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The Danish Disease: A Political Culture of Islamophobia

Ellen Brun has been an activist on the Danish left for many years. She is a researcher on development issues and international relations. Jacques Hersh is professor emeritus of Aalborg University, Denmark and former head of the Research Center on Development and International Relations there. They have worked together for many years and have coauthored many books and articles including in English: Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development (Monthly Review Press, 1976) and Soviet-Third World Relations in a Capitalist World: The Political Economy of Broken Promises (St. Martin’s Press, 1990).

In trying to comprehend the virus of Islamophobia now infecting Europe, the small country of Denmark offers powerful insights. Shakespeare’s phrase that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” seems appropriate to describe the transformation taking place in this former bastion of tolerance and conviviality.

In the course of one generation, beginning in the 1980s, a process has altered the ideal picture that many informed people throughout the world had of Danish society. The transition has been dramatic and the end point of the process difficult to fathom. Even politically aware Danes are somewhat at a loss to explain what exactly has been happening to the Danish political culture.

The Danish body politic has of course never been an undifferentiated monolith. The Second World War was an ambivalent chapter in the country’s history. Although there were substantial pro-Nazi sentiments among the upper sections of the population and the Danish government collaborated with the German occupation forces, there was an  armed resistance movement and ordinary Danes helped a considerable number of Danish Jews escape to neutral Sweden.

In the postwar era, the Social Democratic Party benefited from the general progressive mood of the population. In the context of the defeat of Nazi-Germany and its Danish sympathizers on the one hand, and the existence of strong pro-Socialist sentiments within the working class on the other, Social Democracy aimed at humanizing capitalism through the construction of a “welfare state.” The project of “capitalism with a human face” served a variety of political purposes. It neutralized the anticapitalism of the working class while preserving the interests of the capitalist class. It also offered a counterpoint to the Soviet model of state socialism with regard to the post-colonial world. Especially in Africa, comparatively generous and effective Danish development assistance, implemented by Social Democratic governments, promoted an alternative to strategies of self-reliance or dependency on the socialist bloc. The vision of “capitalism with a human face” was thought accomplished, until the liberalization of capital controls in the 1980s and the onslaught of neoliberalism began to dismantle the “welfare state.” Paradoxically, what had been considered a Social Democratic project was not defended by the Danish Social Democratic party.

Significant changes in the demographic composition of the population took place parallel to the socio-political evolution of the country. This was principally related to the three phases of Muslim immigration which were, in turn, a function of the need of Danish capitalism for labor power, and later the result of political disturbances in predominantly Muslim countries.

The first influx of immigrants, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, came from Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, and Yugoslavia to find work in Scandinavia. The end of the “golden age” capitalist boom of the 1960s also hit Denmark, with the average annual GDP growth falling from 4.6 percent in 1960–73 to 1.5 percent in 1973–82. And as Danish women started entering the labor market in large numbers, the need for “guest workers” decreased. Unemployment soared from the 2 percent level of the 1960s and early 1970s to rates well over 6 percent in the mid 1970s, and “guest worker” immigration ceased for good. The second wave of immigration in the 1980s was composed of political refugees who came predominantly from Iran, Iraq, and Palestine, and a third wave of political refugees arrived in the 1990s, mainly from Somalia and Bosnia. The category of asylum seekers accounts for about 40 percent of the Danish Muslim population as it came to include the reunification of families and marriages. In 2002, the Folketing, the Danish parliament, passed a law making such reunifications much more difficult as well as countering arranged marriages in the country of origin.

From a political perspective, it is interesting that most asylum seekers came from regions affected directly or indirectly by the policies of the United States or its allies. This applies especially to the Middle East where the United States and Israel have had a direct responsibility for the region’s political evolution. The experience and integration problem of the asylum seekers is quite distinct from that of the foreign workers who filled a temporary gap for labor power. Many in the latter category decided to remain in Denmark and obtain Danish citizenship. This variety of cultures and political backgrounds makes it difficult to speak of the Muslim community as a homogenous bloc. An understanding of  why these different people came to Denmark is seldom evident in the on-going debates about the Muslim immigrants.

