There's no escaping Middle East politics, even living in Denmark, as this writer does. This tolerant nation of 5.3 million, of whom 3 percent are Muslim, finds itself, to its amazement, the target of a boycott and attacks on its embassies, corporations, soldiers and citizens across the Muslim world.
The spark was provided by the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which published a series of cartoons last September showing representations of the prophet Mohammed. One of them showed a likeness of the prophet with a bomb fuse attached to his turban. Another showed him, in heaven, frantically waving off an approaching line of suicide bombers, telling them: "Stop! Stop! We ran out of virgins."
This display was part of a contest proposed by the newspaper's culture editor, Flemming Rose, to test, he said, whether fear of radical Islam was causing self-censorship among cartoonists. The cartoons provoked little public response until they were recently reprinted in a Norwegian journal.
But in the interval since September, some Danish Muslim leaders toured the Middle East, drumming up opposition both to the actual cartoons and to drawings that the Danish paper never produced nor published, including a cartoon of Mohammed with porcine features, and claiming other offenses against Islam, as well. Their campaign has now borne fruit.
Crowds of angry Muslims in several Arab countries burned the Danish flag, a mob attacked European Union offices in Gaza and at least two Danes were beaten in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark, Libya closed its embassy and Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Sudan lodged official protests.
A meeting of Arab interior ministers in Tunis demanded that Denmark punish the "authors" of the offense. Danish products were taken off the shelves in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain and other countries. In Afghanistan, at least 11 demonstrators lost their lives in violent clashes.
The orchestrated, sometimes violent demonstrations in Middle Eastern autocracies have upset the Danes. But what has truly shocked them has been the support of many immigrant and Danish-born Muslims for these actions. Danes have discovered that their generous immigration policies -- welcoming in tens of thousands of Muslims over the last few decades -- and their typically European pro-Palestinian politics have not rendered them immune to attacks from the Muslim world, including many Muslims in their own country.
Additionally, some Muslim leaders have gone beyond the legitimate complaint that the cartoons conflate Islamic terrorism with the religion itself. They are demanding that Danes abide by the Muslim proscription against any depiction of the prophet.
This is nothing less than a declaration of culture war: The Danes are to relinquish their right of free expression in order not to offend Muslim sensibilities.
Writing from Denmark, it seems clear that is not a position that Danes will support, to say the least. Denmark is a country where free speech and a free press are as jealously guarded as anywhere. The cartoons were offensive. The paper has apologized for giving offense. But it did not apologize for publishing the cartoons, citing the inalienable right of news organizations to free expression.
Although the Danish government took a similar tack, it had nothing to do with the original publication of the drawings. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen took strong exception to the content of the cartoons but reiterated the right of the press to free expression. Rasmussen's position is being treated in much of the Muslim world as too little, too late.
The Danish Parliament has been uncharacteristically united behind the government as it tries to weather the storm. Those calling for further penance for free expression are receiving little support. Former Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, who proposed the firing of the Jyllands-Posten editor, has been excoriated by left and right alike, including his own party.
At the same time, Danes are angry at what they see as betrayal by Britain and the United States by their official criticism of the cartoons, especially with Danish troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The demand for Danish adherence to Muslim sharia law -- in terms of representations of Mohammed -- has brought to the surface a long-simmering resentment felt by many Danes toward their large and largely nonintegrated Muslim population. Despite, or perhaps because of, the constant harangues from leftist politicians and academics that the fault lies with Danish racism, people here tend to compare the Muslim immigration with the Jewish immigration from communist Poland in the late '60s.
They ask why the Jews have all integrated, while many Muslims have not. They ask why the Jews have all given their children Danish citizenship (an opt-in procedure for the children of immigrants), while many Muslims have chosen to let their children be "second-generation immigrants."
As the violence has grown, so has the split among Danish Muslims. A friend who is a Muslim immigrant from Algeria takes strong exception to the charge of "Danish racism" claimed by her fellow Muslims and by the Danish left. She says that she has never felt a trace of prejudice since her arrival: not in housing, employment or personal interactions.
