- Reviewed by
To most humans living on this planet, Denmark is probably a rather insignificant country, located somewhere in a cold and remote part of the world. Certainly, the country has fostered important figures such as Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Niels Bohr, and Carl Nielsen. But what else is there to say?
Despite its questionable global significance, Denmark became a flashpoint in a large international crisis at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In Autumn 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons, all depicting Muhammed, the most significant and last prophet in Islam. What happened next is well-known, violent history. As the author of Secularism, Theology and Islam, Jennifer Elisa Veninga notes that the result of the crisis included the burning of the Danish embassy in Syria and the Danish Consulate General in Lebanon, the burning of Danish flags across the Muslim world, several deaths, and boycotts of Danish goods and companies.
In the years following the publication of the cartoons, the events and the crisis that followed have been subjected to intense scholarly scrutiny, resulting in hundreds of publications. So why another book about the crisis? Do we not already know enough? Such questions remain relevant for the readership of Veninga's book, for they highlight the book's weaknesses as well as its strengths.
There are a number of weaknesses. Most prominently, the long, detailed description of the chaotic months in late 2005 and early 2006 does not do the book any favors, as it is mainly a repetition of knowledge that most informed readers already possess. Another weakness of the book is the [End Page 291] ambiguity of its intended audience. Is this book for fellow theologians? (The author earned her doctorate in systematic and philosophical theology in 2011.) Is it intended for an interested scholarly readership in the United States, including philosophers and religious studies researchers? Or does the author have yet another audience in mind? A clear indication of audience could have helped in the structuring and editing of the book. For example, certain parts are irrelevant to researchers who have read about the crisis again and again over the last decade, as noted above. Here and there, the book could also have benefitted from a clearer framing of context. For example, when explaining the immediate reactions to the cartoons, Veninga combines Danish sources and English-language sources. This method pulls her description in an Anglo-American direction. However, the analysis of the Anglo-American data is not particularly relevant for the central and quite convincing chapters of her book, which focus specifically on Denmark. A final aspect of critique relates to Veninga's training. It lies in Christian theology, and this background and perspective is an obvious and beneficial component of her analysis, yet her descriptions of Islamic theology are much more vague, and predominantly based on a limited selection of secondary sources.
Nevertheless, Secularism, Theology, and Islam is a stimulating, necessary book that both throws important light on the cartoon crisis and on Denmark as a nation. One backdrop for the new insights that Veninga's work offers derives from her theoretical starting point. While most studies of the crisis and Danish national sentiments so far have been based in anthropology, sociology, history, political science, and media studies, Veninga's starting point is Christian theology and philosophy. Already in the preface the author describes her year-long study of Søren Kierkegaard and her admiration for his work; central sources for Veninga's analysis include not only the Danish philosopher but also Danish theologian Nikolai S. F. Grundtvig and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, known for his Catholicism, for example A Catholic Modernity (Oxford University Press, 1999). This point of departure engages the cartoon crisis as a specific event, but it also enfolds the wider (both potentially inclusive and exclusive) understanding of Danish folkelighed (a term that Veninga describes as untranslatable into English, but which "reflects a shared history, language, and mythology, and is intimately related to the...