Denmark’s unnecessary clash of civilizations
March 1st, 2013
11:55 AM ET

Denmark’s unnecessary clash of civilizations

By Fabrizio Tassinari and Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Fabrizio Tassinari is Head of Foreign Policy Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Mona Kanwal Sheikh is a post-doctoral researcher at the same institute. The views expressed are their own.

It may have escaped most people’s attention, but Denmark is in the midst of a clash of civilizations. And while it may not be an actual war, the perceived fight among some Danes is hardening the lines of conflict between Islam and the West.

It all started a few weeks ago, with a failed attempt to kill one of the country’s staunchest critics of Islam, Lars Hedegaard. Despite the fact that there still is no trace of the gunman, and that the police have not yet established the motive behind the incident, politicians from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, quickly framed the tragic attack as a possible blow against the principle of freedom of expression.

Last Thursday, in a hastily arranged meeting at the country’s parliament, influential politicians and opinion makers echoed the view that free speech is under siege and needs to be defended.

As was the case during the “Cartoon Crisis” in 2006, the tone and substance of the debate in Denmark places the country at odds with much of the West. And it might have troublesome spillover effects for the rest of the world.

But even before the 2006 furor, which centered around the publication in the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten of a number of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad the previous year, there was intense debate in the country over free speech and Western values. Indeed, soon after conservative Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen took power in November 2001 he reportedly called for a “cultural struggle” against the “arbiters of taste.” This agenda, adopted by the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples party that supported his government, quickly morphed into one emphasizing the need to speak “bluntly” against the alleged dangers of Muslim immigration and Islam.

More from CNN: Islamic states condemn cartoonist attack

The publication of the cartoons took up the narrative that Denmark was gripped by self-censorship, prompting violent demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia that left dozens dead and hundreds more injured.

What has made Denmark peculiar in all this is how the mainstream discourse on free speech is firmly occupied by conservative, often missionary sounding, voices urging the country to defend this crucial “Western” value from the attacks of religious fundamentalists. Those espousing more moderate positions, even those embracing free speech but advocating tolerance and delicacy, have long been on the defensive.

This contrasts with the response in much of the West following the uploading to YouTube of the controversial video “The Innocence of Muslims’ in the United States. The video sparked angry protests throughout the Muslim world. But in this case, the response from Western leaders was generally balanced as they tried to contain the fallout. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, even wrote a joint statement with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League condemning “any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence.”

“While fully recognizing freedom of expression” they wrote, “we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets.”

Unsurprisingly, the response in Denmark had an altogether different tone, reflected in an opinion piece by a Danish commentator in the Wall Street Journal who argued that the EU statement showed that “Europe [had] abdicated moral leadership” and that “liberal democracies now don't even want to put up a fight” on free speech.

The problem with all this is that even if the attack on Hedegaard proves to have been ideologically-motivated, the tendency in Denmark to present each and every incident as demonstrating that Western values are existentially threatened only confirms the worldview of fundamentalists who themselves argue that we are engaged in an ideological war. Instead of rejecting this view, as they should, free speech radicals play right into fundamentalists’ hands.

But the anti-Islam movements working under the banner of free speech and the mainstream political parties’ uncritical embrace of this ideological free speech agenda is part of more profound paradox. Long admired as one of the most inclusive regions in the world, Scandinavia has witnessed a backlash against globalization and especially immigration, nurturing the emergence of some of the best organized populist movements in the West. Interestingly, even as Danes have been debating the attack on Hedegaard, authorities in neighboring Norway arrested a man for threatening to attack the country’s parliament. The arrested man is reportedly a member of an European anti-Islam movement founded by a Dane.

So what should we take away from all this? If the Danish experience teaches us anything, it is that turning free speech into an ideology is a dangerous development that serves only to foster conflict. Moderate politicians the world over have a daunting task in trying to counter a black and white view of the world that sees conflict around every corner. If they fail, we must be prepared for endless reruns of the Cartoon Crisis – or worse.

