Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cartoon Crisis - perspectives

What was the cartoon crisis all about? At least four interpretations may be offered.

1. Was it a matter of freedom of expression? This was the position taken by Jyllands-Posten and the Danish Government

2. A second possible interpretation is that the cartoon crisis has to do with the recognition or the lack thereof of a religious minority.

3. Domestic politics in Middle Easter, Asian and African Countries. Did oppressive and unpopular governments use the cartoon crisis to divert the attention of the public away from domestic politics towards international religious issues.

4. Or was the cartoon crisis an indication of a clash of civilizations? Was it basically a clash between a democratic West and an undemocratic Muslim world? It was of course tempting to combine the conflicts in the cartoon crisis with the fight against terrorism, which in the minds of most people is a fight against Islamism. Furthermore, for many it does not make sense to distinguish between Islam and Islamism. Some of the statements from among politicians in The Danish People’s Party point clearly in that direction.

Before coming to my own conclusion I want to draw your attention to a follow-up to the cartoon crisis, the socalled headscar row, which I think throws an interesting light on the cartoon crisis.

The Headscarf Row
When, in March 2006, the young Muslim woman, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, began to appear in a series of television shows, “Adam and Asmaa”, wearing the hijab – an Islamic headscarf – a storm broke out I n the media and among politicians.A storm gaining momentum in April 2007, when she announced her plans to run for Parliament as a candidate for the Danish Red-Green Alliance, a Danish left wing party. If elected, she would become the first Muslim woman in the Danish Parliament. What caused a very heated debate, though, was that this 25-year-old woman was a devout Muslim insisting on wearing a headscarf and who, furthermore, on religious grounds, refused to shake hands with men.

Time does not permit me to go through the headscarf row. Suffice to say that Asmaa was not elected, but before and after the election we had a very heated debate that touched a number of issues surrounding the headscarf
* Ban on headscarves etc.
* Freedom of expression – freedom of religion
* Gender equality
* Value politics – what is danishness
* Islam – Islamism – terrorism
Attempting to analyse the Danish debates on the headscarf, it becomes clear that the headscarf had become an arena for many other battles in the Danish society.

Even though different, the cartoon crisis and the headscarf row were linked and had significant similarities.
* The most obvious link between the two was Asmaa Abdol-Hamid. She had been the spokesperson for the eleven Muslim organisations responding to the Prophet-cartoons by filing a lawsuit against Jyllands-Posten. She had headed the protest against the Danish cartoons, and she became the target of many Danes protesting against her headscarf.

* The cartoons were perceived as a provocation by many Muslims, in Denmark as abroad: Muslims were challenged to accept the cartoons on the basis of the constitutional freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Denmark. Asmaa’s headscarf (and her refusal to shake hands with men) was perceived as a provocation by many non-Muslims in Denmark: on the same basis of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, Danes were challenged to accept new ways of dressing – new ways of behaviour.

And now I come to my conclusion. The cartoon crisis and the headscarf row may – in may opinion - best be understood as seen as side effects of the ongoing globalisation

Globalisation increases and intensifies communication, for better and for worse. The cartoon crisis began as a national controversy, but soon developed into an international crisis. Probably, most, if not all, actors in the cartoon crisis had initially intended their words and actions to be taken note of in the Danish society only. Also, the decisions taken by politicians seem to have been based solely on domestic political premises. Normally, we do not expect what we say in Denmark to be heard and reacted upon in the rest of the world. This was, however, what happened during the cartoon crisis.

More importantly globalisation leads to the development of multicultural and multireligious societies. These Danish controversies may be seen as the birth pangs of the multicultural and multireligious society: the Danish society is struggling to come to terms with the fact that it now contains a much larger diversity than it has ever done before. At the same time the controversies may reflect how Muslims in Denmark are struggling to adapt to a non-Muslim society, and perhaps also struggling to develop a European version of Islam.

The multireligious nature of globalised societies has been perceived as a serious threat to the cohesion of the Danish society. The solution offered by our prime minister is – on the basis of the experiences during the cartoon crisis – to “Keep Religion Indoors” (as was the title of a feature article with him in a Danish Newspaper in May 2006. “To secure a strong coherence in the future, I am of the opinion that it would be good if religion would take up less space in the public sphere.” He would not in any way interfere with people’s freedom of religion; he insisted that “we must distinguish between religion and politics” and that “religion is first of all a private issue. If we are to maintain this strong coherence, which is so crucial for Denmark’s progress and stability, it is necessary that we also in the future encounter each other in the public sphere as human beings and citizens in Denmark – and not as representatives of different religions”.

This leads me to the last element in my analysis of the effects of globalisation. A number of researchers have noted that there is a significant connection between globalisation and the increasing visibility of religion as a political factor in various parts of the world. There is no indication, however, that religion will disappear from the public space. On the contrary all members of the Danish society will have to learn to live with the presence of religion and religions in the public space. The challenge for representatives of all religions, then, will be to show how they as religious communities can contribute to the common good of society – thereby becoming a part of the solutions to societal problems instead of being part of the problems.

1 comment:

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