Monday, March 20, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 7

(continued from Part 6)

As February 2006 drew to a close, the domestic political situation for the government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen was essentially unchanged. The opposition had at no time managed to muster a united stance on the issue of the caricatures. The major opposition party, the Social Democrats, was leery of seeming too "immigrant-friendly", knowing that this would cost them votes to their main competition, the xenophobic Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti).

It may seem strange that voters would jump from a center-left party to a party that is often perceived as an extreme-right party. However, the situation is less clear-cut than that. The Danish People's Party appeals to voters not only on a xenophobic platform, but also with a centrist pro-welfare agenda which is at odds with the Liberalist-Conservative government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, but which is very close to the Social Democratic agenda. As a result, the jump from Social Democrat to DPP is a short one, requiring only a xenophobic shift.

The opinion polls supported this view; in late October 2005, before the crisis developed, the Social Democrats mustered the support of 22.5% of the voters, and the DPP were at 12.8%. A month later, in mid-November, both parties had gained slightly, as the initial stage of the crisis polarised opinions for and against xenophobia. The Social Democrats were now at 26.2% and the DPP at 14.0%. However, as the crisis wore on, and the Danish public began to feel more and more beleaguered by what they viewed as an essentially unfair foe, the opinion polls shifted. As the Social Democrats continued to lie low, they lost any initiative, and this showed in the polls. By mid-February 2006, they were down to 21.8%, and the DPP was up to a remarkable 17.8%, their largest voter support ever.

Clearly, the DPP were gaining as a result of a public perception that they represented a "tough stance" on "Islamic aggression" towards a Denmark that increasingly considered itself the wronged party. Equally clearly, the Social Democrats were losing through lack of leadership. A strategy of "borgfred" was announced early on, but only served to make the Social Democrats look ineffectual. Borgfred (literally, "peace in the castle") is a Danish political term that stems from the fact that the seat of parliament is Christiansborg Palace, and which means that the opposition refrains from attacking the government in a time of national crisis, as a matter of good conduct. Worse still, when Anders Fogh Rasmussen failed to reciprocate by not attacking the opposition, this failed strategy gave him the initiative. Even worse, the Social Democrats couldn't "reopen hostilities" without seeming unpatriotic and petty. For the Social Democrats, it was a no-win situation.

Not so for the opposition Danish Social Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre), which had previously made working for a stable multi-ethnic Danish society a key plank of their platform, and which included a number of prominent moderate Muslims in their ranks. For the DSLP, the situation was a gift, and their polls reflected this. In late October 2005, they stood at 9.6% voter support, slightly above their latest election result of 9.2%). By mid-November, they had dropped back a bit, but as they began to make their position known, they made great advances. By mid-February 2006, they stood at 12.1% voter support, a respectable advance.

One strong influence on this advance was that of the prominent Muslim member of the DSLP, Naser Khader. In response to the crisis, he had been instrumental in forming a moderate Muslim political network, Demokratiske Muslimer ("Democratic Muslims"), which strove to bring a moderate Muslim viewpoint to the debate, both in Denmark and in the Islamic world.

The DSLP's stance on the crisis was strongly disapproving of the government's handling of the process, but equally critical of the motives behind the protests in the Islamic countries. In a statement issued by the party's parliamentarians on February 22 2006, the criticism rained heavily on both sides:
"Uanset om man er enig eller uenig i de 11 ambassadørers henvendelse til regeringen, så forudsætter demokratiet ytringsfrihed, ligeværd og dialog. Når 11 ambassadører henvender sig og beder om et møde, så er der 11 regeringer bag. Derfor er det i sig selv en diplomatisk provokation at afvise ønsket om møde. Afvisningen bliver også en afvisning af dialog og kommer til at virke som manglende respekt for ligeværd.

"Der er mange dagsordener bag de aktioner, der har udviklet sig som en steppebrand i muslimske lande. Vi støtter regeringens bestræbelser på at få urolighederne stoppet, og vi tager stærkt afstand fra afbrænding af ambassader og trusler mod danskere. Vi tager også afstand fra alle ekstremister, der har bidraget til at få udviklingen ud af kontrol.

"Vi er enige i, at JP har ret til at offentliggøre tegninger og tekst, der provokerer og prøver grænser af. Den ret til ytringsfrihed vil vi forsvare hver dag. Men vi har også selv ret til at have en mening og ytre os om det, vi læser i en avis. Det er vel det, der er meningen med provokationerne i bl.a. JP.

"Muslimers integration i Danmark går ikke gennem 'hån, spot og latterliggørelse', hvilket var en del af JP’s begrundelse for tegningerne. Og vi bryder os bestemt ikke om det had, der vises ved afbrænding af Dannebrog."


("Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the 11 ambassador's letter to the government, democracy presupposes freedom of speech, equality and dialogue. When 11 ambassadors ask for a meeting, they represent 11 governments. It is therefore a diplomatic provocation in itself to refuse the request for a meeting. The refusal also becomes a refusal of dialogue and gives the appearance of a lack of respect for equality.