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Topics: Immigration • Islam

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soundoff (92 Responses)
  1. The Voice of Liberty

    "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." It is good to be absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. Free speech is not the problem; violent response to free speech is. Those who cannot tolerate free speech have the option to counter it with speech of their own. Any other response cannot be tolerated.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Eugene Levich


      March 2, 2013 at 8:20 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        I have no problem with free speech. Yet the world will be better off, if people sometimes keep their mouth shut. Among friends and people one knows, one still has to watch what one says, although one can always make up and reconcile if something hurtful has been said.

        March 3, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Jonquil

      Well said.

      March 2, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  2. An Open-Minded American ( there are plenty of us )

    Does anyone feel that the Islamists throughout the world are actively debating how "delicately" they should handle the burning of American flags and the attacks on American embassies? I'm against any policy that is anti-Islam but I am more against any policy that weakens a core principle of an open society for fear of how an immigrant bringing their own values into our culture will react.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • trevor laird-watson

      i agree 100 percent.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Jonquil

      While I think those who seek to purposefully offend and do provocative things in the spirit of hate, deserve any status as a pariah that they have earned, I agree that someone can not enter a society that has not attempted to imperially impose themselves upon others and dictate how that society will run. No Western nation has attempted to, officially, do that since WWII. If terrorist organizations run with the resources and power of a sovereign military, than the defense response will be equally so, just as what happened following 9/11; they came crashing into us, not the other way around. There is no justice in their responding to our response by justifying attacks on westerners, afterwards. Bin Laden didn't have to attack us and we'd never have entered their realm of fundamentalist society, if he hadn't.

      Those who do not like Denmark's position on free speech are free to go - at their will - to other societies more in tune with their views on how to live. They may, alternatively, attempt to persuade Danish citizens to see their point of view through speech of their own and can influence politics and policy through the channels that country provides. I'm a very liberal person but this is where I draw the line on tolerance: Civilized societies can not tolerate violence as a response to free speech. It's an imposition on the fundamental, human rights of other people.

      March 2, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  3. A More Open-Minded American

    Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not Western values. They are human values.

    March 1, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • An Open-Minded American ( there are plenty of us )

      Tell that to our Chinese, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian brothers and sisters.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
      • A More Open-Minded American

        But you certainly can't believe that their lack of freedom has anything to do with the fact that they're not Western. It's one thing to say Western countries on average protect more personal freedom than non-Western countries. It's another thing entirely to say that the protection of personal freedom is inherently or exclusively Western. That mentality leads to the unnecessary "clash of civilizations" discussed in the article.

        March 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
      • An Open-Minded American ( there are plenty of us )

        don't think I ever saud Western???

        March 1, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Jonquil

      Agreed. While I mentioned above that no one has the right to enter a society, on the host's generosity and begin dictating what should be done, this does not include universal human rights. People should be free to leave a society in which they feel oppressed and no one should feel they have some special right to enter a host country and begin demanding that others be oppressed, so they may feel more culturally comfortable.

      I'm a woman, so maybe my sensitivity to this is acute; no fundamentalist is going to enter my free country and throw a burka over me, without my permission. If they ever think they will, they have the surprise of their life, coming. We will unite and the fight will be unyielding.

      March 2, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • ronjohn63

      That's great, high-minded wishing, but fails the test of "ground truth".

      The West got the freedoms and liberties that it did because the people who wanted them did three things:
      (1) Spoke out and convinced enough people that freedom/liberty are The Right Way To Live.
      (2) Asserted their rights/freedoms through force of arms and much bloodshed against the status quo.
      (3) Defended those freedoms/liberties via force of arms and much bloodshed against those who wanted hierarchal rule.

      March 3, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  4. A Muslim

    These comments here are ridiculous. The article is not talking about removing free speech. The article says what is the best way to react to radical acts – using voices of tolerance. With more tolerance, the crazy Muslims lose.

    March 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • icepilot

      Except that saying, "turning free speech into an ideology is a dangerous development that serves only to foster conflict", if not false, is certainly confused. The issue isn't free speech, it's intolerence of free speech.