The Danish People’s Party, a successor to a populist anti-tax party, taking advantage of the latent xenophobia in the Danish population, put the issue of immigration at the center of the domestic political agenda from its founding in 1995. In recent years, however, the center-right government, supported by this populist party, has internationalized this domestic anti-Muslim antagonism by placing the country at the forefront of military intervention in Muslim countries. Not only was Denmark an original member of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq and an active participant in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the Danish social landscape has evolved into one of those most hostile to Muslim immigrants.

It was in this context that Denmark made international headlines, when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve offensive cartoons of the prophet Mohammed on September 30, 2005. Not only were the illustrations reminiscent of anti-Semitic caricatures in Nazi Germany, they were fundamentally insulting to the religious creed of Islam which forbids depictions of the prophet. Muslims in Denmark grieved while the pros and cons of the newspaper’s action were discussed in the media.

Given this background, the intriguing question in this context is why this provocation took place and who benefited from it. Was the reason as straightforward as the cultural editor of the paper claimed? That is, as a step to preserve or enhance the democratic right of “freedom of the press” and “liberty of expression,” which the Jyllands-Posten claimed were endangered by the media’s self-censorship toward Islam. The alleged motivation for publishing the cartoons might have been credible had the paper been a traditional bastion of democracy. But the group behind the paper has a dubious ideological and political history. Their editorial line was pro-Nazi during the Second World War and militantly antisocialist and anticommunist, as well as vehemently pro-American, during the Cold War. The Jyllands-Posten remains an ardent supporter of Israel’s policies in Palestine, a warm partisan of Danish military participation in the wars in Muslim countries, and hostile to third world immigrants. The appalling irony is that it is this organ of the press that donned the mantle of champion of “freedom of expression” and implicitly contributed to setting the infamous thesis of “clash of civilizations” on the ideological and socio-political agenda.

The cartoons were not only meant as a provocation against religious sensitivities. More important, their publication was a clarion call to the media to overcome their restraint and participate actively in the mobilization of opinion against the Muslim population. In other words, this attack was intended to influence the political culture of the Danes in the direction of Islamophobia. Without falling prey to conspiracy theory, it should be mentioned that the responsible editor, Fleming Rose, has a close relationship to Daniel Pipes, the director of the Zionist neoconservative Middle East Forum in the United States. Rose had also been a visiting scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S. government outfit heavily involved in the administration of occupied Iraq.

Until the publication of the caricatures, most Danes would in fact have been surprised to learn that freedom of the press or expression was under threat in their country. Anti-immigrant bashing had long been part of the editorial line of populist tabloids. The written media are organized around three press concerns and a few independent dailies while television and radio have both state and private sectors. Under the existing conditions, there is absolutely no serious menace to the bourgeois control of the press and its freedom of expression. This is, however, far from being the case for left-wing opinion. With the defeat of socialism, and “reforms” in the postal system discriminating against small publications, the left-wing press has been decimated. If there were to be a serious complaint about lopsided freedom of expression it should come from leftist intellectuals who are often refused access in the mainstream media under various excuses!

In the post-9/11 context, given the latent xenophobia toward immigrants from third world countries and especially Muslims, claiming to defend freedom of expression by publishing these cartoons is disingenuous at best. Freedom of expression is not enhanced by stepping on the religious sensibilities of a minority of the Danish population and the one and a half billion Muslims in the world. It is telling that although the cartoons were reproduced in some European countries, neither the British nor the U.S. press followed their lead.

