The Crises of Multiculturalism: Extract from ‘Mediating the Crisis’: Revisiting the ‘Danish cartoon controversy’of 2005-6


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The following is an extract from the book The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, by Gavan Titley and Alana Lentin, which was published by Zed Books on July 10th. The preface was written by the Guardian and The Nation journalist Gary Younge and is available on The Nation website. There is also a website,, which allows you to follow any discussions about the issues presented or the book and to find out more. Finally, some extracts have also been published on the excellent Critical Legal Thinking dealing with the ‘headscarf debates’.

This extract is taken from Chapter 4: ‘Mediating the crisis’, and revisits the ‘Danish cartoon controversy’ of 2005-6. Thanks to Gavan and Alana for allows us to publish it here.


Something rotten, etc, etc

John Durham Peters (2008) maintains that freedom of speech has a recursive character, where the substantive issue at stake is frequently subsumed to wider debates about the remit and stature of the principle itself. Organised around this abstraction is a ‘threefold cast of characters’ beginning with the protagonist who breaks a taboo in pursuit of freedom, who is subsequently supported by principled defenders of the open society, and both of whom triangulate with the subject who has taken offence. In the contemporary West, Muslims are cast as this intolerant apex, and thus positioned, ‘end up being treated as deficient in comparison with the evident open-mindedness of those who tolerate transgression’ (2008: 276). Durham Peters makes the basic qualification now demanded of critical analysis, which is that his analysis does not justify reactionary violence nor traduce the ideals of a radically open democratic public sphere. Instead, it draws attention to how ‘the global liberal public sphere rarely has operated this way’ (ibid). [..]

The template for freedom of speech events of this kind is the Jyllands Posten cartoon crisis that principally unfolded in 2005-6, but whose aftershocks, sub-plots and out-takes have continued into 2010. The publication, on September 30 2005, of twelve cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by different cartoonists, slowly suffused through global networks of communication and mobilisation into an international political crisis for the Danish state. Justified as an editorial decision to draw attention to the effects of self-censorship derived from the pervasive relativism of multiculturalism, the cartoons ‘event’ has been primarily constructed as a freedom of speech issue, and the limits or lack thereof in relation to religious and cultural sensitivites.

The cartoons were re-published in several countries, sparking off a dizzying set of sub-dramas and fusions (see Hervik, Eide, Kunelius 2008: 29-38) with intensive debate between newspapers and media outlets in different countries, all required to clarify their position regarding the cartoons, and also their institutional relationship to the recursive principle of freedom of speech. While Durham Peters’ triangulation is not intended to exhaust the positions at play in the intensive circuits of interpretation and remediation that shaped the ‘crisis’, it is an useful starting point for thinking about how a set of antagonisms etched in the hegemonic cultural racism of Danish politics came to be raised to the status of a ‘universal struggle’.

This raising is related to, but not simply a matter of, the globalization of the cartoons crisis. As Hervik, Eide and Kunelius demonstrate, telling the story of the event is complicated by the categorical, political act of declaring a national or international narrative starting point. Such starting points could include the commissioning or publication of the cartoons, or the refusal of the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fog Rasmussen to meet with eleven ambassadors from Muslim majority nations. Yet as recent Nordic media research shows, narratives of the cartoon crisis that are oriented towards explaining their globalised significance frequently neglect the political history of Jyllands Posten, from its European fascist sympathies in the first half of the twentieth century (Brun and Hersh 2008) to a pronounced ‘right wing anti-Islamic history’ in recent years (Hervik et al 2008: 32).

This history, in turn, is infrequently contextualised in the recent history of Danish neo-nationalism (Hervik 2011, Wren 2000). That history is clearly beyond the scope of this book, however it is impossible to understand the gestation and mediation of the cartoons crisis without recognising how the idea of ‘cultural racism’ as a hegemonic project, seeking points of influence and dissemination within media and networks of influence has been a pronounced feature of the cartoon crisis’ gestation.