      March 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • ronjohn63

      "With more tolerance, the crazy Muslims lose."

      Do you have any historical evidence to back your claims?

      My reading of history shows that crazy people only stop being a threat when they are beaten down so badly that they pose no more danger. (In this modern age of quick global travel and relatively open borders, however, asymmetric warfare (aka "terrorism") is pretty trivial to accomplish by independent actors, which leaves no state for the aggrieved nation to retaliate against.

      March 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  5. James

    I enjoy the mixing of cultures. In the end it is enriching. Political and religious fundamentalism is another matter. The fundamentalist claims that his truth is the only truth and as such, opposing fundamentalists cannot co-exist easily. Those of us who are liberals must work at educating and doing whatever is possible to promote understanding but free speech cannot be violated. We fought for centuries to have freedom.
    Islamic countries have little experience of personal freedoms but many Muslims in the West have begun to enjoy open societies that foster co-existence and co-operation. However, they seem reluctant to speak out against their intolerant brothers. They could do more than any of us to resolve some of these hard issues.

    March 1, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • A Muslim

      I completely agree with you. There are several Muslims asking other Muslims to be bolder. It is a change that is slow but effective.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Jonquil

      I agree. The richness of multiculturalism is beautiful and when new immigrants leave their mark on their new homeland, the results are fresh, exciting and stimulating. But zealous fundamentalism is something that does not have cross-over value because it demands absolute obedience. You can not enter a country on that country's generosity and demand that it change its core, national values, to suit your religious fundamentalism. This is where assimilation is an absolute necessity, if an immigrant population is going to be able to co-exist with a native one. This isn't just about the advantage of bringing people into a country who can speak multiple languages, this is about accepting that if your deepest values and requirements on how others are to behave around you are in incompatible opposition to those of your new country, you might need to reconsider, either, your values or your new home.

      March 2, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  6. rightospeak

    This article is a regular Globalist propaganda nonsense . While attack on religious belief and a right of a majority to protect its citizens from extinction is considered a matter of free speech, the same freedoms are not defended when opinions contrary to Globalist Agenda are presented. People can be jailed for "illigal opinions ". The Danes need to read Thilo Sarrazin's book " Germany Does Away With Itself" which seemes to be banned from translation into English and also look into immigration policies of China.

    March 1, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  7. A Dane

    While i agree that the tone has changed for the worse in denmark, then i completely disagree that the stance taken on cartoon crisis was too extreme. basically the prime minister said "our newspapers can print whatever they like – and in this case they have".
    if people burn danish flags or whatever in the middle east, do we care?
    if they write satirical cartoons/comments whatever about westerners or danes in particular, do we care?
    we only care when someone tells us we cant do what we've always been doing, in our own country, because they are offended by it despite being several thousand miles away.

    so yes, i think its quite reasonable to say "suck it", even if they don't like hearing that either. maybe they should stop acting like everyone should run around worrying about insulting a muslim somewhere, you dont see any hindus or buddhists getting all uppity now do you?

    March 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • no2islam

      Thank you, Denmark, for standing up to Islamist aggression!

      March 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
      • Josh

        Agreed – three cheers for Denmark! Why are we apologizing for a stupid film, when every day there are hundreds of these types of things going on in the Muslim world? Did Jews riot when it came out a couple weeks ago when the organization MEMRI caught Egyptian President Morsi red-handed saying the most horrible things about Jews? The Islamic world needs to grow up.

        March 2, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • Jonquil

      What some of these extremists don't understand, is that in western societies, refusing to officially punish or oppress someone for doing something they are legally allowed to do, is not the same as condoning bad behavior. We can still say that someone is a rude jerk for making a pointless, gratuitous film designed for the sole purpose of offending muslims, while also supporting that he or she is free to be a jerk if they want to be. Social shunning can still happen, without it being enshrined as law.

      March 2, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  8. Chris

    What a load of quisling nonsense.

