Torben Getterman on the Danish Cartoon Controversy

Caricatures of Prophet Mohammad in the Danish Jyllands-Posten (dannyman/Flickr)

In this interview, Torben Gettermann, the Consul General of Denmark to New York, discusses the controversy over the publication of cartoons depicting caricatures of Prophet Mohammad in the Danish Jyllands-Posten.

Mr Gettermann entered the Danish Foreign Service in 1980. He has had postings in Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Hungary, among others. Prior to arriving in New York in September 2005, Mr Gettermann served as Denmark's Ambassador in Baghdad, Iraq.

This interview was conducted prior to the Asia Society event Not a Laughing Matter: Behind the Danish Cartoon Controversy on March 22, 2006.


To what extent does the Danish government view the recent controversy over the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten as a matter of free speech?

To a very great extent, actually, which is why the government has taken a very firm stance on the way that the government can act in this controversy. Freedom of speech is clearly a part of the Danish Constitution. It is enshrined in our Constitution that we have total freedom of speech, and that nothing can limit that freedom of speech. We had censorship about 60 years ago, and nobody wants to re-introduce that. So for the government it has been a matter of upholding the principles of our Constitution.

There is another part to it. There are certain limits to the freedom of speech, not in the Constitution but in the Criminal Code, where you cannot publish derogatory descriptions of religions. Any transgression of this would be punishable under the law. So there are limitations, to this extent, to freedom of speech.

But the cartoons that were published would not be considered as having transgressed this article in the Criminal Code?

As late as last week, the director of the public prosecution in Denmark informed the public at large and the government that it would not be possible to prosecute this. The reasons he states are that in his very thorough preparation of this final result, he has not been able to find parts of these cartoons that would conflict with the article in the Criminal Code. This is not to say, and he states this clearly, that he condones whatever the reasons were for the newspaper to publish the cartoons. He is just stating what is the law and what can be done.

Some commentators have argued that we need to distinguish between free speech as an essential means to challenging state power and free speech as a means of stigmatizing vulnerable religious or ethnic minorities. Do you think that such a distinction can be made?

I think we have to look at what are the main issues here really. The way I see it, the issues are essentially the core values of a democratic society vis-à-vis the core values of a religious society or religious community. So it is not a question of free speech stigmatizing a particular community. It is a question of interpretation and the values that define a democratic society and the values that define a religious society.

In this sense, you could say, there is a lot of bridge-building to be done.

Does the Danish government view the Muslims in Denmark, and in Europe more generally, as a vulnerable minority? What concessions, if any, do you believe should be made to more vulnerable minority groups in Europe?

They are not viewed particularly or specifically as a vulnerable minority. They are protected partly by Danish laws and the Danish Constitution, and partly by the European Human Rights Convention, to which Denmark is a signatory. Any minority would be covered by this legislation and this Convention in Denmark.

Do you believe that any concessions should be made to minority groups at all?

I would not say that you have to make concessions because these concessions are somehow already taken care of through the legislation and through the Convention. This was the whole point with having the conventions as such: to protect vulnerable communities in society and make sure that they have exactly the same rights as anybody else.

Some analysts have suggested that the levels of Islamophobia in Europe are now on a par with, and in some cases have even exceeded, the levels of anti-semitism. Would you agree with this claim?

It is difficult for me to respond to this claim actually. I would not be able to tell whether this is a clear description of how the situation is since these are qualifications that are difficult to make, because you can't really measure them. You can have your opinion, but you can't really measure them.

Mahmood Mamdani has argued that, "For those looking for an apt analogy to understand the significance of the cartoon controversy, it would not be an insensitive satirizing of Jesus that devout Christians would find blasphemous, a religious transgression, but an anti-Semitic hate cartoon that would alarm all decent people, secular or religious." Could you comment on this?

Not really. That falls beyond the scope of what I can comment on as a public figure.

How did the Danish government respond to the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri announcing a Holocaust cartoon competition under the heading, "What is the limit of Western freedom of expression?"

There was no official response.

Would you like to issue one now?

No. If I did, it would not be official anyhow!

