Conservatives and Christian Jihadis are having a field day framing the so-called “Cartoon Riots”. Sleepy Denmark, once just another crazy socialist country over the water, has become ground zero in the fight to defend western values. At a recent national gathering of Conservative activists, a prominent anti-immigration Republican Congressman began his speech with “God Bless Denmark.”
According to these folks, the attacks on Denmark are yet another example of inexorable divide between the Muslim world and the West- either a struggle between enlightenment and a new dark ages or a battle between Islam and Christian civilization, depending on which kind of reactionary is up at bat. As usual, this conservative triumphalism misses some crucial facts.
First, let’s state some basic principles. There is no justification for mob violence or the violation of national sovereignty in the form of burning down embassies. Nobody should lose their lives over insults, real or imagined. And of course, the right of free speech must be defended. All that being said, really to really understand what’s going on, we have to get beyond the easy assumptions which underlie the self-congratulation and understandable indignation promulgated by the chatterati and the Western media.
Firstly, the violence is not over theology. Nearly every article I have read about the issue has asserted that the reaction stems from a general prohibition in Islamic law on depicting the prophet. Such a framing glosses over the fact that the cartoons themselves are not neutral depictions of Mohammed. In fact, the cartoons picture the holiest of figures in the world’s fastest growing as a terrorist, an abuser of women and as a moron. I do not wish to excuse the brutality of the reaction, but we must reject the idea that a basic Muslim doctrine, one which seems exotic or quaint to most Westerners, is the source of the explosive violence. Such a mistake helps to depoliticize the conflicts surrounding the Middle East, including terrorist attacks on Western nations and the ongoing difficulties faced by Europe in dealing with a growing Muslim minority. According to the myth, Muslims don’t like pictures of their prophet, and they will burn down Embassies and kill innocent people if that is violated, even thousands of miles away. The reality is far more complicated.
As fellow UCSB graduate student Reza Aslan points out
, depictions of the prophets, including Mohammed, are surprisingly common throughout the Muslim world. Though officially forbidden by most interpretations of Muslim doctrine, there is tolerance for such depictions across the diverse communities of Muslims. In addition, the same proscription on images applies to depictions of Abraham and Jesus, also held in high regard in Muslim cosmology. People have not taken to burning things down because of the numerous Shiite and Sufi depictions of the prophet, nor have they rioted over the millions of images of Jesus, looking suspiciously lilly-white, hanging in Christian homes worldwide. The point here is that the prophet was maliciously depicted in publications hostile to Islam and Muslims.
This leads to a second point. For once, Jaques Chirac was right: publication of the cartoons was deliberate, racist provocation. While I am somewhat sympathetic to publications which have republished the images as a statement of raw civil libertarian solidarity, most of the first instances of publication were by right-wing, xenophobic or Christian-conservative magazines and newspapers. They were visual arguments that Islam is an inherently terroristic religion, a notion which is widespread throughout public and elite political opinion on the right.
The furor over the publications began in the context of increasingly tense relations between Denmark’s Muslim community and xenophobic forces in Danish society and politics. Parties across the political spectrum in Denmark have fallen over themselves to vilify and scapegoat the immigrant community, and central to this move has been the argument that Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy and rational, modern social order. This is a debate which rages throughout Europe, and is especially hot right now in the Nordic countries. I will briefly discuss the implications of all this for social democracy below. The upshot is that it is clear that the motivation for publishing the cartoons was to fulfill its own prophecy. The cartoons themselves advance the reductionist argument of Islam’s anti-democratic nature, and the inevitable reaction provides further evidence. The strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy was all-too effective. It is doubtful that anyone expected the level of anger or violence which resulted from the publication. This is a dangerous game.
As a side note, we can see a similar dynamic in the Netherlands, where a massive shift in public attitudes and government policy on immigration and integration have been spurred in part by provocative artistic and “literary” criticisms of the core values of Islam. Dutch society has been rocked by murders and threats in retaliation, and opportunistic politicians, including Somali women’s advocate Ayan Hirsi.
Lastly, let us admit that the politics behind the violence is not uniquely Muslim. The Syrian mob which destroyed the Danish and Norwegian embassies is different only in tactics from the besuited mobs attempting to theocracize public schools, jurisprudence and public policy in the United States. Likewise, while American liberals may romanticize Europe as fantastically tolerant and sophisticated, a significant portion of European society believes strongly that cultural (and racial) commonalities are the defining characteristics of their success as a democratic society. This is the same argument used by American mobs (and the government), to justified violence against Catholics, Jews, blacks, Chinese, Japanese and Native Americans. It is the same argument used by Samuel Huntington to argue for war with Islam and the militarization of our border with Mexico.
So, what does this all mean for Denmark, Norway and their neighbors? I have argued for years that the greatest challenge to Social Democracy now and in coming years is the pace of non-European immigration. The class solidarity which underlies the welfare-state consensus is strained tremendously by including people who are culturally are racially different. Just look at the difficulty in forging class consciousness in the United States. It is one thing to ask people to pay taxes to help their neighbor who looks, eats, worships, and celebrates just like them. It is quite another thing to ask for the same kind of solidarity for a group perceived as alien, dangerous and culturally subversive. It also provides structural challenges. The robust Nordic welfare model was predicated on easy access to a managed labor market. It is difficult, however, to sustain provision of subsidized housing, unemployment benefits, vocational training and health care to a population barred from full participation in the workforce because of deindustrialization, discrimination and, in some cases, lack of education. For the first time in the history of the most generous welfare state on Earth, a real underclass characterized by chronic underemployment has emerged. A recent article by Christopher Caldwell
about the Swedish welfare state and Muslim immigrants in the New York Times Magazine is particularly useful reading.
Thus, Danish politics has moved far to the right, with the Social Democratic Party adopting much of the conservative’s agenda and rhetoric on staving off immigration, limiting access to welfare and requiring “assimilation” on the part of Muslim immigrants. In the last Swedish national election, the Liberals surprised everyone by adopting anti-immigrant rhetoric shortly before election day. They picked up a sizable number of parliamentary seats, and then quickly abandoned the xenophobia in a strange display of election-year cynicism. In Norway, despite a solid mandate for the Center-Labour-Socialist government, the major anti-immigrant party continues to wield power.
All of these problems rest on top of a general dilemma for European nation states in a global economy. The economic imperative of workforce immigration and the principle of equitable refugee policy mean that there will be a growing number of Europeans who are Muslim and non-white. When the basic notion of citizenship and nationality is based on common cultural and religious history, how can this new population ever truly feel at home? Can a second or third-generation Algerian really feel French? Can a Pakistani be Swedish? Not so long as the definition of these national identities, explicitly or implicitly, means national and ethnic origin. True integration requires transformation on the part of immigrant communities, no doubt, but it also requires a reformulation of what it means to belong. This will take some time.
In this regard, American progressives have a slight edge over our friends in Europe. While racially-based notions of American identity are persistent and foundational, we are fortunate in that one version of the “official” definition of “Americanness” is ideological rather than cultural. In theory, anyone can be an American. Success on this front means beating back our own xenophobes and Christian identity advocates, as they proudly proclaim Denmark to be their favorite country in Europe.