A War of Words: A Review of Muhammadgate
Today, we have just passed the one year anniversary of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of the now infamous caricature drawings of the prophet Muhammad that in January and February 2006 led to large demonstrations against Denmark in several middle eastern countries, culminating in attacks on and the burning of Danish embassies. In my paper I will try to review these events, why these drawings were published, who they addressed, how they were received, and not least look at the response of the Danish government to international as well as national pressure to denounce the drawings. I want to review the language games that the government found itself caught up in, and the cultural logics they attest to. It has been argued that the controversy was a cultural misunderstanding or misrecognition, but I will argue that the drawings were received exactly as they were intended, and therefore not a case of cultural mistranslation.
However, as we sit here attempting this review, the controversy of these drawings has somewhat returned, with the attack on the Danish embassy in Tehran this week (October 10th, 2006), triggered, not only by the one-year old drawings, but by a recent video, shot at the summer meeting of the Danish People’s Party, showing members of their youth organization holding a drunken competition of who can draw the best – that is most offensive – caricature of the prophet Muhammad. In this way, the gesture of drawing Muhammad keeps returning to Danish politics, both nationally and internationally. It seems that the performative and political gesture of depicting Muhammad is equally crucial to the self understanding of the Danish nationalists as it is to the millions of Moslems it may or may not be directed at, and that national and foreign policies are intermingled and tangled up in each other in the current cultural-political landscape in the state of Denmark.
I consciously use this strange term, a “cultural-political landscape” in describing Denmark, since politics have taken a decidedly cultural turn in the new millennium here. That is, politics as such have become increasingly visual and aesthetic: i.e. cultural. Whereas modern politics always had an aesthetic dimension, it seems to me that this dimension has today become the primary. Reversed, this also means that it is virtually impossible to isolate the discussions and policies of cultural politics from politics in general. Indeed, cultural politics can be said to be at the center of political debates and practices, albeit cultural politics of a very specific and symbolical form. This culturalization of politics, and the identities and identifications of conflicts and differences entailed in it, is naturally not specifically a Danish situation. It can be observed in a large number of European political spaces and nations, played out with slightly varying nuances and effects, and it is, importantly, always localized and ethnicized. Cultural politics have become identity politics. Such cultural politics of identity are centered around notions and narrations of a specific and essential national and territorial being, for instance “Danishness”. An identity that may not be racially pure, but rather culturally so, a shift from a construction of race and territory (or nation) into an argument of national, ethnic culture bound to a specific territory. Thus, such “Danishness” (or whatever the specific case may be) is not to be historicized, or worse, deconstructed or diluted, but something essential that must be defended vigorously and that can divide the population into two distinct categories: those who will defend it and those who will not (and are, in effects, traitors).
The articulation of what is Danish, or who is a Danish subject, is no longer merely a nominal or legal matter but an identitarian and not least minoritarian proposition. Both the political left and right in Denmark have adopted a language of minoritarian identity politics, claiming Danishness as a particular cultural position under threat in a globalized world, necessitating protectionist cultural policies and a fixed rather than permeable national border. This means, then, that minority and identity politics as they have been formulated and brought to bear in the 1990s, as something constructed authentically from the inside by minority subjects, who are, in turn, outside of society, no longer seem politically viable. As developments in Denmark have shown, such politics can be easily appropriated by the nationalist ultra-right wing in a species of “hostile take-over”, where appeal to the global economy is used as a pretext for declaring the Nordic, Aryan subjects to be a threatened, if not suppressed minority on the world stage. And since what is thus articulated is an “authentic” voice, it cannot be criticized and its demand to be heard deserves to be met.