    "attempt to kill one of the country’s staunchest critics of Islam, Lars Hedegaard"

    Perhaps try, "one of the last journalists in the West willing to stand up for freedom of speech".

    "and that the police have not yet established the motive behind the incident"

    Oh, it's a great mystery, isn't it?

    I stopped reading after that. I have no patience for such drivel anymore. Besides, we all know the drill, drummed into us from university teachers and talking heads and just about every paper and magazine.

    March 1, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  9. American son of a Swedish mother

    The Scandinavian tribes are dying, demographically. And their fear of being intolerant or prejudiced in any way is being confronted with their realization of what 2050 will look like for their minority grandchildren.
    Hopefully the detergent of education and law will mix the oil and water of religions and cultures.

    March 1, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  10. Johnny Evers

    Muslims attack the West and its values in two ways - overtly, through attacks like the failed attempt on Lars Hedegaard and covert ways such as this article, which first of all suggests that this was not a political act, and then goes on to that those of us in the West should not insist on free speech, because, well, I don't know, maybe because it just makes the Muslims mad.

    March 1, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • no2islam

      Erdogan, Islamist supremacist and blow hard prime minister of Turkey, wants to ban ALL criticism of Islam, worldwide...

      March 1, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  11. Ted Getzel

    This piece is an act of intellectual cowardice masquerading as a call for civility. The threat of violence has done its dirty work on the hearts of its authors.

    March 1, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
  12. dunce

    Denmark does not need even one muslim, deport them all. problem solved forever.

    March 1, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  13. JabbaTheCat

    'Denmark’s unnecessary clash of civilizations"

    On the contrary, this is a very necessary clash, and the sooner it occurs the better, as Western civilisation needs to wake up to the very serious threat posed by the rapidly increasing Islamic trojan horses in our midst...

    March 1, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  14. take it Real

    Finally -– Someone in Europe is awaking up to the Islamist threat to your societies. Put them down immediately before the curse spreads.

    March 2, 2013 at 3:18 am |
  15. A Copenhagener

    Choosing not to pick up a fight will not necessarily appease an aggressor – perhaps quite the contrary – but this should not be considered a clash of civilizations. Rather it is a case of a totalitarian ideology clashing with liberal and democratic values The defense of the latter are by no means served by pretending that there isn't any clash

    March 2, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  16. Delmar Jackson

    This will not end well.

    March 2, 2013 at 8:29 am |
  17. Delmar Jackson

    Why are tiny northern european countries being flooded by millions of unassimilating Muslims?
    I read that in malmo Sweden, 100 percent of ra*pes of native born women are by immigrant men. is the problem Sweden is not more tolerant?
    I remember emma West in the UK speaking out harshly on a public bus she was riding on with her child, that she was angry about mssive immigration has changed her country for the worse, she was arrested for her words and her child taken from her.
    Immigration is a racket, it is atransfer of money from labor to capital, provides cheap compliant labor and incresaes voting power for certain groups and ethnic leaders, at the expense of the unity and social order of a country.
    This will not end well.

    March 2, 2013 at 8:31 am |
  18. Mmiichael

    Fabrizio Tassinari and Mona Kanwal Sheikh should hand in their degrees as they seem incapable of seeing how the Scandinavian need to act without prejudice has been ruthlessly exploited by an unscrupuous force with a clear agenda. The term for this is dhimmitude. Denmark does not want to recognize an enemy and is sacrificing it's own culture with it's compulsion to appear fair-minded.

    March 2, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  19. Rich

    While firmly recognizing freedom of speech, the Eu believes in suppressing freedom of speech. While frimly recognizing freedom of religion, the Eu believes in allowing people to be murdered for their religion. While frimly recognizing their own right to live, the Eu believes in allowing themselves to be killed.

    The only paradox here is that anyone over the age of nine still supports the Eu agenda.

