HRS International

Thumbs-up from Norway for the Muhammed cartoons

After five years, a new poll reveals a surprising, and gratifying, shift of opinion in Norway in regard to the cartoons that changed the world.

By Bruce Bawer, HRS

Well, here’s a heartening measure of the degree to which Norwegians are waking up to the danger among us and the challenges that confront us.

It was five years ago, on January 10, 2006, that the Norwegian newspaper Magazinet ran a feature about the cartoons of Muhammed that had recently appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten – and included in that feature the cartoons themselves. At the time, the response in Norwegian political and media circles was one of near-hysteria. The bien pensant crowd rushed to condemn Magazinet editor Vebjørn Selbekk for supposedly insulting Muslims and putting Norwegian security at risk. Politicians at the highest level put intense pressure on him to recant – and ultimately succeeded, resulting in a disgraceful event, held at a government building, at which Selbekk apologized to a massive gathering of Norwegian imams for having exercised his freedom of speech.

It was a dark day for Norwegian honor and for Norwegian freedom. But most Norwegians, at the time, agreed with their leaders that Selbekk had crossed a line. When the polling firm InFact, on commission for the newspaper VG, asked people whether they supported or opposed Magazinet’s reprinting of the cartoons, 25.3 percent said Magazinet had been in the right, while 49.6 percent said it had been wrong and

25.1 percent were unsure.

That was then. Now, five years later, InFact, this time working with the newspaper Dagen (now edited by Selbekk), has asked the same question again, and the results are illuminating – and gratifying. Today, a majority of Norwegians – fully 53.3 percent – believe that the publication of the cartoons was a good thing. Only 32.2 percent disagree, and a mere 14.2 percent have no opinion.

In short, it’s true: many Norwegians have woken up.

The Dagen survey results break down largely along left/right lines, with members of left-wing parties generally opposing the cartoons and members of the so-called non-socialist parties supporting them. One exception is that Christian People’s Party (KrF) voters oppose the cartoons, 47.4 percent to 34.2. This is no surprise: the Christian conservatives are on the wane, and the only way they can see a future for themselves and their social-conservative politics is by attracting Muslim voters, whom they see as fellow enthusiasts for family values.

Per Edgar Kokkvold, head of the Norwegian Press Association and the strongest supporter of Magazinet in 2006, offers his explanation for Norwegians’ shifting view of the cartoons. “I believe it is the result of a comprehensive, long-term, and intense debate about freedom of expression, and about how important it is. It is not only one of the human rights, but it is itself the foundation for that the other [rights] work in a society.” Norwegians, he notes, have become aware that freedom is under siege, and that there is a difference between harassing people for belonging to a faith and criticizing the theology, or ideology, that is the basis of that faith.

A more dubious explanation is offered up by election researcher Frank Aarebrot. He ascribes it to a shift in the public perception of who, in this case, are the victims and who are the aggressors. “At that time, it was possible for Muslims to depict the publication [of the cartoons] as an assault,” says Aarebrot. But now, in the wake of deadly worldwide protests, embassy burnings, and an attempt to murder cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, it is the cartoonists, not the Muslims, Aarebrot says, who are perceived as the victims.

What to make of this analysis? Well, it is certainly true that the cartoonists’ image in Norway has changed – that they are no longer seen as bullies but as victims. But to suggest that this alone explains the shifting attitude of the Norwegian public toward the publication of the Muhammed cartoons is to take an oddly narrow view of recent history; it is, in fact, to isolate the cartoon crisis from the larger picture of Islamic jihad (both violent jihad and stealth jihad) as it has played itself out in the last five years.

Aarebrot takes a further step in the wrong direction when he proceeds to draw a bizarre parallel between Norwegian views on the cartoon crisis and Norwegian views on Israel. “From being viewed as inferior when it was founded shortly after the Second World War,” says Aarebrot, “the Jewish state has gradually come to be viewed as more and more militarily superior. Therefore the Norwegian people have changed sides in the conflict.”

You would think, from this statement, that these two issues – the cartoons and Israel – were utterly unrelated: that they were not part of the same big picture. Or, alternatively, that support for the cartoonists over the cartoon jihadists and support of Palestine over Israel were somehow analogous to or philosophically consistent with one another. In fact, of course, the opposite is the case, and the fact that many Norwegians do support the cartoonists while opposing Israel can hardly be explained by some benign tendency on the part of the residents of the “peace country” to always side with the victim.

Still, Aarebrot’s comment is useful, because it shows just how far some Norwegians (especially members of the cultural elite) have yet to come before they see the big picture clearly – before, that is, they recognize that the jihad against the cartoons and the jihad against the existence of Israel are one.

The major reason for this gulf between Norwegian views of these two forms of jihad seems clear. After the initial display of cowardice and appeasement in the face of the cartoon jihad, the Norwegian media eventually fell into the habit of representing the Danish cartoonists – who, after all, were fellow members of the journalistic brotherhood, and fellow Scandinavians to boot – as victims and heroes.

Scandinavian media folk standing up against ideological bullies: there was something the Norwegian media could admire. But Israelis standing up against the same ideological bullies? No, the Norwegian media couldn’t identify with that, and didn’t want to. It is, after all, an article of faith among the Scandinavian cultural elite that Israel is a world-class bully, and Palestinians world-class victims. That conviction is a cornerstone of the Norwegian world picture, and is not easily altered.

Consequently, the Norwegian public continues to be bombarded with negative images of Israel and positive images of Palestinians. To be sure, I believe that ordinary Norwegians tend to be considerably more supportive of Israel than are the members of their country’s cultural elite. Yet there is a very widespread, and deeply irrational, hostility to Israel in Norway, and it is founded upon a daily diet of vicious Israel-bashing in the Norwegian media. If the media were to portray Israel as fairly and objectively and, yes, sympathetically as they have portrayed the Danish cartoonists over the last few years, there is no doubt that public opinion about Israel would gradually become more positive as well.

Don’t hold your breath, though.