This notional “real” Dane, is, naturally, constructed around a number of empty signifiers, filled with both exclusive and exclusionary content. The real Dane is represented as entrenched in a timeless welfare state outside of history and economics, but also as loving his currency, his Queen and his country(side), his beer and his pork etc. – but also organized around more modern notions such as equal rights, sexual liberation and the freedom of speech. Crucially, no one else can represent or even hope to profoundly understand this Dane, his roots and his desires. The question thus arises whether he actually understands them himself. For this he obviously needs interlocutors, representatives and adversaries. Here we see the aptly named The Danish people’s Party, for whom the overriding ideology and object of desire is exactly Danishness, as a cultural-political project of identity. By focusing mainly on Danishness and its double (negatively), the immigrant the DPP has been part of a particularly effective version of a hostile take over of the identity politics of the former left by the new right. Former leftist modes of critique, for instance feminist critiques of vision, can now be employed by the right, as is the case in the current debate over the right to wear the veil, that is being critiqued for being anti-feminist. Interestingly, there is not a similar argument made against the right to (un)dress sexily, Britney Spears-style, and refusing being sexualized in public space is apparently more provocative and un-Danish than to participate in the sexualization of the pop and fashion industries. A similar right-wing use of left-wing rhetorics is of course to be found in the case of the Muhammad drawings, where the official reason given by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten for commissioning the drawings was what they claimed was a widespread self-censorship among Danish cartoonists, preventing them from making jokes about Muhammad and Moslems in general, that is, an argument of (self)liberation in an almost Reichian sense!
What do these examples tell about the notion of culturalization? Partly, as I have tried to show that the politics of identity can be reversed, and used to block rather than enable identities, to exclude, even annihilate as much as include. So, becoming visible, and – in a strict political sense – to receive recognition (of certain claims and identities) does not (only) entail representation in the sense of inclusion, but also exclusion. To put it in other words: we recognize your specific culture, even your right to exercise it, only not here, not in our cultural space. Indeed, your culture is threatening ours, and must as such happen elsewhere, if at all. Identity and the exercise of culture as identitarian is thus linked to territory, and each culture must have a space of its own, a soil in which to be sown, in order to unfold and thrive, and two cultures cannot exist in the same ground at the same time, precisely because culture has to be grounded and, in turn, ground identity.
Riding the anti-immigration wave, heavily supported by Jyllands-Posten, Anders Fogh Rasmussen of the liberal party swept into power in the fall of 2001, shortly after the events of 9-11. Mr. Fogh Rasmussen promised a hard-line on immigration, one that he has indeed delivered, as well as involving Denmark more directly in the war on terror, leading to Denmark joining the invasion of Iraq, as well as deploying troops in Afghanistan. However, what I would like to investigate here is not the issue of on what grounds Denmark joined the war, but rather to look at the cultural aspects of this policy change, and the image production that it attests to. In my view, whether or not there was any grounds to go to war with Iraq – that is whether the alleged weapons of mass destruction actually were there or whether the politicians really believed they were there – is not the right question, since there was plenty of reasons to go to war, and indeed to continue to go to war(s) in the region, within the cultural-political logic established within the new right and center politics of anti-immigration and cultural difference and autonomy. Within this logic, going to war in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere in the Muslim world are not acts of aggression, but of defense: the Christian, although mainly secular, Western world defending its culture against the threat of Islam. And within this logic there can be no separation made between real and imagined threats, since perception equals reality, since a specific narrative creates hegemony, filling the empty signifiers with particular but universalizing content.
The establishment of this hegemony has happened in stages that we shall not track in too much detail here, but in order to understand how it has become inescapable for the Danish political elite, and as such clearly demarcated and to some extent absurdly limited the governments possible responses to the international diplomatic crisis, it is important to take a few steps back and examine the rhetorics and image production of the current administration. As mentioned above, immigration, or rather one should say how to limit it, how to stop the flow, was the overriding issue of the election campaign in 2001 that brought the new government into power with support from the far right. But as I also mentioned, it was not only the far right Danish people’s Party that was advocating anti-immigration, but also the leading party Venstre, to which Mr. Fogh Rasmussen belongs. Indeed Venstre ran a very successful advertising campaign during the election with the slogan “time for a change” and using a very famous picture of a group of young immigrant men giving the finger to the camera leaving the courts, where they had just been convicted in an ugly case of gang rape. Apparently, the change the new government would bring about was not only concerned with justice, but also with certain “culturalized” subjects, creating a connection between crime and immigration, and between security and territory. Once elected, this became manifest in the implementation of the strictest anti-immigration laws in Europe, and, in parallel, to the PM himself taking an unprecedented interest and role in cultural politics of identity.
