Thursday, June 05, 2008

SIGNS OF DENMARK WEAKENING

THE JUNE 2 SUICIDE BOMBING outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad, which killed six people, has caused a bout of soul-searching in the land of Kierkegaard and Hamlet. More than ever, Danes are asking what price their country can afford to pay for its increasingly entrenched reputation as a forthright critic of Islam.

It all began with the celebrated 2005 publication of 12 political cartoons cartoons under the rubric "Muhammad's face" in the daily Jyllands-Posten. The images were meant as a bold assertion of free speech, but were seen by many Muslims as blaspheming Muhammad. The cartoons' republication throughout the West barely dimmed the focus of Muslim ire on the small Scandinavian country, magnified by its military presence in Afghanistan and, until last year, in Iraq.

Since then the fallout has come in fits and starts. There were deadly protests at Danish embassies abroad, boycotts and counter-boycotts; earlier this year Denmark expelled two Tunisian nationals for death threats against one of the cartoonists. In recent weeks the anti-immigrant and often openly anti-Muslim Danish People's Party, headed by Pia Kjaersgaard, has spearheaded a campaign against Muslim headscarves. The government, which needs the DPP's support to form a majority in parliament, was maneuvered into a ban on judges wearing religious symbols—a solution to a virtually non-existent problem.

Now that the ultimate terror weapon—a suicide bomber—has been deployed against a Danish target, the DPP is sounding the trumpets and calling for special troops to defend Denmark's diplomatic missions; its foreign policy spokesman, Soren Espersen, compared the country's exposure to that of the U.S. and Israel. But others aren't so sure that Denmark ought to be engaged in a battle this big. "We have moved from being a small insignificant and neutral country without any military importance to being considered an extremely active participant in a more militant western world," says Islam expert Jorgen Baek Simonsen of the University of Copenhagen.

What was in 2005 a general Danish consensus to stand firm is crumbling as the stakes rise. Margrethe Vestager, leader of the opposition Social Liberal Party, said Denmark should look towards "dialogue rather than conflict." Referring to "the government's xenophobic agenda," Holger K. Nielsen of the Socialist People's Party said, "Things have gotten out of control. We must discuss whether we have to constantly get involved in places where we are most hated."

If the Danes' spirited defense of free speech in 2005 was a matter of principle, they now face a sobering balancing act: how to back off without seeming to back down. "The government knows that we are driving on the edge and will have to slow down," says Hans Mouritzen of the Danish Institute of International Studies. "They will deny it in public, but you will see a government beginning to conduct a less activist foreign policy." If so, the Islamabad bombing will have marked a key moment in the ongoing calibration over how loudly any small country can afford to roar.

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