Summer 2006, Vol. 9, No. 1

Table of Contents
Summer 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Hold the Prayers

To Print or Not to Print?

Another Melancholy Dane

Raising Hell in Alabama

Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa

Apostasy in Afghanistan

Religious Politics, Japanese Style

Cult Fighting in Middle Georgia


Another Melancholy Dane
Tim Jensen


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 saying so.” 

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 J-P 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 interviewed me.

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!

On Wednesday, 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?

Journalisten, 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 name it.

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. 



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