At the outset of the governments first term, Mr. Fogh Rasmussen launched what he himself termed a culture war. His choice of words is interesting, not only in stressing relations of force within the field of culture, but also since the PM had talked about the 20th century as the centuries of wars, that were now over, such as the cold war and class war. In the new century, then, a new war has opened, the so-called culture war, that the PM wanted to wage against what he called “self-appointed judges of taste”, by which he meant intellectuals of either liberal-humanist or decidedly left wing political persuasions, whom he claimed to be out of step with the general population. This project was launched in Mr. Fogh Rasmussen’s first New Year’s speech in 2002, in which he clearly stated that three particular subject positions were unwelcome in the new Denmark – his Denmark; namely immigrants, intellectuals and leftists. He claimed that:
“There are tendencies towards a tyranny of experts that runs the risk of suppressing the free debate of the people. The people shall not accept raised fingers from so-called experts that think they know better. Experts can be useful to explain factual knowledge, but when it comes to personal choices, we are all experts.”
The strategy of this move was to marginalize any critical views and positions that could be expected from these groups, thus, in effect, rendering their views meaningless: they no longer had a place in the public debate, and secondly as ways of reintroducing the personal and private realm as something beyond political debates. The first part, removing persons suspect of holding such dissenting views from public debates or even public positions was done through drastic budgets cuts across the board, not least within environmental and cultural agencies, as well through a centralization of independent institutions and political appointments of more subjects with the right (in both senses, obviously) political tendency to such institutions. However, the public, rhetorical element of the culture war turned out less successful, and was since retracted somewhat by the PM, since it has been difficult for most to actually find all these left-wing and wrongheaded subjects in power of any institutions, and subsequently the PM even decided to increase financial support for Danish poets and novelists (as the standard bearers of the Danish language, no doubt). Despite the fact that the culture war was, at best, a stalemate for the government, it has by no means abandoned. Rather, it has shifted arena from (culturalist) national politics to (nationalist) cultural politics proper, and is now led by the Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen, who has identified the new enemy after the apparent defeat of the leftists:
“There are still many battles to be fought. One of the most crucial ones is about the confrontation we feel when immigrants from Muslim countries refuse to acknowledge Danish culture and European norms. In the middle of our country – our own country – a parallel society is being developed, where minorities are practicing their medieval norms and undemocratic ways of thinking. This we cannot accept. It is here we have the new front of the culture war.”
But let us turn to the second aspect of Mr. Fogh Rasmussen’s rhetorical moves, namely the reintroduction of the personal as opposed to political, that is, his reinstatement of the public/private divide of the bourgeois citizen in the modern state. Mr. Fogh Rasmussen talks about personal choices in his speech, as something that should be removed from public institutions and debates, referred back into the private realm. A view also taken when asked to state his position on same sex marriages and church ceremonies, and actually also later on when asked about his opinion on the Muhammad drawings. In the first case, the PM stated that he personally didn’t object to same sex marriages taking place in churches, but that as a public person, a politician and as PM he couldn’t support it, and in the second case that he personally objected to mocking of religion in writing or drawing, but that he politically couldn’t intervene (with the freedom of the press). Now, one may ask, why we should be at all interested in his private views since they apparently have no bearings on his politics, and secondly why they must, after all, be uttered in public if they are indeed private, and the two spheres indeed separated. This paradoxical language is significant for the kinds of language games that characterize the current administration; on the one hand having one view, and on the other another, but this apparent contradiction does not come across as double speak or wavering, but rather as consideration and compassion. It also has much more troubling ramifications, however, as part of a neo-conservative rather than neo-liberal re-construction of the proper bourgeois subject, and is as such a conscious attempt at undoing the famous feminist dictum “the personal is political”, by publicly and rhetorically reinstating the very division between private and public – and thus between what is political and what is not – that historical feminism had deconstructed. It is a subtle way of telling people to get back into the closet.
