Saturday, February 18, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 2

(continued from Part 1)

On October 12 2005, a letter was sent to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, signed by the ambassadors of 11 predominantly Islamic countries. The letter was drafted by the Pakistani ambassador, who spoke the most perfect English of the group, and vetted by their respective governments.

In the letter, the 11 requested a meeting with Fogh Rasmussen, and proposed that it be held on October 19 2005. The letter has since been made out to deal only with the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. For instance, Fogh Rasmussen has recently made a statement in the English-language weekly al-Ahram that presented the matter as solely one of the diplomats demanding that the government of Denmark take legal steps to punish the newspaper that published the caricatures.

However, there was much more to the diplomats' letter.

The publication of the caricatures in Jyllands-Posten, on September 30 2005, was not the sole event during the period that might be construed as anti-Islamic agitation. In fact, several occurrences during the summer and early autumn of 2005 had given the diplomats good reason to view the situation with alarm. In the letter, they isolated four events, only one of which was the publication of the caricatures.

First, there was the matter of Louise Frevert, a somewhat eccentric (verging on the bizarre) politician from the Danish People's Party (mentioned in the preceding post). In newspapers and on her homepage, she had made a number of inflammatory remarks, tarring all Muslims with the same brush, as terrorists, and describing Islam as a "religion totally hostile to humanity".

Second, there was the matter of Kaj Vilhelmsen, a Danish anti-Islamic extremist, who had made some remarks on the radio urging the ethnic cleansing of all "Mohammedans" (as I mentioned previously, this is a phrase extremely odious to Muslims) from Europe, as the only way to prevent otherwise inevitable terrorist attacks. Failing that, Vilhelmsen urged the wholesale slaughter of the Muslim immigrants. It should be noted that Vilhelmsen was sentenced to 14 days in jail for this, recently -- since these remarks were a clear transgression of Danish law, specifically section 266b of the Danish penal code, dealing with racist utterances, etc.

Third, Denmark's minister of cultural affairs, Brian Mikkelsen (a singularly disagreeable man), had made a number of statements at a conference of the Conservative Party in September 2005, citing the Muslim community as a "parallel society within Denmark", practicing "medieval norms and undemocratic mentality".

And finally, the caricatures.

Separately, all of these might have been shrugged off -- but together, and added to many other minor provocations, a picture was beginning to form of a Denmark gearing up for serious discrimination against Muslims.

Sensibly, the diplomats (with the approval of their governments) asked for a meeting with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to discuss the matter -- and then something unexpected happened, something that left the diplomats dumbfounded.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to meet with them.

Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, this was a instance of monumental stupidity. To anyone versed in Danish history, it was not all that surprising. It's almost a tradition that Danish heads of government have a blind spot in the area of foreign policy, combined with a foolish belief that they can handle it on their own (in a "statesmanlike" manner, one would presume), without the need for such petty details as consultation with the Foreign Ministry.

In this respect, Anders Fogh Rasmussen was no different than a number of his predecessors in office.

For instance, there was H.E. Hørring, who had to step down in 1900 amidst a scandal over his attempts (without consulting the Foreign Ministry) to bribe U.S. senators to propose a U.S. purchase of the Danish West Indies. Or J.C. Christensen, who almost touched off World War I a decade before time, in 1905, when he (without consulting the Foreign Ministry) attempted to broker a deal with the German general staff for Denmark to become a military ally of Germany -- placing the strategically important straits of Denmark in German control, a situation that would almost certainly have led to war within a year. Fortunately, the Germans saw the hazards of the proposal, and declined.

In this instance, the situation was complicated by the fact that Anders Fogh Rasmussen has a very strained relationship with his foreign minister, Per Stig Møller. Regrettably so, since Møller is a highly intelligent man with a gift for diplomacy. Had he been involved from the start, it is fair to say that the situation might not have escalated.

It must be considered probable that Fogh Rasmussens refusal to meet with the diplomats was intended to gain him credibility at home -- in effect, to garner him an advantage in domestic politics, by making him appear to defend Danish (and Western) freedoms against perceived foreign pressure. He seems to have been unaware of the degree to which he was transgressing against established diplomatic convention by refusing to even consult with the 11 diplomats.

At any rate, the refusal of Anders Fogh Rasmussen to meet with the diplomats created a completely new and unprecedented situation. Suddenly, the matter had become a diplomatic crisis. Only four days later, the government of Egypt called the Danish ambassador in Cairo in for a consultation. He was asked to convey to the Danish government that the government of Egypt expected the Danish government to officially distance itself from the caricatures, and warned that the situation was at risk of escalating.

When the Danish government didn't comply, Egypt contacted the other Muslim countries, the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and the United Nations, to organize diplomatic protest against the caricatures.

At this stage, the ancillary issues had fallen by the wayside, and only the subject of the caricatures remained an issue. The situation had escalated into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

It was not to remain so.

(Continued in part 3)

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2 Comments:

Blogger JD said...

RP wrote: "It should be noted that Vilhelmsen was sentenced to 14 days in jail for this, recently -- since these remarks was a clear transgression of Danish law dealing with inciting criminal acts."

Once again, a very interesting post. Keep it up! :)

Now, just out of curiosity, in the above passage, you state that Vilhelmsen received a punishment (as nominal as 14 days in jail is) for having incited people toward making criminal acts. My question is, what is the difference between this person's speech, which obviously crossed the line of Danish law, causing the accused to be punished, yet (presumably) caused no criminal acts to actually be committed, and the publication of the cartoons, which, IMO, also crossed the line of Danish law (although obviously not in the eyes of the Danish justice system), caused no punishment to the accused, but did incite numerous people worldwide to do criminal acts?

I can't believe that the medium (radio vs. newspapers) would make a difference. Nor can I believe that inciting people outside of the country is "OK" while inciting people inside of Denmark is not. (For example, I strongly suspect that if similar cartoons were published in Denmark that crossed Jewish sensitivities - say, the topic of the Holocaust - and that, while Danish Jews didn't do criminal acts, but (say) French Jews did, the publishers of these cartoons would be punished with jail time.

So what is the difference?

20 February, 2006 03:00  
Blogger RP said...

A small correction (made in the main text of the blogpost)... please read as: "...since these remarks were a clear transgression of Danish law, specifically section 266b of the Danish penal code, dealing with racist utterances, etc."

Kaj Vilhelmsen was sentenced to 14 days of hæfte (which term I'll explain in a moment) at the Municipal Court of Copenhagen, on February 13 2006.

The Danish penal code allows for three levels of punishment for a breach of the law:

At the lowest level, there is the fine. If one cannot, or will not, pay a fine, one can serve time in jail instead.

At the next level, there is hæfte, which is equivalent to jail, except that it doesn't leave a mark on your criminal record. This is often used for misdemeanors.

The final level is actual jail time, which does leave a blot on the criminal record of the punished person (although there is an obsolescence clause -- as time passes, some types of old crimes are erased, each type of crime having a separate obsolescence period).

All of these judgements can, of course, be made suspended, only to be invoked in the case of a future transgression.

The fact that Kaj Vilhelmsen's sentence was fairly lenient reflects two issues. First, there is an inherent conflict with free speech; second, and most importantly, Kaj Vilhelmsen is a crackpot and his audience is tiny. To punish him harshly would be to make a martyr of him. It would be counterproductive.

It should be noted that Radio Holger, his radio station, had its broadcast license suspended for three months. That was a much more useful outcome, in my opinion.

20 February, 2006 12:30  

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