‘freedom of speech’. A struggle which often seems to be nothing more than an excuse for the ‘right’ to demonize Muslims! At the same time radical Islamists have benefited from the cartoons by ‘proving’ that freedom of speech and other human rights serve to legalize blasphemous and Islamophobic hatespeech, whereas various types of anti-Semitism on the other hand are often considered serious offences.

Unfortunately, these double standards are the rule rather than the exception, enforcing an ongoing conflict that stimulates anti-Muslim tendencies in the West, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Western tendencies in the Muslim world. In this way, the fundamental weakness of Danish diplomacy, coupled with a constant flow of anti-Muslim rhetoric and provocations in Denmark have played a key part in deepening the religious and ethnic rift that unfortunately dominates parts of the international political arena today.

RUNE ENGELBRETH LARSEN is an historian of ideas and columnist in the Danish newspaper Politiken.