The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 9
As noted in the earlier parts of this narrative, the crisis over the Muhammad caricatures was eagerly seized upon by many different parties, each with their own agendas. Among those already mentioned are:
- Kåre Bluitgen, arguably the instigator of the entire affair. His profit from the crisis has been immediate and tangible, with his fairly inconsequential book on Muhammad now already in its fourth printing, only months after its first publication.
- Various Danish politicians, notably Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen; MP Pia Kjærsgaard, leader of the Danish People's Party; and Naser Khader, MP for the Danish Social-Liberal Party; and others. All of these used the crisis to promote their own agendas.
- Danish imams, notably Ahmed Akkari and Abu Laban, who hastily seized upon the controversy, making a bid to raise their prestige in the Islamic community, and perhaps to obtain more funding from abroad.
- The governments of most Islamic nations, but especially Egypt, Syria and Iran. Again, the crisis itself was used by these states to promote agendas that were entirely disjunct from it.
- Confrontationalist religious leaders and activists in the Muslim world, notably in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Indonesia; as well as their counterparts in the more radical quarters of the Christian West, particularly in the United States. Although the crisis itself had a strong religious element, the focus of these groups was not on the issue of the crisis itself, but rather on the opportunity it afforded to enhance their own prestige, and to brand members of other religions as barbaric and inimical. Whether it was through instigating riots in Pakistan or inciting anti-Muslim prejudice through private radio and TV stations in the U.S., the religious confrontationalists were out in force, and clearly delighted at having a controversy to make use of.
In short, a whole host of persons and groups thronged to make use of the opportunities afforded them by the crisis -- opportunities for raising their own media profile and making their own issues known to the public.
Others, for somewhat more petty reasons, found the crisis to be a golden opportunity. One of these was Danish journalist Lasse Ellegaard, employed at the Danish daily Politiken. Ellegaard had a long career as a journalist, with jobs at most major Danish newspapers, including Jyllands-Posten and the respected left-wing newspaper Information (of which he was Editor in Chief from 1992 to 1994).
In clear emulation of war correspondents like Peter Arnett, Ellegaard had made a name for himself as one of those journalists who was always in the thick of things. In recent years, he'd been covering the Middle East, and he somehow often managed to find himself in the midst of dangerous situations, at risk to his own life... at least, that was the case when he reported them. Ellegaard enjoyed a mixed reputation -- some Danish journalists, who gave full credence to his reports, regarded him highly as an exemplar of war correspondents. Other, more cynical, souls noted that his reports seemed rather excessively dramatic.
Around the beginning of March 2006, Ellegaard had already made a number of reports from the widespread anti-Danish protests in the Middle East. His opinion was eagerly sought after by various interested parties, since he was considered an expert on the issue. For instance, he was booked to take part in a seminar on the topic "Publish and be damned? Free speech, religious hatred and the cartoon controversy" at the London Book Fair in March 2006, along with Fay Weldon and Abdul-Rehman Malik.
For the early March 2006 (#4) issue of Journalisten, the official magazine of Journalistforbundet (the Danish Journalists' Union), Lasse Ellegaard wrote a short piece on the chilling effects of the crisis upon the safety of Danes in the Middle East, titled "Er du tysker?" "Ja," svarede jeg uden videre. Optegnelser om et rolleskift som dansker i Mellemøsten. ("'Are you German?' 'Yes,' I replied immediately; Notes on a change of rôle as Dane in the Middle East").
In this remarkable article, morose in tone, Ellegaard described how he had been asked by a hotel employee whether he was German, and had replied in the affirmative. From this, he went on to describe how this unthinking denial of his nationality was the result of a self-censorship born of fear -- and how he continued to adopt other nationalities in his journalistic work in the region, in response to the perceived risk of being Danish in the Muslim world.
As peripheral as this article was, I am given to understand that it made a great impression in some journalistic circles -- the same circles which held Ellegaard's self-dramatizing style in high regard. Not everyone shared this view, nor did everyone agree with his assessment of the dangers of the Middle East.
Lene Frøslev, Middle East correspondent for the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende, chose not to be furtive about her nationality. In an article in the early April 2006 (#6) issue of Journalisten titled Laad os begrænse hysteriet ("Let us limit the hysteria"), she described how she had openly admitted her nationality, and had been met with no hostility or threatening behaviour. A telling excerpt from her article describes her meetings with the supposedly hostile Muslim world:
"Jeg ankom fra Cairo til Damaskus, 15 timer efter at hooligans – formentlig statshyrede – havde sat ild til den bygning, der huser den danske ambassade.
'Dansk?' spurgte de interesserede hos paspolitiet i lufthavnen.
'Ja,' smilede jeg.
'Velkommen til Damaskus!'
Mens Lasse Ellegaard fandt det nødvendigt at afsværge sig dansk identitet over for en tilfældig hotelkarl i den sikre og rige del af Beirut, så havde jeg ingen problemer med at spørge til folks mening om Muhammed-tegningerne i den for journalister ’forbudte’ Hizbollah-zone."
("I arrived in Damascus from Cairo, 15 hours after hooligans - presumably in the employ of the government - had set fire to the building housing the Danish embassy.
'Danish?', the airport customs officers asked interestedly.
'Yes,' I smiled.
'Welcome to Damascus!'"
Whereas Lasse Ellegaard found it necessary to disavow his Danish nationality to a random hotel employee in the wealthy and safe district of Beirut, I experienced no problems asking people's opinions of the Muhammad caricatures in the 'forbidden-to-journalists' Hizbollah zone.")
As Frøslev made it clear, the eagerness to attribute hostility and threat to the general Muslim population of the Middle East (most of whom probably couldn't care less) was not just a feature of the political and religious debate, it was also gratefully appropriated by elements of the media (of which Lasse Ellegaard was merely a sample) to enhance the cachet of their rôle as daring seekers of news, in the oh-so-dangerous wide world outside Denmark. Worse still, media reports exaggerating the scale of the crisis and the potential risk fed fuel to extremists who were all too happy to make use of it.
Continued, sort of, in the August roundup
Correction: Lasse Ellegaard, mentioned above, notes that he was Editor in Chief of Information from January 1, 1990 til September 1, 1994. He chooses not to comment on what he describes as my "casting aspersions on his journalistic integrity".
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