    March 2, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  20. Joe

    Leave it to CNN to confuse freedom of speech with intolerance. Except that by definition, the left is intolerant of freedom of countering opinion speech. It's funny how strongly the left defends islam while eviscerating Christianity. Any thinking individual can see that, based purely on probability and observation, all religions are just sadly successful confidence schemes. They're selling an imaginary product supported only by strident assertions. Of course, no one can say absolutely that the 'prophets' were BS artists, but probability theory is absolute in estimating that the chance that any religion represents 'God' is equal to the limit of x as it approaches zero. And it can also be said with absolute confidence, that 'tolerance' of people who feel justified in killing other people is as inane as most other liberal arguments. Liberals like to claim that most muslims are peaceful which is probably why there is so much freedom of religion in muslim countries.

    March 2, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Jonquil

      I'm a liberal and I don't agree with your assessment that I think it's okay to oppress others and attempt to crush other cultures, for the sake of complete existential comfort for others. That includes Western cultures, too. It would be hypocritical to demand that, for example, an isolated, Amazonian culture be respected and protected, while Scandinavian cultures are not deserving of the same respect. Love and tolerance for what others offer this World is not exclusive to one culture or people and it is never justifiable to allow one group to be sacrificed to appease the sensibilities of another.

      March 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  21. no2islam

    Clearly Fabrizio Tassinari and Mona Kanwal Sheikh are in Denmark, not because they embrace fundamental Western values, such as free speech and critical thinking. Rather they are in Denmark to promote Islam, the curse of the Arab World, the source of conflict and terror around the world. Since they obviously love Islam more than Denmark and the West, they should return A.S.A.P. to Dar al Islam, where they will be free from insults to their cherished… ideology.

    Catherine Ashton, another unelected EU-official, does NOT speak for the people of Europe, but rather for the unprincipled Neville Chamberlains of Europe. She is unknown to most Europeans, and her opinions are utterly irrelevant.

    March 2, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  22. Muin

    Minorities would have to tolerate this if they want to live in western ccountries. After 9/11, there are numerous examples of this type of behavior happens on a daily basis. Matin luther king forced political class to give minorites right. That doesn't mean most whites became better person.

    March 2, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  23. karaangtawo

    This is a weak article and reads like a defense of religious violence. Free speech should be absolute. Those who are offended can respond with free speech of their own. Blasphemy has no place in the modern world.

    March 3, 2013 at 2:27 am |
    • karaangtawo

      "Blasphemy has no place in the modern world." OOPS, sounded like an intolerant fundamentalist there. It should be "Acts of violence against blasphemy has no place in the modern world."

      March 3, 2013 at 2:32 am |
  24. Civilized

    The authors mention a "Clash of civilizations" and a "conflict between Islam and the West". They are trying to promote their own agenda.
    If there is a clash, it is a clash between the civilized society and uncivilized, uneducated elements.
    The mainstream muslims of Denmark joined in condemning the recent assasination attempt on Lars Hedegaard and supported the right to free speech. They seem to be on the civilized side.
    By the way, the authors describe Lars Hedegaard as "one of the country’s staunchest critics of Islam". In Denmark, Lars Hedegaard is not known as a critic of islam, but as a critic of radical islam and as a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression.

    March 3, 2013 at 3:21 am |
  25. Aristocles

    Freedom of speech is one of the things which defines the modern, Western world. If we give that up, we lose ourselves. We should never, ever surrender our freedom to speak because someone might get offended.

    March 3, 2013 at 3:45 am |
  26. salino333

    Very good article

    March 4, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  27. Dane

    As many other commentators of the events in Demark, the writers are confusing "critisism of islam" with "critisism of islam-based fundamentalist violence". Hedegaard is belongs to the latter category, I would say. Unnecessary writings like this is actually what upsets muslims, who are not aware of the true background.

    March 5, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  28. SAS

    If the Danish authorities have not yet arrested the person responsible for the attack on Lars Hedegaard, and have not elucidated any motivation for the attack on him, how can be sure that this is really a question of clash of civilizations ?

    March 15, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  29. In Home Personal Training

    Remember once you silence someone you lose everything. It's so sad that we need to deal with this, this day and age.

    April 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm |
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