Reconciliation Denmark-Islam: A Transcend Perspective

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1. Diagnosis

The Danish Jyllandsposten published 30 September 2005 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed (also by Norwegian Magazinet). They were offensive by being provocatively malicious, with stereotypical, polarizing ideas of Islam = Bombing. Whereas Islamic nation (the umma) is divided, mainly by the West, into states, the West consists of more or less multi-cultural states with Christianity dominant. Had the act been committed by a Muslim it would have been high treason against the umma; committed by a non-Muslim it is at least highly offensive, like insulting somebody's mother and father, or depicting Jesus Christ as an Abu Ghraib torturer.

Publication was justified by freedom of expression, a key human right. But in "April 2003 a Danish illustrator submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons offering a lighthearted take on the resurrection of Christ to the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten. They were rejected, the Sunday editor saying: "I don't think Jyllandsposten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them" (The Nation, 27 February 2006, p. 4). Thus, the idea that offense to human feelings by intruding into their private space sets limits to the freedom of expression was not unknown, exposing the Danes to accusations of differential treatment, against the Golden Rule and Kantianism.

This was then exacerbated by the Danish Prime Minister's refusal to enter into dialogues with (a) Muslims in Denmark (200,000 in a population of 5,3 million), (b) 11 ambassadors from Arab countries and (c) the Secretary-General of the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic conference, with 57 member countries with indirectly 1.3 billion Muslims, referring to the newspaper's freedom of expression.

2. Prognosis

Given the triple conflict: offensive depictions, dialogue refusal and differential treatment – seen as racism where "social distance" might be a better general term – a strong reaction was to be expected. It came as economic boycott, the burning of flags and embassies; the symbols of the state since the state was involved through major acts of omission of the Danish Prime Minister, possibly also complaints to the UN. This must be seen against the background of West vs Palestine and vs Iraq, with Denmark as highly articulate in its pro-West stance. Even more important is how the "cartoon issue" will feed into the other conflicts and make them even more intractable long after the cartoons are forgotten. Ominous.

3. Therapy

The Centre of Conflict and Peace Studies (Cordoba Foundation) in Geneva hosted a mediation between high ranking Danish and Middle East delegations 13/02/06. As the inial causes were past acts of commission and omission, the approach had to include reconciliation, which means closing the past and opening for a better future. The former implies an apology. The standard Western "We deeply regret that you found this offensive" borders on an insult, placing the onus on Other. Three elements were proposed for a real apology:

a) A statement: I/we – the Danish government – did something wrong.

b) Describing what was wrong (formulations to be negotiated):
– dialogue refusal, even three times, at three levels;
– failure to demarcate border line/zone between freedom of expression and offense, better understood as libel in domestic law, but poorly understood in inter-state/inter-nation law in a globalizing world;

c) A program of self-improvement to improve the relations, like:
– multiple public dialogues for youth, clerics, politicians, with the Danish government; a commission of jurists, theologians and others to explore the limits of freedom of expression; and support for the Spanish-Turkish initiated UN supported alliance of civilizations.

Needless to say, closing the past and opening the future are related; both are needed to heal wounds, and to bring about closure.

Johan Galtung
13 April 2006


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