A War of Words: A Review of Muhammadgate

Simon Sheikh

In his lectures at College de France in 1976, Michel Foucault famously inverted Clausewitz aphorism ’war is a continuation of politics by other means’ into ’politics is a continuation of war by other means’. This move seems particular pertinent in the current political hegemony of war and security, transforming welfare states into warfare states. My presentation will use this move to review the so called ‘culture war’ initiated by the current Danish government two years ago, and see how this effected the response to the Muhammad crisis, that erupted one year ago with the publication of a series of satirical drawings of the prophet in the Danish right wing daily paper Jyllands-Posten. Despite the fact that the culture war was, at best, a stalemate for the government, it was by no means abandoned. Rather, it shifted the focus of national politics to (nationalist) cultural politics, to be finally made redundant by the debacle over the publication of the Muhammad drawings in the Danish daily, and the Danish Government’s response to the subsequent international pressure and critique. The government was caught out by the internationalization of national articulations, making it impossible for it to escape its own language game and the cultural logic it had created. Instead, ‘freedom of speech’ was invoked as a fundamental, unbreakable principle that must be defended by all possible means.

In the new millennium, politics in Denmark have taken a decidedly cultural turn in which politics as such have become primarily visual and aesthetic: i.e. cultural. Reversed, this also means that it is virtually impossible to isolate the discussions and policies of cultural politics from politics in general. Indeed, cultural politics can be said to be at the center of political debates and practices, albeit cultural politics of a very specific and symbolical form. Cultural politics have become identity politics and centered around notions and narrations of a specific and essential ‘Danishness’. However, this Danishness is not to be taken lightly, or – god forbid –  deconstructed or historicized, but it is something that must be defended and that can divide the population into two distinct categories: those who will defend it and those who will not (and are, in effects, traitors).

I shall look at these logics, as well as on the drawings themselves, and how they, despite the protestations of Jyllands-Posten and the government that the anger over the drawings was a question of cultural misunderstanding and mistranslation, arguably, rather illustrates Lacan’s enigmatic claim that a letter always reaches its destination…

Simon Sheikh