Karen Wren (2001) has traced the strong emergence of a culturally racist discourse to the relationship between distinct phases of Muslim immigration and asylum-seeking to Denmark between the 1970s and 1990s, and the changing political economy following the 1973 oil crisis, and subsequent economic restructuring (see also Hervik 2011, Brun and Hersh 2008). ‘Egalitarian-liberal’ Danish nationalism, tied to the welfare state as a ‘system of mutual symbolic recognition’ placed a high degree of emphasis on solidarity understood in terms of cultural homogeneity (Lex, Lindekilde and Mouritzen 2007: 5-8). It is in the context of perceived alien disruption of this compact that Gingrich theorises the development of interlocking forms of negative political affect, instrumental to the rise of far-right parties in the affluent societies of north and west Europe. Economic chauvinism, ‘this wealth is ours and we do not want to share it with anybody’ cannot be understood without the affective creep of cultural pessimism, ‘what will happen to our small country in this changing world of Europe-wide and global developments’ (2006: 37-38).

While Muslims have become the endless well-spring of cultural pessimism, the sense of almost generic Muslim invasion that emerged in western Europe in relation to disparate guest worker and asylum-seeking populations has been dated to the early 1980s in Denmark (Yilmaz 2010). Ferruh Yilmaz (2006) has show how calculated interventions through Jyllands Posten, particularly by Søren Krarup, a Lutheran priest and later ideologue of the Danish People’s Party, shifted public debate towards a hegemonic culturalist framework within which the established tactic of ‘speaking truth to taboos’ and speaking up for the silenced majority reduced the threshold for racist speech in the public sphere.

However, while ideologues such as Krarup were socially conservative and concerned with cultural homogeneity, there is also an embedded and complex articulation of cultural racism with and through gender politics in Denmark. The emphasis on economic independence and equal political presence in the ‘traditional gender equality agenda’ in Denmark has led to a longer history of tensions concerning the cooption of feminism to nationalist formations. The specification of Danish qualities of gender equality, as against the practices of patriarchal ethnic minorities, is marked out as a ‘gender political field of its own’ (Langvasbråten 2008: 46). Wren stresses the impact of these tensions on the space for antiracist politics in Denmark in the 1990s:

To an outsider it appears that racism is everywhere, particularly in the media, but evidence has shown that this is a direct result of extremely clever marketing of xenophobic viewpoints by a relatively small but very active group of people who had a free rein in the press due to the absence of any sophisticated co-ordinated anti-racist opposition from the political left. This vacuum has been created by the involvement of the political left in a discourse which has constructed ethnic minorities, and in particular Muslim culture, as oppressive to women, thereby constituting a ‘threat’ to a society where gender equality is regarded as an important social and political achievement (2000: 158).

The election of a Liberal-Conservative government in 2001, dependent on parliamentary support from the Danish People’s Party, had a dramatic impact on anti-immigration politics, as did the involvement of Denmark in the coalition of the willing involved in invading Iraq in 2003. Several studies demonstrate how the political rise of the DPP was inseperable from the supporting editorial line of the main tabloid newspapers over an extended period of time (Hervik 2008, 2011, Hersh and Brun 2008). In particular, the re-politicization of media actors through a discourse of ‘values-based’ journalism that placed an emphasis on strong opinion lines, and in some instances campaigning on anti-immigration issues, provides the context for the Jyllands Posten‘s cartoon event (Eide 2008).

The cartoons, as Ellen Brun and Jacques Hersh point out, were intended as an escalation in this ‘values-based’ campaigning, as ‘their publication was a clarion call to the media to overcome their restraint and participate actively in the mobilization of opinion against the Muslim population. In other words, this attack was intended to influence the political culture of the Danes in the direction of Islamophobia’ (2008). The specific character of the cartoons as a cumulative act of provocation is frequently lost in accounts of the affair, and the irony that a newspaper with a partisan history of this nature has become if not a global symbol, then at least a global focus, of freedom of speech debates is not lost on several Danish analysts (e.g. Klausen 2006). We focus here on a key consequences of this, which is how the recursive relation to freedom of speech is easily grafted to a ‘clash of civilizations’ framework of understanding.

