Another Melancholy Dane
At the height of the
furor over the Muhammad cartoons last February, Romesh Ratnesar informed the
readers of Time that Jyllands-Posten, the offending Danish
daily, had been told what it was getting into.
“A leading Danish
religious historian, Tim Jensen, warned that some Muslims would take offense
at the images, citing a widely, although not unanimously, observed taboo
against physical representations of the Prophet,” Ratnesar wrote. “But the
paper published the 12 submissions it received anyway, on September 30.”
By then, within
Denmark, I had become central to the story—the academic Cassandra whose
warning, had it only been heeded, would have averted the disaster to come.
If one is to believe Jyllands-Posten (J-P), it has had to
answer questions about this from all over the world ever since.
But why make so big a
deal about the fact that a religion scholar had told J-P what it
already knew full well? Why had the daily commissioned the cartoons in the
first place, if not to cause offense?
And what about the
fact that, as it eventually turned out, there had actually been no warning?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On Saturday, January
29, the cartoon crisis was accelerating. Across the Middle East, stores were
being cleared of Danish dairy products in the wake of calls for a boycott of
Danish goods. The Danish foreign ministry was going into 24-7 crisis mode.
But for me, it was much the usual weekend mixture of relaxation and work.
Around noon, an e-mail
arrived from a reporter at Politiken, the Copenhagen-based
left-of-center daily that often takes up cudgels against the right-of-center
J-P. She wanted me to answer some questions for a follow-up on the
big story of the day.
“Of course,” I
replied. As one of Denmark’s handful of “religion experts,” I talk to
journalists all the time. But I hadn’t talked to this one before. On the
phone, she sounded young.
Had I, she asked, been
interviewed by J-P before they published the cartoons? And had I
warned the paper against doing so?
“Well,” I told her,
somewhat on the alert and uneasy. “I don’t really know.” At the time, I’d
been absorbed with Apollonius of Tyana, a Christ-like pagan holy man from
late Antiquity. “Why do you ask? What’s your source?”
“Well,” she replied,
“I’ve been told that you had. Actually we have received an anonymous e-mail
Pondering whether an
e-mail can really be anonymous, I slowly began to recollect a rather long
talk with a female journalist from J-P who had wanted to know about
Islam and Muslims and the traditions in regard to images in general and of
the Prophet Muhammad in particular. At first I had tried to brush her off,
saying that I was no Islamicist.
So, yes, I told Politiken, I had been interviewed by someone from J-P,
and had told her that one could be sure that some Muslims would take offense
at drawings of the prophet, even if made by non-Muslims. And, I recalled, I
had taken a position against publishing such drawings on the grounds that
they would doubtless be read in the context of the prevailing anti-Muslim
discourse in Denmark—such as the recent declaration by the Minister of
Cultural Affairs that the government had a policy of combating the backward
ideas of Muslim immigrants. If JP was so eager to defend freedom to provoke
religious believers, I said, why didn’t it do so the year before, when a
Danish supermarket stopped selling sandals with depictions of Jesus the
minute some Christians complained?
What I hadn’t discussed with
were its caricatures of Muhammad. Indeed, I said, I hadn’t been shown them
then and haven’t seen them to this day.
What I’d thought I was talking about was the issue that had sparked the
controversy in the first place: writer Kaare Bluitgen’s complaint that he
was unable to find an illustrator for his children’s book about the Prophet
because no one dared break the Muslim prohibition against portraying his
image. Had I known that we were talking about caricatures, I would have been
much more outspoken. That would have involved not publishing “innocent”
pictorial representations of the prophet but drawings that mocked, scorned,
and ridiculed him—the worst kind of blasphemy in Islam!
In any event, we
agreed that I could check quotations, and within a short time a few
paragraphs arrived, beginning, “Jyllands-Posten so much doubted
whether to publish the 12 Muhammad drawings that they consulted one of the
leading religion scholars in the country.”
