Oslo: Courage and Cowardice in Scandinavia

The cartoon controversy has cowed all the Nordic countries except Denmark

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When a car bomb exploded outside Denmark’s embassy in Islamabad on June 2, killing eight, it was easy to guess who had done it and why. Sure enough, some days later al-Qaeda took credit and confirmed its motive: the now-infamous Muhammed cartoons. Originally published in the Jyllands-Posten daily on September 30, 2005, they were reprinted by a raft of Danish dailies this February 13 in a show of solidarity with turban-bomb cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, the target of three would-be assassins who had been arrested the day before. Presumably this rather surprising action — the Danish media, generally speaking, have given Jyllands-Posten a rough time for the past three years for upsetting the Muslims — was the immediate cause for the bombing.

It’s important to understand just what’s going on here, because it’s not just about yellowing cartoons – it’s about Western freedoms.

The first time around, it will be remembered, the cartoons occasioned riots, vandalism, flag burnings, and over 100 deaths worldwide; Danish embassies were torched in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Little of this mayhem was spontaneous. Most of it took place months after the cartoons were published, and was instigated by Danish imams, who had taken the cartoons (along with more incendiary pictures that they falsely represented as having been published in Denmark) around the Muslim world with the express intention of whipping up a frenzy. Their aim: to pressure tiny Denmark to rein in free speech. The frenzy materialised – but not the expected capitulation. The Danes, you see, have a gutsy side. It came out one night during the Nazi occupation: under the Germans’ noses, they ferried almost all their Jews to safety in Sweden.

So it was that when confronted with the wrath of Hitler’s present-day counterparts – and with “allies” and media around the world who condemned Jyllands-Posten while oozing “understanding” for the rampaging hoodlums, who, after all, had no other way of communicating the extent to which the cartoons had wounded their delicate sensibilities – the Danes stood firm. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused even to meet Muslim ambassadors, because, he said, the issues were so clear that there was “nothing to discuss.” That’s how to respond to jihadists.

Sweden took another route. When a political website featured a Jyllands-Posten cartoon, the government sent police to close it down. More recently, hit with his own cartoon crisis involving artist Lars Vilks, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt not only met Muslim ambassadors, but was praised by one for his “spirit of appeasement.”

Norway didn’t cover itself in glory, either. On the pretext that a tiny newspaper, Magazinet, had reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (never mind that major dailies in Spain, Germany, and France had done so as well), the cartoon jihadists chose to target Norway as well, plainly betting that the dialogue-happy, UN-worshipping “peace country” would curb its freedoms at the first hint of Muslim displeasure.

They were right. Norway’s government caved in ignominiously, holding a press conference on February 10, 2006, at which Magazinet’s cowed editor, Vebjørn Selbekk, with the blessing of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, grovelled before a posse of imams and apologised to them for exercising his freedom of speech.It was probably the most disgraceful day in modern Norwegian history, but you wouldn’t know it by the politicians and journalists, who celebrated this selling out of freedom as a triumph of peacemaking.

As the gods of irony would have it, the Islamabad bombing came on the same day that Norway’s Dominique de Villepin-like Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, was booked for a panel discussion on the Norwegian elite’s favourite topic, racism. Same old line: the only problem with “our new countrymen” is that the old countrymen are all bigots. Arriving late, Gahr Støre said he’d just been asked by an interviewer whether Pakistanis in Denmark had condemned the explosions. The audience laughed. His point was clear: of course they had; it was racist even to ask! In fact the Muslim ”condemnations” had almost invariably come with the usual “but” – violence was wrong, but the bombers’ rage was “understandable.”

Meanwhile, Norwegian Muslim politician Ali Khan was congratulating Norway for having spared itself Denmark’s fate through its wise actions – namely, the display of dhimmi grovelling at that notorious press conference. In short, Norway needn’t fear terrorist attacks – it had already surrendered.

But there was a new wrinkle. Trondheim ‘s Adresseavisen daily ran a cartoon which, though not depicting Muhammed, angered “moderate” Muslim lawyer Abid Q. Raja, who – apparently feeling that Adresseavisen had obeyed the word but not the spirit of the Magazinet accords – argued that the cartoon shouldn’t have been published because it would be “misunderstood” by Muslims. Pakistani ambassador Rab Nawaz Khan agreed, calling the cartoon an “act of terror” that can “endanger the lives of Norwegian citizens.” When a cartoon is terrorism and a bomb is a form of expression, you’re in Orwell country.

Yet the star of the moment was Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad, who only days before the bombing delivered what you might call Norway’s version of Rowan Williams’s sharia lecture. Solstad didn’t go in for sharia explicitly – instead, he made the argument that free speech is actually undesirable, since it drowns meritorious works (such as his novels, presumably) in a sea of vulgarity (a category to which he relegated the Muhammed cartoons). Solstad’s colleagues offered polite demurrals.

Scandinavia is a house divided against itself. Tough little Denmark may well be the only Western European country to retain its liberties. As for Norway and Sweden – well, the only rotten thing in Denmark today, alas, is the stink of cowardice wafting in from across the Skagerrak.