Rolling back the years on the achievements of feminism also allows for a reclaiming of seemingly lost sense of masculinity, naturally, and in this way the PM places himself squarely within the current popular cultural celebration of laddishness and return to a more traditional masculine role. By reinstating a sharp distinction between public and private personas, between political and personal questions, Mr. Fogh Rasmussen also posits the state, that is, his own office, as the guarantee for this separation, as the protector of privacy and thus property. Only a very active state can, ironically, secure the privacy of its subjects, and in this way the growing security and surveillance is constructed as the protector rather than intruder of privacy. The protector is, naturally, a traditional masculine figure, not least in this sense, as the father of the nation. This new gained masculinity of the office of Prime Minister also ties in with Mr. Fogh Rasmussen’s declared wish to lead a more active and independent foreign policy than his predecessors. And even though one could argue that sheepishly following the line of Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush is hardly an expression of independence, then partaking in invasions is certain active, and dare I say even manly. Seen in this light, the Danish governments unconditional support for the current US administration and zealous participation in their military endeavors can be seen within the prism of the identity politics of the new right: being part of the invasion is – quite literally – playing with the big boys, as well as a proactive effort in the culture war against immigration and (fundamendalist) Islam. Moving from a mere war on words towards real battle: the word made flesh.
This will also allow us to see the Muhammad drawings, most often discussed within the freedom of speech debate and as parallel to the Salman Rushdie case, in another context: the culture war. The drawings were, as mentioned, published in Jyllands-Posten, which a (very) right-wing daily newspaper closely aligned with the government, to the point where can almost see as the official party newspaper of Mr. Fogh Rasmussen’s party, which makes his remarks about the clear separation between the politics of this newspaper and the government seem slighty more ironic than the drawings themselves supposedly were. Even more ironic, when one takes into consideration that Jyllands-Posten itself some years earlier had repressed the work of two of its reporters that could be construed as critical of the then reigning right-wing government. Indeed, these journalists had to take legal action in order to get their own newspaper to print their article, leading to their editor being fined and reprimanded, which all testifies to the particular tradition of upholding the principles of the freedom of the press in this particular newspaper. As opposed to these particular articles, the drawings were apparently necessary to combat the self-censorship of Danish cartoonists, and Jyllands-Posten thus commissioned 12 caricatures of the prophet, one of them, made by the paper’s in-house cartoonist, infamously depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. These drawings were said to be ironic and anti-authoritarian, in the grand Danish tradition of satire.
However, let us look at the context as well as the text. Let us examine the position of the speaker involved here, that is Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s biggest newspaper. As I have already mentioned, the paper is very close to the policies of the government, and anti-immigration, especially directed against muslims have been at the right and center of Danish politics for about a decade, as it has been in the editorials of Jyllands-Posten. Political satire historically has its function when speaking about power, or towards power, rather from a position of power, as is the case here. The drawings can therefore not be seen as irony, which comes from below, but rather as sarcasm coming from above. It is as in the example that I am sure almost everyone knows from his or her own school days: the cheeky child in the back row can be incredibly funny when making a funny remark on the teacher’s expense precisely because it is directed towards authority, whereas the teacher making funny remarks at the poor student is hardly funny, but rather nasty, if not even downright evil. Despite the identitarian claims and constructions of the new Danish right, these drawings were not printed from a minoritarian position, they were not, after all, printed in an Arabic newspaper, but from a dominant discourse in national(ist) Denmark, directed against one of its smallest and most vilified and marginalized minorities: Danish Muslims.
The caricatures must, then, be seen, if not as part of an ideology, then as part of a specific discourse, as part of what the Minister of Culture called the new front of the culture war; the front against Muslim immigrants and their medieval norms. But what exactly is cultural warfare? And what is its function? In order to look at such questions, it might be useful to turn to Michel Foucault’s work on the connection between modern states, territoriality and race, and politics and war. In his lectures at the Collège de France in 1976, published under the title Society Must Be Defended, Michel Foucault shrewdly inverted Clausewitz’s famous aphorism “war is a continuation of politics by other means” into “politics is a continuation of war by other means”:
“According to this hypothesis, the role of political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism – politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics, in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war. Inverting the proposition also means something else, namely that within “civil peace”, these political struggles, these clashes over or with power, these modifications of relations of force – the shifting balance, the reversals – In a political system, all these things must be interpreted as a continuation of war. And they must be interpreted as so many episodes, fragmentations, and displacements of the war itself. We are always writing the history of the same war, even when we are writing the history of peace and its institutions.”