The publication of the cartoons resulted in a diplomatic row. Less than two weeks after the date of their publication, the ambassadors of eleven Muslim countries addressed a letter to the Danish government on October 11, 2005, asking for an audience with the prime minister in order to discuss a reasonable solution to the issue of the insult to Islam. In diplomatic practice a request by accredited ambassadors is normally acceded to. But in this case the meeting was refused on the ground that the government of a democracy could not assume responsibility for what the press sees fit to print. Accordingly, there was nothing to discuss. This undiplomatic refusal was sharply criticized by twenty-two former ambassadors who considered the publication of the caricatures to be an aggressive provocation. A previous foreign minister who happens to be the former leader of the same Liberal Party to which the current prime minister belongs, supported this criticism. Another attempt at damage control was a private letter from the Egyptian prime minister to his Danish counterpart. But there was no reaction and months went by.

Finally, as a protest against the official position, a boycott of Danish products started in different Muslim countries causing substantial losses, especially to the dairy industry. In February 2006, violent demonstrations against Denmark took place in cities of the Middle East and South Asia. Besides the nearly 150 demonstrators killed, Danish embassies were scorched in Damascus and Beirut. The Danish flag was burned and trampled upon. Shown on television these reactions released surprise, shock, irritation, and fear in the Danish population. “Why do they hate us?” Also shown on TV at the same time was a sequence of the leader of the xenophobic Danish People’s Party hoisting the Danish flag on her lawn.

During the course of 2007, the situation stabilized. Danish cheeses  were sold again in supermarkets in the Middle East and South Asia. The ideologues of “freedom of the press,” who support the government’s violation of international law through Danish participation in wars on Muslim soil, had made their point: Muslims in Denmark had to internalize the hard “lesson” that in a democracy where religious freedom is respected, insulting a specific religion is considered a democratic right! In other words, this was secularism on steroids, directed against Muslims. The irony is that in Denmark there is no separation of church and state: the Evangelical Lutheran church is subordinated to the Ministry of the Church and funded by the state.

In the sphere of international politics, during the same year, the government scaled down the country’s military engagement in Iraq while strengthening it in Afghanistan. During the electoral campaign last November, the participation of Denmark in both these conflicts was hardly even mentioned except by the small leftist party, Unity List, which consistently opposed both wars. The liberal-conservative coalition, supported by the Danish People’s Party, was returned to power for a third period, albeit with a narrower majority.

It was in this general post-crisis climate that a new bombshell was dropped on the political class. A Danish-made documentary, shown on the public state television station DR 1 on February 6, 2008, confirmed the persistent rumors that the CIA had used both Copenhagen Airport and the airport of Narsarsuaq in Greenland for undercover transports of alleged “enemy combatants.” The revelations that the secret U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program had used Danish airspace for transporting prisoners to destinations where they would be tortured thus came to the attention of public opinion, thereby putting the credibility of both the government and the secret service in doubt.

Although a staunch ally of the United States in the “war against terror,” with participation in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan to prove it, the government had consistently denied any knowledge of secret CIA transport of alleged terrorists using Danish stopovers or the territory of semi-autonomous Greenland. In a comment on the documentary, the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared that the government “will be looking into what happened and if need be, ask the Americans for explanations.” He also stated that unauthorized use of Danish airspace would be “unacceptable.” He supposedly raised the issue with his close friend President Bush during his recent private visit to Camp Crawford.

This affair, however, is not entirely new. In 2005, the authorities acknowledged that at least fourteen suspected CIA flights had entered Danish airspace since 2001, but claimed they had no knowledge of the nature of the passengers. At the time, the request in parliament by the Unity List for an impartial investigation was dismissed. But now the television documentary made clear that what took place was in fact the transport of “prisoners.” The lingering question was therefore whether this had taken place with or without the permission of the authorities.

The secret service contended that it was not informed of illicit transports by the United States in violation of Danish jurisdiction. The left of center opposition in the parliament, including the two parliamentarian members from Greenland, demanded an impartial investigation. Although on the defensive, the government nevertheless refused such an inquiry, preferring to carry out its own investigation. Having been elected by the narrowest of margins, the votes of the parliamentarians from Greenland were essential for a defeat of the government. In this context, members of the governing party coalition displayed remnants of an imperialist mentality. They threatened to resort to collective punishment against the former colony by cutting state subventions to Greenland if the two parliamentarians were to vote on an issue the government viewed as a matter of internal Danish politics. Thus, regardless of the fact that CIA landings had violated Greenland’s sovereignty, and its people had been kept in the dark because of the Danish authorities’ incompetence or acquiescence, right-wing politicians went on the attack by challenging Greenlanders’ political rights.

