COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Prior to the cartoon crisis of 2005-6, which arose after a Danish newspaper published a handful of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark did not have strong national brand recognition in the Middle East and North Africa. During numerous research trips to the region before the crisis I often heard questions along the lines of, “Denmark? Isn’t that the capital of Oslo?”
Egyptians, for instance, jokingly used to refer to Denmark as “the country of cheese” (balad al-gibna), a reference to Danish dairy products exported to the region. Or they would take amusement from referring to a popular slapstick comedy starring a prominent Egyptian actor, Adel Imam, in which the plot is built around a Danish blonde in skimpy clothes. And there were soccer fans (quite a lot) who could name more famous Danish or Arab soccer players than I even knew. Beyond that, everything turned a bit hazy.
The cartoon crisis changed that. It instantly hurled Denmark into the Arab and Middle Eastern collective consciousness and tarnished Denmark with a reputation as a frontrunner in European xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Whether we find it fair or not, the dominant narrative about Denmark in the Middle East remains forcefully impacted by this experience. Danish businessmen know that and so do the Danish intelligence and foreign services. Over the past 10 years each has worked to repair and rebuild what Denmark’s image lost in 2006. In the foreign service, for instance, the newly established regional reform program that I headed in Cairo from 2008 through 2011 had to scale down its reform agenda and instead focus on public diplomacy and “dialogue” activities.