In due course, a
photographer came and went, taking hundreds of pictures even as he assured
me that this would be a small inside story. To me, it didn’t seem like a
story at all.
Next morning, I am
shocked to find half the front page of the Sunday Politiken covered
with a photo of Tim Jensen under the headline, “Jyllands-Posten was
warned!” Most of the quotes are right, except for one. Where I signed off on
“It now turns out that the daily should have known the risk that Muslims
would feel offended, and that the drawings consequently might lead to
protests,” the article has me saying: “But the daily was aware of the risk
that the drawings might lead to violent protest.”
A friend calls and
congratulates me for having joined the long line of “warners” from the Koran
who predict dire consequences for those who do not listen to the truth
coming from the mouth of the Prophet. We both laugh, but I am a good deal
less amused that evening, when a Danish Muslim pops up on al-Jazeera to
inform millions of Muslim viewers that J-P had been warned by that
“leading religion scholar,” Tim Jensen.
Early Monday morning,
Jørn Mikkelsen, one of J-P’s two editors-in-chief, calls to
ask what the Politiken story was all about. I repeat what I’d told
the reporter and ask him not to be too tough on her.
On Tuesday, J-P
prints a furious open letter to Politiken from its culture editor,
Flemming Rose, denying that his newspaper had ever consulted Tim Jensen. It
was, he said, an outright lie, a media stunt staged by Jensen himself.
I immediately weigh
in, stating that it was Politiken that contacted me, not the other
way around. Responding to me privately, Rose insists that he is right: I had
not been asked my opinion on the actual cartoons, and J-P had not
been able to foresee the violent protests. I reply that I never claimed
either the one or the other.
And then it begins.
Day and night for the next two weeks, print and broadcast journalists from
all over the world besiege my house, my office, and my phone. There are
moments when I think the rioting in the Muslim world is nothing compared to
the way the journalists, pundits, experts, and opinion makers are running
amok in my life.
Finally, the frenzy
stops and the now world-famous scholar-warner recedes into the background. I
get a call from a writer for Journalisten, the official journal of
the Danish association of journalists. She is preparing a story on the
story, and J-P still denies ever speaking with me.
I repeat my version of
events, express the hope that it would soon be verified, and start worrying
that my memory has for once failed me. A week later she calls back, saying I
can put my mind at rest. J-P has finally found the journalist who
In her story,
Mikkelsen is quoted to the effect that the subject of Muhammad drawings had
come up “at the end of a conversation about something else,” but that my
comments “did not reach” J-P’s editors-in-chief. Mikkelsen
also says that Politiken was “simply factually wrong” in claiming
that J-P had been warned. For his part, Politiken’s
editor-in-chief claims that “Tim Knudsen” (sic) is sticking to his story.
I, Jensen, write to
Journalisten, aggrieved at finding myself a pawn in the war between
Politiken and J-P, guilty that I may in some small way have
contributed to the deaths of people in the streets, but pleased to discover
that my memory has at least served me well. Alas. Not quite.
On Monday, March 6,
having just spoken to a J-P reporter about Muslims carrying around
the Koran as they demonstrate, I receive a call from a J-P editor
informing me that he has talked with the reporter I originally talked to,
that it turns out that the interview took place not before but on the very
day the cartoons were published, and that he has obtained a tape recording
of the conversation.
A transcript (which I
later obtain) reveals that, amidst what was in fact a long discussion of
pictorial representations in Islam, I was at no point asked to comment on
the published cartoons. Indeed, it is evident that I don’t know that
the cartoons have been published. On the contrary, I seem to be under
the impression that J-P is merely planning to publish some innocent
drawings of Muhammad.
Why, I ask, did
Mikkelsen tell Journalisten that drawings of Muhammad had been just a
small part of a discussion of something else? The editor on the phone says
that he has no knowledge of this, and cannot understand why the
editor-in-chief said so.