"There are many agendas behind the events that have developed like a bushfire in the Muslim countries. We support the government's efforts to bring the unrest to an end, and we strongly deplore the burning of embassies and threats towards Danes. We also deplore all extremists who have contributed to bringing the development out of control.

"We agree that JP [= Jyllands-Posten] has the right to publish illustrations and text that provoke and test limits. That right to freedom of speech is something that we will defend every day. But we also have the right to have an opinion about what we read in a newspaper. Isn't that what the intent of the provocations in JP, among others, is?

"The integration of Muslims in Denmark does not proceed through 'scorn, mockery and ridicule', which was part of JP's justification for the drawings. [RP's note: this was, in fact, a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of JP's original article, which merely said that any religion must be willing to put up with these things in a free society] And we definitely do not care for the hatred that is shown by burning the Danish flag."

The DSLP, thus, were profiling themselves as the party of choice for moderates who supported multi-ethnic society, and showing a demonstratively even-handed attitude of disdain towards extremists on both sides. Other parties had a less clear stance.

The voter support of the Danish Liberal Party (Venstre), the party of the prime minister, made no significant advances during the period, nor did they suffer any significant losses. This was probably the net result of losing one set of voters and gaining another (those who didn't care for Fogh Rasmussen's arrogant approach to the crisis, and those who approved of it). On the other hand, the supporting government party, the Conservatives, suffered a slight setback, probably for the same reason as the Social Democrats. The Conservatives had never been politically far from the Social Democrats, since the two parties represented more or less moderate mirror images, on either side of the center. As a result, they had the same weaknesses to the DPP's magnetic effect on the more xenophobic voters.

The most interesting party to study, in the polls, was the tiny Christian Democratic Party (Kristendemokraterne). In a time of crisis coloured by religion, one would think that this party, ever a marginal presence in Danish politics, would profit in the polls. Not so, however. Only minor deviations took place in their poll results throughout the period. It should be remarked, in this context, that the semi-official stance of the Christian Democrats was in support of the Muslim moral outrage at the caricatures, on the grounds that they were offensive to people of faith, whatever the faith. The Christian Democratic view was that the caricatures marked a secular lack of understanding of the very concept of anything being sacred and beyond mockery.

This may be taken as indicating that the focus of the crisis, as least in the minds of the voters of Denmark, was not a religious struggle between Christians and Muslims, but a cultural clash. It was a collision between the cultural background and expectations of the (secularised and Western) nation of Denmark, and the cultural background and expectations of the (religious and Middle Eastern) Muslim communities in Denmark -- a collision that grew to involve other nations as well. Hence, instead of moving their votes to the Christian Democrats, the voters shifted to the DPP, whose xenophobia were more clearly culturally oriented than religious.

(Continued in part 8)

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4 Comments:

Blogger JD said...

RP wrote: "...towards a Denmark that increasingly considered itself the wronged party."

I find this interesting if only because, among the Muslim blogging community that I participate in, I doubt if any of us would have ever considered Denmark to have been the "wronged party."


"...which merely said that any religion must be willing to put up with these things in a free society."

Personally, I find this viewpoint to be nothing but pure and utter BS. This demonstrates a complete lack of tolerance and respect toward those who have anything more than a nominal (cultural) concern for their religion, regardless of what religion that may be. (Your Christian Democratic Party understands this, as reflected in their position on the issue.)

To me, this statement qualifies as sedition, as I wrote about recently in my post, Islamophobia = Sedition. (Certainly, Rose would have been arrested for sedition here, if he had been working for a Singaporean newspaper.)

For all the pats on the back your countrymen give themselves with regard to a positive image internationally, they've managed to ignore (quite successfully) the cancer that's eating away at their society within in being unable to deal with minority populations.


Keep it up! You're doing well. :)

20 March, 2006 15:49  
Blogger RP said...

jd wrote: I doubt if any of us would have ever considered Denmark to have been the "wronged party."

Hardly surprising. It seems as if a great deal of "entrenchment thinking" is going on in both camps. But let me turn the matter around, to better put in perspective:

Suppose a Singaporean newspaper had done something similar (disregarding for a moment the Sedition Act, which would probably result in a government response). Would you consider it fair for the world to consider all Singaporeans responsible for this one paper's wilfulness?

I doubt that you would.

Assuming, further, that a large part of the world nevertheless held all Singaporeans responsible for the actions of this hypothetical paper... wouldn't you suppose that Singaporeans might come to consider themselves wronged?

And from that sense of feeling wronged, it's a small step to outright hostility.

In effect, the Muslim world's exaggerated response (and if you don't think burning embassies and issuing death threats is "exaggerated", then we're not continuing this conversation) to Jyllands-Posten's provocation (whatever the motives of that provocation might have been), is in danger of producing in the general Danish population exactly the state of anti-Muslim xenophobia that previously was only present in a minority.

