Anthropology and the Muhammed cartoons

Last night, I went to attend a debate at the Department of Anthropology on the much-discussed Mohammed-cartoons. It focused on the anthropological perspective of the reactions and counter-reactions to the drawings and how anthropological theories can help win broader understanding in the current situation.

Now this is a rare thing. In all my time at Copenhagen University, I can’t remember more than one similar meeting that sought to discuss current affairs in an anthropological perspective (that was September 11th). And it was immediately clear that this is the sort of thing that really brings out the Danish anthropologists. The lecture hall was packed with anthropologists and anthro students – with the usual 8 women for every man present, underlining to just what degree anthropology is a women’s field these days.

For this occasion, there were 5 anthropologists (all doing working at the department) who had prepared short presentations on which the discussion were to be based.

First up was Inger Sjørslev who discussed how language is determining the value and sacredness of certain topics. And she went on to discuss how there are things which are sacred outside of the religious sphere of things. And how this silence surrounding things perceived as sacred creates even greater tension when it is broken.

Second presentation was by Morten Axel Pedersen (my advisor!) who argued that what he called “classic” globalization theory such as the idea of five “-Scapes” (ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes) as expounded by Arjun Appadurai aren’t capable of describing or containing a situation as the one we’re facing now, where a crisis has made a jump of scale from a local to a global scale. He argues that we need new theories of globalization to describe this new phenomena of jump of scale (in Danish “Skalahop”).
He argued that this crisis has led to a collapse of not only foreign and interior Danish politics but also in anthropology: There is only one big global field – but that field contains several scales, levels and horizons – much like the segmentary tribe structure described by Evans-Pritchard.

He then called for research into the way that these jumps of scale occur and how the different sides of the conflict are constructing themselves and their opponents. He referred to an article by Ole Wæver, a Danish professor of Political Science, who have argued that this is not so much a clash of civilizations and religions as it is a clash between a secular and religious fundamentalism. And he ended by problematizing the fact that we as secular anthropologists only represent one half of this debate.

Third up was Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen who has done fieldwork in Egypt and actually was in Egypt as the cartoon case grew around him in late January and early February. His presentation was the other extreme of anthropological discourse compared to Morten’s very theoretical and abstract talk. HC talked in anecdotes, small situational references to discussions he’d had with his informants as the crisis grew. And he gave a sense of how these cartoons grew to be the central topic of discussion within a week, propelled by media and the Friday prayer. He also noted that most Egyptians were shocked but not stupid: They all called for the need for good manners in this kind meeting of cultures.

Fourth was Anja Kublitz who’ve been doing fieldwork among Palestinians in Denmark since September last year when the cartoons were published for the first time. She talked about that last week of September as being a really bad week for her informants:
– first: there was the presentation of the Danish ministry of culture’s new culture canon which was introduced in such a hostile tone (one of the central arguments for this canon was that it was central to mark certain values as Danish in order to counter the tendency of “another Denmark” with its muslim ways). Anja’s informants quickly began calling this initiative for the “culture cannon” to reflect this war-like rhetoric.
– second: there was the case of Louise Frevert, MP for the semi-rascist Danish People’s Party, who had published clearly rascist texts on her personal webpage. She denied this, and the whole thing turned farcical when she excused herself by blaming her webmaster, a retired navy colonel.
– third: the Mohammed cartoons themselves. Which Anja’s informants found to be just the last element in a long row of Danish discriminatory initiatives against muslims in general.

What was worse was that all of these things took place during the muslim holy month of Ramadan – which neither Louise Frevert, Danish minister of culture Brian Mikkelsen, nor Arts editor of Jyllands-Posten had been aware of. It was basically like dissing Jesus on Christmas eve – at the point in time when people of a given religion are at their most religious.