On Tuesday, March 7,
J-P publishes a column by this editor on Politiken’s false
story and Tim Jensen’s mistake. Triumphantly announcing the discovery of the
tape recording, he has Jensen “admit” that he had not spoken with J-P
prior to publication of the cartoons. J-P is cleared of the hideous
and false accusation!
Politiken prints its official self-exculpation, saying that its story
was based on the statements of Tim Jensen and that it now turns out that
Jensen got the date of his J-P interview wrong.
I feel again not so
good. I try to get answers to some questions that still remain important, at
least to me. I am told by the Politiken reporter that the newspaper
received letters, not just an e-mail, claiming I had warned J-P. But
I am unable to get these letters, and still cannot understand why they have
never been mentioned by anyone discussing this story.
Who sent them? Some
people, including the Politiken reporter, opine that they and/or the
alleged e-mail were actually sent by someone at J-P who disagreed
with the editors’ decision to publish the cartoons. But who?
for its part, confirms that the J-P editor-in-chief said what he was
quoted as saying—something not quite in line with the transcript of the tape
recording. I ask J-P to send me a copy of the tape recording itself,
but in vain.
The editor tells me he
does not have it; the reporter who interviewed me does. The reporter, no
longer with J-P (and judging from her response happy to be out of
there), tells me she does not have it; the editor does. The editor then
admits that he does, but says it’s up to the reporter to give me a copy. She
promises to do so, but so far hasn’t delivered.
Not that I think the
recording doesn’t exist, or that the transcript is a fraud. I should just
like to have it, and to listen to it. It turned out to be an important
interview, that one.
End of story—at least
so far. But what, in the end, was the story?
J-P’s final salvo was meant to reveal the truth behind
The Warning. But it hid the truth that J-P knew all along that the
cartoons would offend at least some Muslims and lead to protests.
Yet, on the other
hand, why did J-P not consult Tim Jensen or some other expert
before publishing the cartoons. That would have been pretty smart—much
smarter than consulting Tim Jensen after the fact on general matters
pertaining to icons and images in Islam. Then they might really have been
warned about not just ‘protests’ but maybe even violent protests.
As for Politiken,
it was intent on showing the J-P had in fact received such a warning.
Reason demands that causes be proportional to effects, that effects be
predictable from causes. And so a prophet-scholar was necessary to make the
violent consequences rationally comprehensible—and preventable.
Et voila! One was
found. And if he didn’t exactly predict the violence to come, well, we’ll
put the words in his mouth.
As for my own version
of the story, it is about media coverage of and participation in local and
global wars of politics, culture, and journalism itself. A story, in short,
of battlefield reporting, and of the loss of control and the damage control
that go with it. But perhaps most importantly, it is a story about how
“experts” function for the media, not least by authorizing a narrative.
As the crisis peaked,
I was strongly tempted never to speak a journalist again. It became
blistering evident that the words that came out of my mouth would, within
hours, days, or weeks, be turned into sound-bites legitimizing whatever the
domestic or foreign journalist, politicians, or audiences wanted, be it
hate-speech, street fighting, Islam-bashing, J-P-bashing, racism, you
And as Danish
politicians and journalists learned the hard lesson that news travels fast
in the global village, and that a loose idea conceived over a cup of coffee
can easily be transformed into bloody events in distant lands, so we experts
too have had our own lessons to learn.
In a recent article in
the journal Temenos, University of Toronto religious studies
professor Donald Wiebe argues that religion scholars should not assume the
role of engaged public intellectuals because this undermines their claim to
be devoted to the disinterested search for truth. In his view, it is
acceptable for them to make their academic knowledge available to the public
only as citizens with an interest in what is happening in the world.
Such a distinction may
work in theory. But my story suggests that, in the real world, there is no
easy way to separate the scholar from the public opinion maker, the neutral
informant from the advocate, the expert in the ivory tower from the
combatant on the ground.
Once you enter the public arena even as purveyor of what you consider the
purest of academic knowledge, you better be ready to get your hands dirty.
Because dirty they will become.