Danish parliamentary politics, characterized by a deficit of integrity on the part of several members of the opposition, prevented the matter from coming to a head. As a result the governing coalition was able to muster a majority for its position concerning an investigation commission. Meanwhile, the sensitive relationship between Denmark and Greenland had been further damaged. Nationalism was strengthened and some Greenland politicians renewed the call for complete independence from Denmark. It is worth noting in passing that Greenland is a repository of valuable natural resources that will affect the future of this relationship.

The commotion brought about by the documentary had barely subsided, with the government just managing its credibility gap, when a new affair was to shake the Danish political scene. The disclosure of the incompetence (or complicity) of the authorities in the illegal transportation of prisoners had stained the government as well as the secret intelligence service. But less than one week after the showing of the aforementioned damaging documentary, an event took place which refocused public attention. In the early hours of February 12, 2008, the secret police arrested three Muslim men under the accusation of plotting to assassinate one of the Mohammed cartoonists. The suspects, a Moroccan with Danish citizenship and two Tunisian nationals, had been under police surveillance for months. By “coincidence,” the secret police was again seen as displaying its expected professionalism by saving the life of one of the heroes behind the original campaign for press freedom and liberty of expression. Not only was public opinion gratified to learn that the secret service was doing its work in a competent manner, but the debate could return to the question of freedom of the press and Islam-bashing.

While most of the print media had previously refrained from reprinting the caricatures of Mohammed, in deference to the sensitivities of Muslims, the mood had now changed. This time, the country witnessed a surge on the part of the media. Upon learning about the arrest of the three men, allegedly for plotting to assassinate the cartoonist who had depicted the prophet with a stick of dynamite in his turban, the entire pressstarting with Jyllands-Posten—reproduced the cartoon. According to the various editorials this was done in solidarity with the targeted cartoonist and as a reiteration of freedom of the press. The context, between then and now, as an editor of the center-left paper Information put it, was different: “Information chose not to print the cartoons first time around. Back then we felt that they were a clear provocation against the Muslim community. Not this time though. People have been plotting to kill an innocent seventy-three-year-old man. This is completely unacceptable.” According to this liberal way of thinking, the fact that three alleged killers were taken into custody for plotting a religiously motivated murder made provoking the entire Muslim community acceptable!

The affair became complicated as the secret police bypassed legal procedure in ordering the two Tunisians (both with permanent resident permits) to be deported to their country of origin. Strange as it may seem the Danish-Moroccan plotter was released the following day. In the case of the other two, the old principle in Western jurisprudence that a person is innocent until proven guilty was rescinded. An anti-terrorist law had been passed in the parliament after 9/11 giving the authorities the right to accuse Danes and deport aliens without judicial procedures. This was the first case of this type. Denmark hasn’t experienced a single terrorist attack on its territory. Criticism was raised at this way of treating suspected criminals. The former operative chief of the secret police, Hans Jorgen Bonnichsen, was quoted as saying that not taking the case to court implied that the police didn’t have a strong case. Another voice of dissent came from the representative of the Danish Barristers’ Organization, Henrik Stagetorn. He questioned the violation of the rights of accused individuals to have charges against them legally tested. As he put it: “In Denmark it is now possible to be stamped ‘enemy of the state’ and then be deported without due process.” In effect, the alleged plot to murder an individual was elevated to the level of a crime against the state.