Still, the muslims in Denmark wanted to show that even though they’d been hurt by all of this, they were still very much willing to live in Denmark, to work towards reconciliation. They arranged a demonstration for peace and for tolerance which ended at the central square in Copenhagen where they had a prayer for peace.
The people arranging the demonstration had been very concerned that the demonstration would be looked upon as something aggressive and had made sure that only 3000 people attended – even though they could have mustered maybe 10000. They didn’t want to intimidate the Danes. The demonstration took up only one lane of traffic and even stopped at all the red lights in order to create as little inconvenience as possible. Yet, even so – Danish media and Danish passersby managed to mis-interpret the entire thing.

The slogan for the demonstration was “Islam er fred” (Islam is peace), but because not all of the participants spoke fluent Danish, some misheard this as “Islam er vred” (Islam is angry). A very unfortunate misunderstanding. Further, the demonstration ended with a prayer for peace – because, as the muslims reasoned, “a prayer is the most peaceful thing imaginable”. Yet most of the Danes misunderstood this public act of faith, and one passersby even asked: “Are you going to war?” As the whole act of prayer seemed so demonstrative and foreign to him.

In general, the Palestinian informants don’t see the cartoons as something especially bad – but they’re simply a symptom of the bad climate for understanding that there is in Denmark today.

Finally, the was Mikkel Rytter who talked about how this situation has come about in Denmark. He created a timeline beginning in 1991 with the fall of the iron curtain and how US foreign policy now needed a new enemy to focus on. They chose islamic terrorism which was supported by the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”.
In Denmark, nationalism rose to a new high in 1992 with the referendum against the Maastricht treaty and the victory in European football Championships that summer.
In 1995, the Danish People’s Party was founded to capitalize on those currents of nationalism and localized fear, and it was well-supported by the 1997 campaign called “the Strangers” which ran in the Danish tabloid daily Ekstra Bladet.
Rytter argued that we in this way can see the effect of the globalization in Denmark: As a negative and scary effect resulting in an unknown inner enemy – the muslim immigrants – as seen by a majority of the population whose only contact with these immigrants is through the media. The positive effect of globalization as seen and experienced by the cultural elite is less in focus in this period.

This polarization becomes central in Danish interior politics. The liberal-conservative government that is elected in 2001 uses the warlike rhetoric of a “battle of values” and a “battle of culture” while Danish People’s Party compares their struggle against immigration to the Danish resistance in WWII. This results in a basic dichotomy between modernity and traditionality, betweeen Danes and muslims (disregarding the fact that many of these muslims are in fact Danish citizens).
Rytter argued that many Danes look upon the muslims as an anachronism – and he suggests that we challenge this dichotomy through solid ethnography – to explode these notions.


Based on all of this, a discussion ensued which had a fair few interesting insights and few more anthropological anecdotes. Especially the questions of how to study and represent religion, how, whether and if anthropologists should take part in the public debate on the matter, and how this would impact the anthropological field as such. A conclusion was that is more important than ever to study nationalism and religion – things that are easily exotic to us cosmopolitan anthropologists – not only abroad but also in Denmark. And that is also relevant to study how virtual media and telecommunications play part in the escalation and “scale jumping” of crises like the current one.


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fascinating. Good shit Andreas.

Two points that resonate with me:
1) clash between secularism and fundamentalism, as said by Mr. Waever.

2) the cartoons a mere symptom of the problem, not by themselves something bringing about all this madness.


You have made a very good piece here. Very inspiring. I have thought about writing something along these lines myself in order to find some deeper explanations of what is going on. I think you anthropologists come a long way towards explaining these complex phenomena, but perhaps you underestimate the importance of international economics in the workings of the globalisation process.

Dear Mr. Andreas
your blogs on the debate at the Department of Anthropology on the much-discussed Mohammed-cartoons is very iterestind. i tried to read all the presentations , but may be ther are some errors inof all hyberlinks. my appreciation to you if you help me to read or send to me a copy of all presentations
saeed elmasry
associat annthropologist in cairo university

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