To this Foucault then adds that the final word of power is always battle, war, which seems particularly pertinent in the case of Iraq, and the situation that we are in today under the global hegemony of the United States. Power is always exercised warlike, whether in battle or in peace, or whether with weapons or with words, linking the notions of weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass deception in an intricate way. And this move enables us, I think, to clearer see how the current security discourse is constructed and the seamless transformation of welfare states into warfare states. In fact, the two are not only connected – historically in the construction of the modern nation state that Foucault analyzed and currently in the more global security arrangements such as Fortress Europe – but dependent on each other and interchangeable. The warfare state, obviously, guarantees the welfare state, just as the welfare state justifies the warfare state: the two produce each other rhetorically and politically.
And it is exactly this connection between politics and rhetorics that influenced the Danish government’s response to the international incident caused by the publication of the Muhammad drawings. It has been suggested that the response of the Danish government was faulty and inept in a political and diplomatic sense, but I would rather shift the argument a bit onto the terrain of the cultural political logic that made any other response than the given rhetorically and thus politically impossible. Again, let us take a brief look at the course of things. The caricatures themselves were published nationally on September 30, 2005, and as I have argued directed towards the specific cultural logic of contemporary Danishness and its other. That is, a national rather than international affair. However, as I have also argued the nationalist logic that posits Danes as a cultural and ethnic minority, and that enabled the caricatures to be produced as a (self)emancipatory gesture requires a global setting, implying that the drawings must also be read internationally. That the returns can be returned, so to speak. Which is of course exactly what happened when – just weeks after the publication date – 11 ambassadors from Moslem countries asked for a meeting with Mr. Fogh Rasmussen and when a group of Danish hardline Moslems traveled to the Middle East for support in December of 2005, that ultimately lead to the riots, flagburnings and storming of Danish embassies throughout the Middle East in January of this year. The first response of the PM was not to respond at all, simply refusing to meet with the ambassadors, since there was, in his words, nothing to meet about. However, this dismissal did not make the case go a way, quite the contrary since the Egyptian Embassy on Oct 25 then made an official request to the Danish PM for a comment, where his answer was the above mentioned non-denial denial (as it is known within political speech), namely stating his personal distress, but always his inability to intervene as PM, since the government cannot interfere with the freedom of speech, which was to remain the party line all throughout the apex of the crisis in January and February of 2006, despite mounting international as well as national pressure on the Danish government to offer an apology, or at least distance themselves officially (not just privately…) from the sentiments of the caricatures.
As to the diplomatic shortcomings of the official response, the government was clearly caught out by the internationalization of specific national articulations, making it impossible for it to escape its own language games and the cultural logic it had created. Instead, “freedom of speech” was invoked as a fundamental, unbreakable principle that must be defended by all possible means. As such, not commenting on the caricatures became a way of commenting on a way of life, Danish democracy, and its survival, again according to a minoritarian logic of Danish identity, and on its reverse, the anti-democratic threat from outside as well as within, fundamentalist Islam. The war of words, no matter how aggressive, is in this way posited as a fundamental defense. But a defense of whom? And how does it work, in which arenas and forms is it played out? Here, we must again turn to the culturalization of politics, and how different cultures can be seen as substituting a previous logic of different races. Towards the end of the 1976 lectures, Foucault writes on racism, or more specifically how racism becomes state racism with the advent of the modern nation state. The nation state not only binds a people to a territory, but also indicates a shift in relations of power, or how power is exercised. Where sovereign power was the power to take life and to let live, we are moving towards the notion of biopower in the nation state, concerned with the whole of the lives of its citizens, with national health and national security at one and the same time. That is, a shift from taking life and letting live to the right to make live and to let die. We are thus moving from a state of war to a state of biology, indicating a change in the constitution of racism – racism meaning who shall live and who shall die, moving from relations of war, where killing is simply a matter of survival, that is, a relation of enemies, to power relations of a biological nature, where the survival of the species is at stake:
“The fact that the other dies does not simply mean that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer. This is not, then, a military, warlike, or political relationship, but a biological relationship. And the reason this mechanism can come into play is that the enemies who have to be done away with are not adversaries in the political sense of the term; they are threats, either external or internal, to the population and for the population. In the biopower system, in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection between the two.”