Perhaps it is because she is educated, middle class and religiously moderate. Perhaps she has been lucky. But she represents a large segment of Danish Muslims who have come to Denmark to integrate, not to reproduce the culture they left behind.
Moderate Muslims, such as leftist parliamentarian Naser Khader, have condemned the violence and called for calm dialogue. Last week, 300 Danes, Muslims and non-Muslims demonstrated in a Copenhagen park, calling for unity and reconciliation.
The demonstrators strongly condemned the anti-Danish actions across the world and in their own country, even while also opposing the offensive cartoons. Demonstration leaders emphasized that immigrants were just as upset about the torching of Danish embassies and Danish flags as were native Danes. Imam Radwan Mansour demanded "respect for the Danish passport," which they had struggled to earn.
It was the leadership of the nonintegrated Muslim community, including Imam Abu Bashar, a chaplain at Nyborg State Prison, who helped spread the calumny that the cartoons showed Mohammed with a pig's nose and ears. This segment of the community is receptive to the demand that all Danes (indeed all non-Muslims) abide by the proscriptions of Muslim law, prompting Danes to ask: Just what does immigration mean? Does it mean, "I will accept the culture of my adopted homeland, while striving to keep my own roots reasonably intact, unless they violate the law"? Or does it mean, "Thanks for a piece of your territory, and now I will teach you, or force you, to conform to my norms"?
Bangladeshi Islamists burn a Danish flag during a protest. The protesters called upon Muslims to boycott Danish and European goods. Photo by Rafiqur Rahman/Reuters
Adding to the furor are the Danish tabloids BT and Ekstra Bladet. The former published a picture of a Danish child asking her father, "Why do they hate us, daddy?" The latter featured a picture of an imam with a pig's nose.
As has been widely reported, Iran is now countering the original newspaper contest with one of its own: Holocaust cartoons. This reveals much about the Iranian leadership's worldview. Why, after all, not choose to hold an anti-Danish or even anti-Christian cartoon contest? But Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, has claimed that Israel is behind the Danish cartoons, and Iran has dared Denmark to prove its commitment to "free expression" by publishing cartoons mocking the Holocaust, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently labeled a hoax.
In other words, as penance for the perceived attack on Muslims, Denmark must make amends by publishing an attack on Jews. Jyllands-Posten at first acceded to the demand but has now retracted the offer. And late last week, editor Rose announced that he was taking a leave of absence.
One immediate effect of the Muslim attacks has been a marked increase in membership in the far-right anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, already the third largest in Denmark. (Party leader Pia Kiersgaard uses such terms as "Trojan horse" to describe Muslim immigrants.) It has received 500 requests for membership this past week; the usual number is 20 to 40 per week.
Interestingly, the Radical Left Party, the political antithesis of the Danish People's Party, and a supporter of immigrant rights, has also seen an increase (albeit more modest) in membership applications.
An effect yet to be seen, but quite probable, is a shift in the nature of Danish support for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel. Until now, the position of most Danes has tended toward black and white: Palestinian victims; Israeli oppressors. (Just days before the Palestinian election, Denmark's Channel 2 Television re-broadcast a 2002 documentary on the "Jenin massacre," a tendentious melange of anti-Israel propaganda that never mentioned the U.N. investigation showing the "massacre" to be a fabrication.)
The events of this month are likely to make the Danish position more nuanced. Danes will continue to support Palestinian statehood and oppose the Israeli occupation. But the boycott against Danes and the threats to Danish lives are likely to shift Danish sympathies.
When at next summer's annual Roskilde Rock Festival the Danish anti-Israel left builds its customary model of the separation barrier that Israel is constructing to keep out terrorists -- these activists call it the "apartheid wall" -- there may well be counterdemonstrators holding photos from the West Bank and Gaza of desecrated Danish flags and signs calling for "Death to Denmark." And the counterdemonstrators won't be just the Danish Jews.
Portions of this article first appeared in The Forward.
Jeffry V. Mallow, past national president of the Labor Zionist Alliance (Ameinu) is guest professor at Roskilde University, Denmark. His new book on Jewish humor, "'Our Pal God' and Other Presumptions," is published by iUniverse.