One way of illustrating how this localised event was laundered is to examine the different ways in which it is held to have been globalised. In an interview, Jörn Mikkelsen, editor-in-chief of Jyllands Posten, remembers seeing a short report on the AP press wire in December 2005, detailing a small protest against the cartoons in Kashmir; ‘we laughed about it in the editorial department, but later…I started to have a queasy feeling. How did they find out about this? Who reads Jyllands Posten in Kashmir?’ (Broder 2010). What Mikkelsen is pointing to is the significance of diasporic and transnational networks of circulation and animation, whereby the ‘Islamic world’ mobilised, with apparent violence, in an assault on a Danish expression of core Western values. As Hervik summarises, the ‘collective memory’ of the cartoons crisis is primarily as a free speech issue:

The debate in Danish news is marred by this repeated assertion that “freedom of speech is a Danish freedom” and foreign events such as demonstrations…are not examples of freedom of expression. The moral anger of some Danes is tremendous when it comes to the foreign reactions, but when it comes to the cartoon publications, the right to publish is the first think evoked. Hence, the debate suggests that the free speech response is not much more than a reflection of the powerful, hegemonic dichotomization of a positive “us” and a negative “them” in Danish society (Hervik 2008: 70).

The gradual reporting of how Jyllands Posten had, in 2003, refused to publish cartoons of Jesus because they would ‘provoke an outcry’ (Klausen 2006, Younge 2010) drew attention to the fairly predictable inconsistencies that surface in these kinds of events. However Hervik’s point draws attention to more than hypocrisy, it suggests an important culturalised formation of the event: they have diasporic ties, we have mobilising values. As Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands Posten who commissioned the cartoons points out, international support forthe paper was merely the expression of principle, whereas criticism simply

..unmasked unpleasant realities about Europe’s failed experiment with multiculturalism. It’s time for the Old Continent to face facts and make some profound changes in its outlook on immigration, integration and the coming Muslim demographic surge. After decades of appeasement and political correctness, combined with growing fear of a radical minority prepared to commit serious violence, Europe’s moment of truth is here. Europe today finds itself trapped in a posture of moral relativism that is undermining its liberal values. An unholy three-cornered alliance between Middle Eastern dictators, radical imams who live in Europe and Europe’s traditional left wing is establishing a politics of victimology (2006)

The mobilisation of a global defence of the cartoons in the terms indicated by Rose also depended on ‘diasporic ties,’ but ones forged instead through ‘liberal fundamentalism’; that is, long-standing and quickly activated circuitries involving neoconservative thinktanks and connections in the USA and elsewhere in Europe (Kunelius and Alhassan 2008). In Hervik’s study of the cartoon spin campaigns in Denmark, he examines the gradual evolution over the course of 2006 of a dominant framework of ‘freedom of speech’, and the appropriation of it, by government, as a Danish and western property under threat. Hervik pays specific attention to the inteconnections between Fleming Rose and a range of other well-known and usually former far-left Danish columnists, writers and politicians networked through a semi-secret society called the Giordano Bruno Society.

Dedicated to a totalising anti-Muslim politics, they are in turn connected to Daniel Pipes and other influential neoconservative commentators and think tanks across the Atlantic (2008: 70-74). As Hervik rightly notes, an inbuilt resistance to neat ‘conspiracy theory’ style explanations overlooks the scale of influence possible in a relatively small country, and also the reflexive impact of a insistent transnational framing of these issues in universalist terms  as one of western free speech by a ‘network of actors reaching from Jyllands-Posten to the neo-conservative radical right wing in the USA’ (2008: 72).

Given the polysemy of the cartoons and their fluid movement, incorporation, framing and interpretations across contexts, it is impossible to settle on a ‘meaning’ of the cartoons. Nevertheless, Ferruh Yilmaz argues that very little attention has been paid to how the recursive dimension of freedom of speech – and the demands this makes on media operating within broadly liberal traditions to flag a position in the debate – naturalises the ‘timeless ontological categories’ of Muslims and the west. He adds a fourth position to Durham Peters’ triangulation of free speech dramas, which involves those broadly understanding of Muslim protests and that argue for increased sensitivity, respect for diversity, or the need for greater tolerance and understanding. In so doing, he argues, standard multicultural arguments undermine antiracist politics. They effect a further ‘hegemonic displacement’ by raising the claims of anti-Muslim racism to the status of the universal, and by compounding the abstraction of the crisis from recent Danish history by treating the global attention in civilizational terms:

To bring back politics into the center of discourse, we need to ask much simpler questions: who initiates these crises around Muslims and Islam? What are their politics, and what are the socio-political implications of these crises? A discussion of such questions will reveal that there are certain political and ideological sources that push certain issues onto the agenda and force us to be drawn into principle discussions about those issues rather than the politics of the debate (2010).



