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Were Charlie Hebdo cartoons only about free speech? Maybe not.

The Monitor's former European bureau chief writes that there is another facet to the French magazine's publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, one that involves a relentless anti-Islam campaign in Denmark.

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    A view of the offices of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in Aarhus, Denmark, in October 2009. Much of the vitriol stirred by Charlie Hebdo's publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad has its roots in decade-old controversies in which JP played a major role.
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For an international media unfamiliar with Europe's recent history of publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the furor that Charlie Hebdo and other outlets have stirred up looks like an open-and-shut case of free speech.

The widespread assumption about the controversy sparked by Charlie Hebdo's publication of cartoons goes something like this: Here was a newspaper from liberal Europe being attacked by intolerant Islamic radicals who couldn’t take a joke.

But the truth is not so simple.

In fact, much of the Muslim world's vitriol over the French satirical magazine was first focused on Denmark, where a darkly racist politics arose, stoked by its most important daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten (JP), more than five years prior to its own 2005 publication of 12 cartoons of the prophet.

Denmark's rightward swing

The rise of what is often called “Islamophobia” in Europe started slowly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, says anthropologist Peter Hervik, whose scholarly book, “The Annoying Difference,” catalogs the rise of “neo-racial and neo-national” politics and media in Denmark. Borders were becoming looser and new refugees and asylum-seekers were arriving in Denmark.

By the late 1990s, minorities from Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East had begun to set up in urban areas. That in turn brought friction and the rapid rise of Europe’s most successful far-right party, the Danish People’s Party. At the same, a far-right tabloid press developed quickly and pushed a daily diet of stories on immigrants as freeloaders and criminals, then started in on Muslims and Islam.

Presenting Islam as a threat to Denmark sold papers and attracted voters. Then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose ruling Liberal Party depended on the far right, declared a “culture war of values” between the West and Islam. Much of the fear played off the idea that Islam as an ideology threatened to subsume and take over Denmark, despite Muslims being only 2 percent of the population and relatively poor.

In an interview in 2011 at his office in the parliament, Danish People’s Party official Soren Esperson told the Monitor: “We are not against the Muslims but against Islam taking political control of our society and canceling our democracy. Islam [is] the same danger as communism or Nazism.” 

A media campaign

JP wasn't the first newspaper to join the Islam-bashing party. But when it did, it made an impact.

Unlike Charlie Hebdo, JP is not a motley, circulation-starved satirical weekly. It is The New York Times of Denmark, the daily paper of record. Founded in 1871 and boasting some 800,000 readers in a country of 5.5 million, the paper and its urban, affluent readers powerfully shape the national mood and debate.

It began to lead the anti-Islam drumbeat in 2001 after a sensational story about a young, Danish-born feminist of Pakistani origin, Mona Sheikh, that captivated Denmark for months. Ms. Sheikh, a socialist and Muslim, tried to enter Danish politics. She was accused in press reports – later condemned – of an Islamist agenda to infiltrate Danish politics, and of supporting both the Sunni Taliban and the late Shiite ayatollah of Iran. JP wrote constantly about Ms. Sheikh and the story proved a hot seller of papers.

JP, which became the voice of the ruling coalition, went on to promulgate the clash of civilization theories of American scholars like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis. Leading JP journalists, like cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and cultural editor Flemming Rose, met regularly with anti-Muslim populists like Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders and the Dutch Somali feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as well as with American scholar Daniel Pipes.

“Jyllands-Posten’s official voice was more critical of Islam than anyone else, often speaking about Islam and Muslims as an enemy,” says Mr. Hervik. “The veil was compared to the swastika, Muslims to tumors, and Islam was called a plague to be fought like Nazism…. There seems no limit to what can be said in the Danish public.”

Typical was a 2005 JP editorial ahead of the Muhammad cartoons stating that Muslims in Denmark must be prepared to be “insulted, ridiculed, and mocked.”

The cartoon crisis

The Muhammad cartoon crisis actually began with Kare Bluitgen, a Danish Marxist author who is avowedly secular and anti-Islam. Mr. Bluitgen wanted to illustrate a children’s book on Islam that would depict the face of Muhammad, something that is offensive to orthodox Muslims. According to a 2005 Danish wire story, Bluitgen commented at a dinner party that Danish artists were afraid to draw the prophet.

The story was an overnight sensation. In fact, after the dust settled, only one illustrator was ever found who refused to take on Bluitgen’s book project.

Yet based on the wire story, the JP cultural editor, Mr. Rose, decided to test Danes' self-censorship. On a Wednesday, he issued an invitation to Danish cartoonists (not illustrators, about whom Bluitgen complained) to draw Muhammad “as you see him.” By Friday, 12 of Denmark's 25 working cartoonists responded with images. They were published in the paper on Sept. 30, 2005, next to an editorial titled “The Threat of Darkness.”

The cartoons were not uniformly anti-Muslim. Because of JP's reputation for Islam-bashing, several of the 12 cartoons actually made fun of the campaign, one calling it a "PR stunt." Another showed a Muslim migrant schoolboy in Denmark called “Muhammad” pointing to a blackboard with the words, “The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” 

In retrospect, Hervik argues, the Danish cartoons picked up by Charlie Hebdo were always intended to be part of the provocative local anti-Muslim campaign sweeping Denmark, not a statement about free speech.

And for many Muslims, it was the last straw in what they saw as a long anti-Muslim campaign by Denmark. Protesters condemning the cartoons took to the streets worldwide, sometimes resulting in violence. Boycotts were orchestrated against Denmark and Danish goods, and several Western embassies were attacked.

On Oct. 12, 2005, 11 ambassadors representing 730 million people in the Muslim world sent a letter to Mr. Rasmussen asking to meet on an “urgent matter.” It was no longer possible to ignore a Danish “smear campaign” against Muslims and Islam, they said. Danish politicians openly called Muslims a “cancer” in the parliament and the minister of culture accused them of being “medieval.” The 12 cartoons making fun of Muhammad were a final indignity.

Hate speech and free speech

When the campaign got noticed by the Muslim world, the issue was virtuously framed as solely an issue of free speech. Many Western outlets, including Charlie Hebdo, republished the cartoons as a show of solidarity with JP.

Mr. Rose, the JP culture editor who ordered the cartoons, wrote in the Telegraph this week that he “stumbled … into sparking what came to be known as the cartoon crisis.” He argued that as societies become mixed and multicultural, that free speech becomes more important.

But the publication of the Muhammad cartoons 10 years ago by JP was not born of an innocent, isolated jibe about the prophet. Rather, it was thought up amid a larger, overtly antagonistic campaign against Muslims, backed by both Denmark's leading newspaper and its government. It is through that context that orthodox Muslims view the controversies stirred up by Charlie Hebdo. Whether intentionally malicious or not, the French magazine's anti-Islamic drumbeat tapped into a years-long campaign in Denmark that captured and defined the rise of anti-Islam sentiment in Europe.

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