My mother is Danish, so I’ve noticed that most people don’t know very much about Denmark. Before a Danish newspaper published political cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, some people had never even heard of the country, which is in northern Europe bordering Germany. Students—and even teachers—used to call me “Denmarkian” and ask me if I was fluent in German, although Danish has about as much in common with German as English does with Spanish.
However, it seems that now everyone has an opinion about Denmark. An Indian family at the hospital where my mom works asked if her accent was British. When she said that she was Danish, the family said, “Well, they’re having a lot of problems over there in Denmark right now, aren’t they?” as if Denmark had caused all the turmoil, which included protests that killed 30 people.
When my mom told me about this, it annoyed me and made me worry that my family could be in danger of hostility even here in America. Although I can understand how these cartoons could be offensive, I believe that Denmark is a strong country that exercised its freedom of the press fairly. I believe that freedom of the press is the most valuable thing a country can have, and in this case, it outweighs the offensiveness of the cartoons. This freedom is important to me because I want to be a journalist.
To see how the issue has affected Danes, I e-mailed my best friend in Denmark, Sofie Frederick, who is 16 years old. When I go to Denmark once a year to visit family, we are inseparable. I asked her to help me understand what people in Denmark thought about the controversy.
It began when an author couldn’t find anyone to illustrate a children’s book about the Prophet Muhammad. Troubled that artists were afraid to approach the topic, the editor of a Danish newspaper invited journalists to draw the Prophet Muhammad. The editor, Flemming Rose, according to Time magazine, was hoping to spark a debate about self-censorship in Denmark because he felt that the media was censoring itself to avoid offending Danish Muslims. The 12 submitted cartoons were printed last September in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper (Jyllands is a city, Posten means Post). Several are controversial—one depicts Muhammad with a bomb on his head as a turban. This cartoon could imply that Muhammad was a terrorist or promoted terrorism, but it could also be saying that extremist Muslims are self-destructing through the use of violence. It is also against the Islamic religion to make an image of the prophet.
Because the first protests were mild, Sofie didn’t hear about the cartoons until three months after they were published. In December a group of angered Danish imams (Muslim leaders) visited Egypt, Syria and Lebanon to bring attention to the cartoons. Sofie’s immediate reaction was anger that Danish imams would travel to Islamic nations just to cause fury.
Muslims make up about 5 percent of the Danish population, making Islam the second largest religion in Denmark. There is some hostility toward Muslims in Denmark mainly because immigrant neighborhoods tend to have higher crime rates, “but of course most people in Denmark know that the majority of the Middle Easterners are great people,” Sofie said. “I know some very kind Muslims and I love that they live here.”
Tolerance is an important value in Denmark. It is very “Danish” to say that everyone has a right to do whatever they want to do as long as they think it is OK and they aren’t endangering anyone. Denmark is also very tolerant of religion. The country’s state religion is Lutheran and the church receives some privileges, but there is freedom of religion in Denmark and religion classes cover all world religions. Sofie says that most Danes only claim to be Christian because they believe in the moral lessons of the Bible rather than an actual God.
Tolerance, however, also requires freedom of speech and tolerance of what other people have to say. “I am not saying the newspaper did the right thing showing those cartoons, but they have the right to do it,” said Sofie. She believes the Prime Minister was justified in not apologizing for the newspaper. The newspaper published an apology for offending Muslims, but the Danish government refused to punish the newspaper. She hopes that this issue will improve communication between Muslims and non-Muslims and possibly relieve some of the hostility caused by integrating a large number of immigrants into another society.
I asked Sofie what she would say to American teenagers, and she said, “There is probably a lot the media doesn’t tell you and they might not know how the way of life in Denmark is, so please think about that before you make an opinion about all this.” Sofie wanted to make sure that we are not labeling Danes as racists. She emphasized that Danish humor is often very sarcastic, and I agree—Denmark doesn’t hesitate to discuss issues that other nations might tiptoe around. For instance, one popular Danish song among teenagers mocks a hermaphrodite (a person who is male and female) and issues such as the high teenage alcoholism rate in the nation are laughed off as “having fun.” Sofie’s explanation of Danish culture made me realize that the true purpose of the cartoons was to spark a debate about the current religious tensions in our world.
Several European newspapers have reprinted the cartoons to defend press freedom. Sofie let me know that, because of the support of European nations, Danes are very optimistic about their safety and the outcome of the protests. Because I assumed that Danes were worried about the reaction they received from extremist Muslims, I was surprised that Danes saw the protests as a positive event that would open communication about religion in Europe.
Muslim extremists have used this controversy to protest in defense of Islam, although in my opinion, the violence of these protests contradicts what they are defending—the peacefulness of the religion. It is possible to defend beliefs through communication and gain strength through persecution without destroying lives. Everyone has a right to religion, but religion is faith, and no faith is worth carrying with you if it destroys the life of another.
I worry that these cartoons might worsen the relationship in the near future between the Middle East and Western nations, but freedom of speech is something that must be brought to the world’s attention to help create a more stable world where human rights are protected by all nations. Denmark has challenged the norm and risked angering Muslims for the sake of speaking its mind, and I am proud to be Danish.