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Lurpak cartoons

OF ALL the places in Europe to kick off a global controversy about religious intolerance and the abuse of free speech, you would hardly choose Denmark. Isn 't that in Scandinavia? Isn't that where enormous taxes support generous social benefits, where streets and air are always clean, and a ready, liberal smile awaits any foreign immigrant wanting to share the dream? Well, not any more.

Denmark's image has changed in the space of a couple of weeks, as its flags and embassies go up in flames around the Middle East. The publication of a dozen humourless cartoons - and the machinations of a handful of imams from Denmark bruising for a fight - have managed to make even Lurpak butter controversial.

In a hastily constructed documentary, Denmark: In the eye of the cartoon storm (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), Malcolm Brabant reported from Copenhagen. What became clear is that Denmark is by no means as happily pluralist as we might imagine. Since a right-wing coalition came to power there, immigration has become a fractious issue: the policies of the 1990s came to be regarded as absurdly laissez-faire, and a crackdown has ensued.

At the same time, imams have caught the public's attention with talk of a rise in racist and religious attacks in the country, and these opinions are supported by liberal-leaning commentators such as Pastor Borg Hansen, a respected and media-savvy Lutheran, who was one of Mr Brabant's witnesses.

There are, of course, plenty of conspiracy theories flying around about why it took the Muslim world so long to respond to the cartoons (published back in September), and the agendas at work: that the Danish imams included other - far more grotesque, and unpublished - images as part of their appeal to Muslim outrage in order to ensure maximum reaction; that the riots were timed to coincide with debate over the new Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in the UK; and - most interestingly - that the Muslim world picked Denmark with which to have a fight because Denmark was the only country to bow to Saudi pressure and suppress the 1980 documentary Death of a Princess about the execution of a Saudi royal.

Not all these theories, and the dozens more in circulation, can be correct, and it is too soon for analysts such as Mr Brabant to give us a cool, considered perspective. But, as a picture of a country undergoing radical self-examination, this was an entirely worthy and intelligent piece.

None of this - nor the recent reports, as yet unconfirmed, of abuse by British soldiers in Iraq - helps those on the ground in Basra and elsewhere, trying to negotiate the complex and treacherous transition of power to the Iraqis. In Desert Rats' Diary (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), we heard from officers and squaddies about their support of the Iraqi security forces.

This was a wonderfully textured piece of radio: the stench of battle and the business of peacekeeping, the philosophical ("this is a thinking man's battle" ), and the grimly humorous (a woman declaring that she was going to blow herself up "in a series of suicide bombings"). There is more to come in this series, and one imagines there will be a great deal more to come in Iraq.


 

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