Even the Minister for Integration, under whose authority deportation is to take place, deplored this type of administrative procedure and voiced disappointment at the anti-terrorist law of 2001 which her own party had promoted. The case is still not closed, and the deportation has not yet been effected. The authorities are a bit cautious because Tunisia is on the list of countries that torture prisoners. Therefore, sending these men to that country would be in violation of international conventions.

Regardless of the lingering uncertainty concerning the guilt and fate of the suspects, the Danish press instinctively applied collective punishment against the Muslim community by showing its dedication to “freedom of the press.” The spokesman for the “Islamic Faith Community,” Kasem Ahmad, criticized the press for nurturing a radicalization of young Muslims by republishing the cartoons. Concerning the decision to deport the two Tunisian suspects, he found such a procedure to be at odds with the ideals of a state governed by law. “The right to have the accusation tested by a court of law should apply regardless of nationality, resident status, and without regard to the alleged crime. Especially in case of suspicion for serious crimes it can be even more necessary to have sharpened judicial control.” Kasem Ahmad acknowledges the right of the press to publish the cartoons but maintains that the critics must also have the right not to applaud their publication. He insists that the Danish Muslims accepted the court decision that confirmed the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish the cartoons the first time around; but their reproduction subsequently was an affront. He was also quoted in the daily Politiken for pointing out that “We support all measures in the fight against all types of extremism. We are willing to cooperate with the authorities in the struggle against a radicalization of Danish society.”

In the Muslim world, there were renewed demonstrations against Denmark, and an economic boycott of Danish products has once again been implemented in certain countries. Demonstrators in Afghanistan (including members of the parliament and students) have burned the Danish flag and demanded the withdrawal of Danish and Dutch troops. The foreign minister of the U.S.-installed Kabul regime also criticized the publication of the cartoons during an official visit to Denmark.

Parallel to the arrest of the alleged assassins and the reproduction of the Mohammed cartoon by the print media, Danish society was wreaked by disorders in different cities and towns for about one week. Reminiscent of what happened in France two years ago, second-generation immigrants set cars on fire and burned down schools. The opinion among social workers as well as some police officials was that these riots had little to do with the Mohammed cartoon crisis.

Contrary to the opinion of the prime minister, who refuses to see any implicit responsibility of society in the disturbances, the consensus among qualified observers is that Danish society has in its midst a significant number of young people who are maladjusted and feel maltreated because of the social conditions they live in as well as the constant harassment they feel subjected to. As far as the parents are concerned, besides being discriminated against themselves, they have difficulties controlling their teenage children. Seen from a sociological perspective, the formerly homogenous Danish society has had difficulty absorbing the influx of immigrants from the third world in general, and from Muslim countries in particular. The labor market in this high-tech economy is no longer providing good jobs to non-qualified laborers as it did only a generation ago.

The convergence of the events mentioned above turned February into a rather long month for Danish society. The risk is that the rift between ethnic Danes and the Muslim community will grow larger and that demagogy will gain the upper hand. What is at issue is how the political culture and mentality of the population will evolve. The signs are that intolerance, which not so long ago was still at the margin of public acceptability, is becoming part of the political common sense. A report by the World Economic Forum issued at the beginning of the year stated that the fear of Islam and the Muslim world is bigger in Denmark than in any other country. On the positive side, an opinion poll recently revealed that 58 percent of the Danish population felt that the republication of the Mohammed cartoon had been unnecessary.

An omen of what may lie ahead is that segments of the left have not been immune to the virus of Islamophobia. Besides having had to face the challenge of xenophobia in Danish society, for which it was unprepared, the “left of the left” has since the 1990s had to absorb the ideological onslaught of postmodernism and crude antisocialism. All the shortcomings of “really existing socialism” are used against the leftists who have refused to recant or abandon the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. What could be a positive debate on these issues often takes place on premises established by the liberal press and under its control. The paradoxical result is that freedom of expression for the left is limited by the really existing “freedom” of the mainstream press: to freely choose to promote or suppress opinion!

