Saturday, February 11, 2006

Imposing Sharia in Jante

Consider the following ten axioms which might describe a Danish multiculturalist's position on relations with the Islamic community in Denmark. As you read please bear in mind that I a describing a set of ideas that I do not myself believe.

1. Native, non-Muslim Danes should not think that they are special. Danes are by nature a deeply egalitarian people but Danish culture is not without its elements of racist and cultural exceptionalism.
2. Danes should not assume that they are of the same standing as the Muslim minority.Without consideration of differences of opportunity and the history of past oppression a simple comparison of social standing and achievement would be grossly unfair.
3. Danes should not think that they are smarter than Muslims. The idea that differences in achievement between Muslim and non-Muslim Danes can be explained, even in part, by differences in intellectual capacity is unacceptable.
4. Danish culture is no better than that of the Islamic community. If there were to be a core principle of multiculturalism this would be it.
5. Danes should not assume themselves better educated than the Muslims. Comparison of levels of education between groups with different ethnicity and different culturally-based standards is frustrated, and ultimately rendered pointless, by the impossibility of evaluating the importance of the skills and information imparted.
6. Danes should not think that they are more important than Muslims. Denmark is a small country and the Islamic world community is vast. The Danes have much to gain and much to lose depending on their relationship with Islam.
7. Danes should not feel that they, as a people, are uniquely good at anything. Danes tend to be quietly proud of their abilities. While their reticence about putting themselves forward speaks well of them they should still remember that they see their own accomplishments through the filter of their culture and others may view them differently.
8. Danes should not laugh at Islam. Islam is a serious religion and the Danes a serious people. It mars the dignity of both for the Danes to ridicule Islam.
9. Danes should not think that the world cares especially about them. National alliances are weak and the EU and other Western nations are too pressed with other concerns to worry about the Dane's internal problems with their Islamic community, and what is more, the other Western powers are in many cases pursuing approaches that give them some real or imagined advantage, but are not necessarily good for Denmark.
10. Danes should not assume that they can teach the Islamic community anything. The Danes have a long history and a rich culture but so does the Islamic community. It would be presumptuous of the Danes to insist that immigrants become somehow Danish just to live in Denmark -- presumptuous and a waste of the advantages that diversity could give to a small country in an increasingly Islamic world.

By this point any Danes, Norwegians or students of Scandinavian culture will have recognized my ten axioms as a trivial rewording of Janteloven (Jante Law) which is described in Wikipedia thusly:
The Jante Law (Danish and Norwegian: Janteloven Swedish: Jantelagen Finnish: Jante-laki) is a concept created by the Danish/Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel A refugee crosses his tracks (En flygtning krysser sitt spor, 1933), where he portrays the small Danish town Jante, modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was in the beginning of the 20th century.

There are 10 different rules in the law, but they are all variations on a single theme and are usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us. The 10 rules are:

1. You shall not think that you are special.
2. You shall not think that you are of the same standing as us.
3. You shall not think that you are smarter than us.
4. Don't fancy yourself as being better than us.
5. You shall not think that you know more than us.
6. You shall not think that you are more important than us.
7. You shall not think that you are good at anything.
8. You shall not laugh at us.
9. You shall not think that anyone cares about you.
10. You shall not think that you can teach us anything.

In the book, those Janters who transgress this unwritten 'law' are regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against communal desire in the town, which is to preserve social stability and uniformity.

Most Danes will deny, with varying degrees of indignation, that Jante Law has anything to do with them, or with the Danish psyche, but the fact that these "laws" from a novel written over seventy years ago are still being discussed [mild profanity] suggests that Sandemose may have been on to something.

While few Danes will agree with the ten points of Jante Law as written, if you state them the other way around -- "I should not think the I am special; I should not think that I am smarter than they are; etc." -- you will find them nodding along, at least for the first few until they catch on to what you are doing. While they can generally see that Jantelowen is repressive and stifling when applied to other people they still see many of the precepts as guide to how they themselves should act.

I mention all this to offer a possible answer to a question that a number of people are asking: Why did the "cartoon" crisis erupt in Denmark, of all places? The Danes are natural multiculturalists, not so much because they value diversity more than other peoples or are less xenophobic (neither of which is particlarly true) but because they tend to be reserverd and private and they have an aversion to putting themselves forward. This means that when groups from other culturs emmigrate to Denmark the Danes make very few demands that they integrate into Danish society as a whole. Given that they have a large degree of autonomy, why is the Danish Islamic community making so much trouble?

My theory about this question is that the Danes, and other Scandanavian peoples, who like to be left alone and expect others to be the same, failed to give fair warning to the Islamic community that there were aspects of the local culture that they feel strongly about. One often hears this idea expressed in terms of the perception of weakness and a determination on the part of the Muslims to exploit it. My notion is slightly different; As I see it the Muslims have come to the conclusion that they can simply demand that Sharia be imposed incrementally on Denmark since they (the Muslims) feel strongly about it and the Danes don't seem to have any strong opinions about it one way or the other.

There are some signs that the Muslims may have overplayed their hand with the cartoons. The cartoons, once you get to see them, are surprisingly mild and tasteful, despite the furor that has sprung up around them. They fall well within the boundaries of alowable commentary in any modern Western culture. They do violate some aspects of Islamic law but Denamrk is not an Islamic theocracy and even from an Islamic point of view there is some reason to question the ban. Representations of God and the Prophet are forbidden because of concerns about idolatry and so, unless one imagines that the Danes are going to bow down to a picture of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, it is hard to see the problem they pose. Of course, they do violate the Islamic law that states that "Islam cannot take a joke" which, come to think of it is not that different from rule number 8 in the Janteloven

See teleoscope: Cartoon Fun. for an animation with small versions of the cartoons and a link to a source for larger ones.

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