As Danish embassies come under attack around the world in misplaced retaliation for the four-month old decision by a Danish newspaper to publish satirical cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, it is a time for choosing.
It is a choice between freedom of speech and violent intimidation. It is a choice between tolerance and intolerance. It is ultimately a choice between civil society and theocracy. Fear is the only argument for neutrality.
But what can the average American do besides shake their head at this sadly absurd new chapter in the clash of civilizations? Vote with your wallet. Buy Danish.
The Arab boycott of Danish goods is by far the most civilized register of displeasure at the content of the cartoons. It can and should be responded to in kind. Seeking out and supporting Danish industry is a peaceful way to express solidarity with the besieged values of freedom and pluralism.
Denmark is an extraordinary country, simultaneously civilized and libertine, boasting its own aesthetic of high design, Hans Christian Andersen, and a respect for tolerance that borders on the reverential. It is a sad irony that this small country of 5.2 million – which has welcomed over 200,000 Muslim immigrants – should become a flashpoint for intolerant Islam.
So far the violent protests that have set fire to Danish embassies abroad have not yet jumped the ocean to America, though the NYPD has stepped up security at the Danish consulate in New York. I spoke to the Danish consul general in New York, Torben Gettermann, who said, “We’ve gotten reactions both negatives and positive. We’ve gotten some expressions of protest, but also a lot of support for the freedom of speech and those people who want to know where to buy Danish products or make donations to Danish charities.”
Despite 1.3 million ethnic Danes in the United States, not one of our city’s 18,000 restaurants is exclusively dedicated to Danish food, although excellent Scandinavian restaurants such as Aquavit abound. Danish design products are available in the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art, the company Knoll sells Danish furniture at stores throughout the city, Georg Jensen offers silverware and jewelry, Skagen makes excellent watches, while Bodum sells high-end kitchen-ware. The Danish dairy producer Arla, which has been disproportionately affected by the Arab boycott, owns the Wisconsin cheese company White Clover, while traditional Danish foods such as Carlsberg beer, Danish Ham and Havarti cheese can be found in stores or from importers on the internet. The children’s building toys Lego come from “Leg Godt,” which means “Play well” in Danish. Supporting Danish goods isn’t likely to lead to world peace, but it just might provide a demonstrable counterweight to the chaos going on overseas.
We don’t want to fight fire with fire – literally, as it turns out – in this conflict. But neither should we buy into arguments about unbridgeable cultural differences or moral equivalence. One clarifying example can be found in the extreme double standard of cartoons used in the crisis. CNN caught violent protestors outside the Indonesian embassy brandishing a cartoon drawn on a bedsheet showing Muslim clerics cutting off the head of a generic Danish businessman. This is a great deal more hateful than the instigating cartoons, one of which depicted the prophet Mohammed trying to warn a suicide bomber off from the gates of heaven saying that he was out of virgins. As the world knows after videotaped executions in Iraq, the threat by radical Muslims to cut off someone’s head is not empty; a point that was further driven home by a street preacher in Gaza who, according to Reuters, said “we will not accept less than the severing of heads of those responsible.”
The Arab street may perhaps be forgiven for conflating the idea of attacking the Danish government for the actions of a free and independent Danish press. After all, in countries that have taken diplomatic action against Denmark – such as Saudi Arabia and Syria – state-controlled newspapers are the rule and not the exception.
In this extremist enabling-environment we should not ignore the lonely but hopeful voices of the more assimilated European Muslims who are quick to say that the spiraling violent street protests do not speak for them. One prominent example is the Palestinian-born Danish Member of Parliament Naser Khader, who said to the offending Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, “To be a practicing Muslim is not the same as being an extremist. I’ll fight the people who think they can tell me and others how to be a good Muslim. That is a matter between Allah and individual Muslims.” Such voices of moderation need to be given more attention, for it is from them that we might find a way to redeem the promise of peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society.
Tolerance is a two-way street: it implies not only mutual respect but a live and let live attitude that is absent from Muslims’ reaction to these cartoons. The violent protestors that have taken to the streets around the world are providing evidence of mass psychosis rather than being witnesses to one of the world’s great faiths.
At protests in London, cameras caught sight of two signs that cut to the heart of why this is a time for choosing. One sign said “Freedom Go to Hell” while another read “Learn from 9/11”. By standing up to this controversy in the spirit of civility, in defense of a universal rather than culturally determined right to freedom of speech, we are showing that we have learned the lessons of 9/11. We will not be intimidated by threats of violence. Instead, we will stand up and defend the multicultural civil society.