Avoiding Singaporean law for a moment, let's look at the wider Muslim community... now let me ask you: Does it not strike you as fantastically annoying that the prevailing media image in the West is that "Muslim = terrorist"? It annoys me, and I'm not Muslim.

Now, every time you run into this unfair and untrue stereotype in the media, I want you to conjure up a similar unfair stereotype, "Dane = Muslim-hater". Then, perhaps, you'll see what I'm getting at.

I deal with individuals. I'm quite willing to attribute wickedness to single persons. However, it is always wrong to tarnish an entire community for the wrongs committed by a subset thereof.

jd wrote: This demonstrates a complete lack of tolerance and respect toward those who have anything more than a nominal (cultural) concern for their religion, regardless of what religion that may be. (Your Christian Democratic Party understands this, as reflected in their position on the issue.)

I agree, it is rude and crude and uncouth and worthy of disrespect. But JP's original contention that "a religion must be willing to put up with such things", as foolish as it is, is still a valid political opinion, one that must be protected as free speech. Had they stuck at saying only that, I'd have defended their right to say so, "to the death" (sorry, I just had a Voltaire-ish moment).

But they didn't stick at that. They added to this statement an outright provocation, using the caricatures. At this point, I believe they went too far (not least because I don't fully credit their statement that no anti-Muslim sentiments were involved, only concern for freedom of speech). Even so, they had a legal right to print those caricatures, assuming they were willing to run the risk of prosecution under the blasphemy or racism articles of the Danish penal code.

That's the main thing about freedom of the press: you can't always decide in advance whether a marginally legal statement is legal or not. Sometimes you just have to let the courts decide afterwards.

As it happens, the police prosecutor charged with evaluating the complaints lodged against JP in this connection recently handed in a report (reproduced as a PDF file here, in Danish) saying that the caricatures, as they were, weren't actionable under Danish law.

Disagreeing with that decision is everyone's right, but that's the law of the land, as it applies to freedom of speech... the same law that protects citizens who protest against the government. It's an important liberty, even when it is abused. Give up one part of it, and you'd better be prepared to lose all of it.

21 March, 2006 12:39  
Anonymous Brian Holmes said...

This is quite a useful piece of writing, thank you very much.

I am curious about this particular aspect:

"It may seem strange that voters would jump from a center-left party to a party that is often perceived as an extreme-right party. However, the situation is less clear-cut than that. The Danish People's Party appeals to voters not only on a xenophobic platform, but also with a centrist pro-welfare agenda which is at odds with the Liberalist-Conservative government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, but which is very close to the Social Democratic agenda. As a result, the jump from Social Democrat to DPP is a short one, requiring only a xenophobic shift."

I have developed the hypothesis that rising European racism, in general (that is, across the different forms of the social state), may serve the economic function of maintaining an illegal immigrant workforce which is not eligible for welfare benefits and minimum wages. The immigrant workforce is destined to grow with the ageing of the European populations. Given the already high levels of taxation in most EU countries, offering welfare benefits to immigrant workers would require redistribution from current beneficiaries. The emergence of nationalist-xenophobic parties is therefore a way to maintain the barriers against aquisition of formal citizenship, while illegal immigration continues to suppply the demands of the labor markets.

Denmark appears to be a particularly aggravated case of this hypothesis. It practices a very costly form of unemployment insurance known as "flexicurity." But it also has quite high levels of immigrant labor. Are these immigrants offered the benefits of flexicurity? To what extent is so called "informal" or black-market labor being used in Denmark? Is there any function relation between the DPP's xenophobia and its support of the welfare state?

These questions appear important, given the exemplary status of the Danish unemployment model, which is now almost certain to influence legislation in France, for example. My view is that within the model of intense international competition that now prevails, it is impossible to offer welfare coverage to entire populations. Yet entrenched voting blocs demand the maintenance of the welfare state. Presently, youth, women and immigrants serve as the "adjustment variables" in a country like France - downward pressure on their wage lends competitivity to the economy, while preserving the benefits of the social state for the most well-represented categories. Would the introduction of a flexicurity system in the so-called "continental conservative" or "corporatist" welfare states (France, Germany, Belgium in particular) lead almost inexorably to the rising racism that has been characteristic of Denmark over the last decade?

I am afraid rising racism is almost certain, for these functional reasons, unless the EU can do something to lessen the conditions of hypercompetition which have been imposed around the world by neoliberalmanagement and the financialized economy.

Your views on this would be much appreciated.

all the best, and thanks again for the very careful writing,

Brian Holmes

22 March, 2006 16:56  
Anonymous Santiago said...

WOW! One of the best pieces of political analysis I ve ever read... If you are not a professional or have a degree on something related to politics or journalism, you are definitevely a gifted person...

Also, Brian Holmes opinions were quite smart and "The emergence of nationalist-xenophobic parties is therefore a way to maintain the barriers against aquisition of formal citizenship, while illegal immigration continues to suppply the demands of the labor markets." is a pretty cool idea..

Santiago

PD: sorry for commenting 10 months after the post, but I still find it very interesting :)

18 January, 2007 03:02  

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