For the political parties to the left of Social Democracy, participation in the electoral process often demands adjustments and the relinquishing of ideological and political positions. The Socialist People’s Party (SF) offers a good example of the degree of opportunism necessary to become accepted in mainstream politics. At the last election the SF did rather well, becoming the third largest party in the parliament. Through its charismatic leader, it has attracted voters from the Social Democratic Party because of the latter’s incompetent leadership and lack of a clear program. The SF was able to capitalize on the difficulties of the leftist Unity List, which chose a young religious Muslim woman as one of its candidates. A public discussion on the question of the headscarf took place in the bourgeois press and was used to suppress the political message of the Unity List.

As the most influential political formation on the left, the SF after its recent electoral success has retreated from opposition to wars and regime change in the Muslim world, thus moving in the direction of the foreign policy followed by the Danish government. With regard to the European Union, the party seems suddenly to accept the center-right proposal for approval of a European Union constitution without a popular referendum. This is in contradiction with the party’s own principle that all along called for a democratic vote on an issue that will decrease national sovereignty. The new course by the SF was not brought to the attention of the public during the electoral campaign of November last year. The party which calls for a “here and now” political strategy is ideologically and politically pragmatic. It has consequently long aimed at becoming part of the governing elite.

Moreover, in relation to the thriving Islamophobia in large segments of the population, the leadership of the SF appears to have joined in the glory of Islam-bashing from a “leftist” position. The launching of SF’s new line towards Muslim immigrants is a recent development. A golden opportunity presented itself when the spokesman for the Islamic Faith Community and other moderate imams took part in a demonstration arranged by the fundamentalist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir to protest the reproduction of the Mohammed cartoon. The argument can be made that this participation was not a very wise decision given the present political climate in Denmark. Consequently the critical reaction on the part of the press and leading politicians from all parties (with the exception of the Unity List) was prompt and harsh. Given that it is on the margin of the Muslim community, this focus on the outlandish Hizb ut-Tahrir ironically gives the organization greater importance than it deserves.

In his personal blog, Villy Sovndal, the leader of the SF, attacked both members of the moderate Islamic Faith Community and the extremist Hizb ut-Tahir in a tone and vocabulary reminiscent of that utilized by the xenophobic Danish People’s Party. More worrisome is the fact that he now regrets his criticism of the original publication of the cartoons by the Jyllands-Posten and approves of the paper’s crusade in the name of the “free press.” In following such a course, the SF comes close to legitimizing the politics of the demonization of Islam; a strategy that has become the benchmark of right-wing politics both on the national and international levels. More troubling is the fact that this position blurs the fundamental question of a critical understanding of bourgeois democracy. In a complete surprise to the SF electoral base, Villy Sovndal clarified his political position in an interview with the paper Nyhedsavis on May 1, the international labor day, by saying: “The overthrow of capitalism is neither part of our praxis nor of our theory.”

The ramifications of the evolution of the Danish political landscape exemplify a process that may also be observed in other countries in Europe. This is uncharted territory for European socialism. An offensive posture by socialists in defense of bourgeois rights in capitalist society confuses many issues. Although some extreme Islamic organizations in Europe have a discourse of promoting another type of society that would be in counterpoint to the Western ideal types, including socialism, it doesn’t make them automatically subversive. Progressives need to remember that communists and anarchist parties in the past promoted a discourse of anticapitalism and worked for the overthrow of capitalist democracies!

Under the conditions of really existing capitalism, socialists should be aware that ghosts from the past still haunt our societies. What seems to be lacking in the critical frame of reference of Danish center-left politics is that a substantial segment of the population is responsive to xenophobic demagogy and that the most serious menace is to be found in the apparent change taking place in the political culture of society. European socialists ought to remember the warning by August Bebel that anti-Semitism is “the socialism of idiots.” In the present context, catering to a xenophobic discourse and nurturing Islamophobia serves the extreme right. It should be recalled that fascism is not only a structural phenomenon but requires an ideologically motivated mass movement. Seen in this light we can sense danger signals in most of Europe and not least in Denmark.

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