Cartoon Controversy Slams Denmark's Economy

The publication of cariticatures of the Prophet Muhammed in a Danish newspaper — and subsequently around Europe — has caused unprecedented economic problems for Denmark. It has also triggered a debate among Danes over freedom of speech and religious multi-culturalism.

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The publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and then in several other European papers has caused unprecedented economic problems for Denmark. It's also triggered a debate among Danes over freedom of speech and religious multiculturalism.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Copenhagen.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Arla Foods is one of Europe's largest dairy producers and one of Denmark's most successful exporters to the Middle East. Bjorn Larnsen(ph) manages one of Arla's distribution centers located about 20 miles outside Copenhagen.

Walking through the refrigerated warehouse, he points out crates upon crates of Arla's Lurpac(ph) brand butter, wrapped in gold foil with a small red and white Danish flag in the corner of the label. Larnsen says before the cartoon controversy, this butter used to make up 60 percent of the entire market in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. BUREN LARSEN (Manger, Arla Foods): We have worked so hard to establish a market in the Middle East, and overnight, puff, no market. It's a shame, a sad shame.

MARTIN: Arla officials say because the Middle East makes up such a large part of their business, they've shut down all production plants in Denmark. Fin Hansen(ph) is the managing director of Arla's international operation. He says until now being a Danish company operating in the Middle East was a good thing.

Mr. FIN HANSEN (Managing Director of International Operations, Arla International): Took us 40 years to build up to this position, but with this amazing force, I call it a tsunami of consumer boycott, it only took us five days to be removed from all the shops in the region. Our business has come to a total standstill.

MARTIN: Despite the drastic impact on a handful of exports firms like Arla, economists say the overall impact of the boycott on the Danish economy will be small. More significant will be the effects the cartoon controversy has on the Danish society, says Toger Seidenfaden, editor of the Danish newspaper Politiken.

Mr. TOGER SEIDENFADEN (Editor, Politiken): Until now, Danes felt that wherever they traveled in the world they would be welcome. They could speak to both sides of every conflict and be assured that the Danish flag was a sign that we were good guys. We have now lost that.

MARTIN: Sidenfadden says the cartoon controversy has exploded in large part because of a growing anti-Islamic xenophobia in Denmark reflected in stricter immigration laws and tougher citizenship requirements that he says target Muslims. After the cartoons were initially published, a group of 11 ambassadors to Denmark, from mostly Muslim countries, asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister, who declined. After that a group of Islamic clerics distributed the cartoons throughout Muslim countries, characterizing Denmark as an enemy of Islam and sparking violent protests. Sidenfadden says that could have been prevented.

Mr. SIDENFADDEN: Now, they would have not done that if anybody had listened to them in Denmark. Perhaps they exaggerated, but there was something to exaggerate.

MARTIN: 32-year old Omar Marzuk(ph) was born and raised in Denmark by Egyptian immigrants. A professional stand-up comic, he often pokes fun at taboos like racism and Islamic fundamentalism, but he says the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad crossed the line. Sitting in a Copenhagen café, he says he's tired of being told he doesn't understand freedom of speech and Western democratic values.

Mr. OMAR MARZUK (Comedian): It's frustrating because I do understand, but I also value my religion very highly and I really can't see the problem with freedom of speech coexisting with respect for other people's beliefs.

MARTIN: But some in the Danish government are convinced that freedom of speech takes precedence over what they see as pandering to an Islamic community that refuses to assimilate into Danish culture.

SOREN SAUNDERGARD(ph) (Spokesman, Danish People's Party): Adapt or get out, because this is the way we are in Denmark. Why should 200,000 Muslims in Denmark or the whole entire Muslim world change that?

MARTIN: Soren Saunderguard(ph) is a spokesman for the Danish People's Party, the parliamentary partner of the current government. He defends the illustrations of Muhammad, and says the current controversy reflects a more systemic cultural threat.

Mr. SAUNDERGUARD: We believe that this is not about 12 cartoons in a Danish paper. We believe this is about a fight against an Islamic-dominated Muslim world and against our natural liberty and freedom values.

MARTIN: The Danish public has been in a state of shock over the controversy and the global response. And while many say the decision to print the cartoons was a mistake, the attacks on Danish embassies and hate speech against Danes has made them feel like the real victims of the crisis. Toger Seidenfaden of the Politiken newspaper says the long-term effects of the controversy are still unclear.

Mr. SIDENFADDEN: Whether it leads to more tolerance or more polarization is very much open right now. And I must say the worse the international crisis gets, the more likely it is to reinforce a negative climate on integration and respect for human values in this country.

MARTIN: Denmark's Prime Minister has said dialogue is the key to resolving the crisis at home and abroad, and that any complaints against the newspaper that printed the cartoons should be pursued through the courts.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Copenhagen.

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