Brun, Ellen and Jacques Hersh. 2008. ‘The Danish Disease: A Political Culture of Islamophobia.’ Monthly Review, June.

Durham Peters, John. 2005.  Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press

Hervik, Peter.  2008.  ‘The Original Sin and its Side Effects: Freedom Speech as Danish News Management.’ Pp. 59-80 in Transnational Media Events: the Mohammed Cartoons and the Imagined Clash of Civilizations. Edited by Eide, E., Risto Kunelius and Angela Phillips.  Goteborg, Sweden.

Klausen, Jytte. 2006. “Rotten Judgment in the State of Denmark.” Spiegel  Online. Feb. 8.,1518,399653,00.html.

Langvasbråten, Trude. 2008. ‘A Scandinavian Model? Gender Equality Discourses on Multiculturalism’. Social Politics, Vol. 15(1):32-52

Lex, S., Lindekilde, L. & Mouritsen, P.  2007. “Public and Political Debates on Multicultural Crises in Denmark.”  Report for project ‘A European Approach to Multicultural Citizenship. Legal, Political and Educational Challenges’ (EMILIE), at­mark_report_multicultural_discourses_final.pdf (2007)

Rose, Flemming.  2006.  ‘Europe’s politics of victimology.’ Let’s Talk European.

Wren, Karen.  2001. ‘Cultural Racism: Something Rotten in the State of Denmark?’ Social and Cultural Geography, 2 (1):141-162

Yilmaz, Ferruh 2011. ‘The Danish Cartoon Affair: a provocation that went away? Or did it? (forthcoming paper).

Younge, Gary. 2010.   Who We are and Should it matter in the 21st Century? New York: Viking Press.



1. In January 2010 an attempt was made on the life of Kurt Westergaard, when a man with an axe attacked him in his home in Arhus. Prior to that, the cartoons were reprinted by all the major Danish newspapers in February 2008 as an act of solidarity following the arrest of three men in connection with a conspiracy to murder Westergaard. A long interview in Der Spiegel gives an account of the traumatic personal cost of the cartoon’s aftermath for Westergaard, which he continues to understand purely in universalist terms, casting voices critical of the political gestation of the cartoons crisis as an ‘intellectual class..that spends its time drinking coffee and polishing its cultural relativism’. See ‘Muhammad cartoonist defiant after attack’, Henryk M. Broder, Der Spiegel 20 January 2010,1518,672716,00.html. The case of the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, a self-described ‘freedom of speech activist’, has also come to be intertwined with the narrative after he published cartoons of a dog with the head of Muhammed in the regional newspaper Nerikes Allehanda in 2007, also as protest at what he saw as self-censorship. ‘Brothers jailed for Vilks arson attack’, The Local, 15 July 2010.

2. In an interview with Index on Censorship concerning her book The Cartoons that Shook the World (2009), Jytte Klausen points out to the difficulties involved in relating violent deaths to the cartoons outside of their instrumentalisation in pre-existing local and regional conflicts.


2 Responses

  1. David Cribbin

    July 24, 2011 12:12 am

    It should be remembered that – freedom of speech is not only the freedom to say as you please, but the freedom to have what you say contested, and where it does not accord with reason, refuted, and where it does not accord with sense, ridiculed.

    The problem is not the right to a freedom of speech, or how it is used, but a problem of contesting what has been said, where what has been said has the potential to infringe, or seeks to disenfranchise, other rights and freedoms.

    That lack of contentious opposition is a problem, not of free speech, but of a weak left.

    Is that weakness the result of the right’s control of the means of producing a cultural and ideological hegemony, or is it the result of a left turned to lethargy by an Anti-humanist doctrine, that placates its guilt of impotence in the face of critical action?

    Critical engagement with those intolerant to ethic groups within society is not to question free speech, rather it is to fully realize that freedom. The argument is not lost, because the other side is more reasonable, the argument is lost if there is no commitment to critical humanism in the first place. Ergo the right “wins” the argument, not because it is right, but because it has no viable voice of opposition. The reason is because the left is dominated by a deterministic rationale, that itself plays into the hands of its opponents.

    You don’t win the “free speech argument”, by questioning free speech, you win it by assuming the responsibilities it implies. A left not guided by critical humanism cuts out its own tongue, which is not a bad thing, for without a critical humanist rationale it may as well not speak at all.