It is, in this view, necessary to eliminate the other, not just to secure your own survival, but actually your growth as well (and we can think of this both in terms of identity and economy). Whether the enemy is internal or external, or, as in the case of Islam and the west, simultaneously both internal and external, it must be destroyed in order for society to thrive, to be whole. Naturally, a shift has occurred in language if not in discourse since the emergence of the modern nation state, where the terms race are now substituted for culture – “their medieval norms,” remember – and killing with deportation (or, arguably, integration). The arguments of otherness and societal hygiene have shifted from race and colour into terms of different and incompatible cultures; a culturalization of the political, where images and words are as important and even lethal as cannons and bombs, or, if you will, rubber bullets, teargas and camps. Weapons of mass destruction go hand in hand with weapons of mass deception in the defense of society and its normalizing social measures. In this sense, the Muhammad drawings and the controversy around was not a case of miscommunication, but of a clear staking of the claims in a cultural-political war within the overriding “clash of civilizations”. As Samuel Huntington very clearly put it in his book: “There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are”. Which is why it is necessary to mock the other – the enemy – with caricatures of his holiest of holies, exactly in order to draw the (battle)line, to expose not the underlying self-censorship, but rather the underlying and imminent conflict between the cultures.
No translation was needed, then, the message was clear, and indeed no mistranslation occurred. The drawings were received exactly as anticipated, be it unconsciously, globally as well as locally, as dismissive and affirmative of already designated subject position: Christian=Democrat or Moslem=Fundamentalist. There is no middle ground. In this way, the crisis over the Muhammad caricatures eerily reminds us of Jacques Lacan’s enigmatic claim that a letter, no matter how misplaced, always reaches its destination…
 Arguably, it is the break-up of the former Yugoslavian federation, and how this breakdown was articulated in terms of fixed and incompatible ethnic identities, that have now come to serve as the model for democratic politics of peace, as well as for war. A matter of politics as acts of war led by other means. In other words, the international lesson, and indeed “solution” to – specifically – the problem of a Bosnian multi-ethnic state, which was a cultural and ethnic separation leading to a legal and territorial separation, has become the cornerstone for the postmodern understanding and foundation of the nation state, at a time when the nation state as a political formation is increasingly losing its sovereignty economically.
 Theoretically, the function of the Danish People’s Party can be understood in terms of representation as supplement rather than substract. As theorized by Ernesto Laclau, the representative is to be understood as a supplement, a fulfillment of some sort of lack in the identity of the represented, since representation in the terms of incarnation is needed in the first place, and this “original gap in the identity of the represented which needed to be filled by a supplement contributed by the process of representation, opens an undecidable movement in two directions that is constitutive and irreducible”. See, Ernesto Laclau, “Power and Representation”, in: Emancipation(s), London: Verso, 1996, pp. 97–98.
 New Years speech, 2002. Author’s translation.
 Brian Mikkelsen, Danish Minister of Culture, Oct. 29, 2005.
 As a bit of context, let me attempt some cultural translation of own: Although I grew up in a household where Jyllands-Posten was the only daily newspaper, even here it was always mockingly-lovingly known in the terms originally coined by its opponents. Its full name is Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, which can be roughly translated into: the morning paper, the post from Jytland, but in the vernacular it was always known as “Morgen fascisten Jyllandspesten”, which can be roughly translated as the morning facist, the plague from Jytland!
 Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, London: Penguin, 2004, pp. 15–16.
 Ibid., pp. 255–256.
 I therefore also find the ironic argument often placed by leftist commentators on the fear of immigration in Denmark, that it must be a very weak culture if it feels threatened by just a few Moslems, to be wide off the mark. The fear of immigration, and constant need to annihilate through either expulsion or integration is rather a show of strength. A means of a (mono)culture making itself ever stronger.