Is it the case that the cartoon editor of Jyllands-Posten was sent on leave for agreeing to re-publish these Holocaust cartoons? Is this true, and if so, what do you believe accounts for this?

I cannot really speculate as to what the reasons were for the actions taken by the newspaper because the official explanation given was that he was overworked and he was overwhelmed with the stress of that period. He needed vacation. If I start commenting, it would be speculating as to the reasons why this is a decision that the newspaper has taken.

A letter written to the London Review of Books from the University of Copenhagen argues that the context of this controversy is not freedom of speech but rather the politics of immigration. The author writes, "Denmark has moved from a long and honourable tradition of opening its doors to asylum seekers to a rather nasty form of xenophobia. The Parliamentary majority of the current right-wing government depends on the support of the far-right Danish People's Party. One of the most depressing aspects of the whole story is that in the past few weeks applications to join the latter have gone up by 17 per cent. The most useful thing the prime minister could do, for both the political health of Denmark and its reputation in the Muslim world, would be to break that alliance." How would you respond to this?

Of course this is the point of view of this particular professor. If we look at the facts, starting with the latter part first, which is the following of this Danish People's Party: the latest opinion poll which was published, I think, in the middle of last week, showed that it is losing about 3-5 per cent of what it had gained over the last couple of months. So there seems to be a shift in the electorate with regard to this party.

I am familiar with this letter, which was published before the Gallup poll results were released last week. Again, it is a matter of perception whether Denmark is more xenophobic/Islamophobic than it has been before. If you look at the politics of it, I think we have done a tremendous task in trying to integrate and accept a large number of foreigners, refugees, asylum-seekers from all over the world but mainly from the Middle East. They come from very different backgrounds, and for very different reasons.

We have a social welfare system that cares for everyone; everybody is equal under that system. If we talk specifically about the Muslim community, we have, I think, 19 Muslim communities that are recognized in Denmark as religious communities. We have a large number of mosques. There is a plot set aside in the Copenhagen area for a Grand Mosque which has not been built yet but that is a task that the Muslim community has been undertaking.

There is total equality in terms of schooling. Either the children can go to a normal Danish public school or if they so desire, they can attend a private, Islamic school, which also receives funding from the Danish Ministry of Education.

In short, a lot is being done to integrate foreigners into Danish society.

Has the number of immigrants from the Muslim world to Denmark declined in the last decade?

I do not have figures as such for the Muslim world, but the overall figure, yes it has declined. The number of asylum-seekers has fallen.

What about immigrants in other categories?

That depends very much on what you look at because there are programs that require people with specific backgrounds, for instance, a specific education, like engineering or computers, and there is a fast-track for these people to get in. So it is much more varied than that. It is a question of getting the people that we need and where we have the possibility of giving them work from the beginning.

It is not a curtailing of immigration as such. But immigration in Denmark - as in so many other countries - is regulated. I will spare you all the details, but of course you need to have a work contract, a relationship with Denmark, and so on, to get in. You will find the same here, in the US, and all other countries actually.

As you must have heard numerous times, people often argue that precisely because there is a social welfare system in place in Denmark (and elsewhere), there is in fact more of a reason to curtail immigration, to produce disincentives to limit the number of foreigners coming in, especially those who are not of the professional class you describe.

Sure, and this is what some parties have in their programs, of course. They look very closely at immigration. Other parties would look at it slightly differently. Not that they would open all the gates and invite everyone in, but as you see all over Europe, there is a need also to protect these people who come in because many of them have been sent, not only to Denmark, but to other countries, having been smuggled across the border. This human trafficking, out of which some people make a lot of money, is of course illegal according to Danish law, European law, and the UN. To stem that, the government - and when I say the government, I am talking about the two parties that are forming the governing coalition - has a very clear policy towards immigration. It has to comply with UN standards, and with the law, and it has to protect the people that want to come into Denmark, to protect them from those who make a living out of smuggling them or abusing them in any other way.

Are there any other comments you would like to make?

About the cartoon controversy, as such, what is important is that we look back and learn from what has happened and understand how we can use this in a positive way. That is, in my view, the only option really we have: to use it in a positive way and create a better dialogue, better understanding, greater tolerance and respect for one another. That ought to be the lesson we can learn from this.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.