European Political Science Review

Research Article

The use and abuse of ‘universal values’ in the Danish cartoon controversy

Christian F. Rostbølla1 c1

a1 Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Øster Farimagsgade 5, Copenhagen K, Denmark


During the Danish cartoon controversy, appeals to universal liberal values were often made in ways that marginalized Muslims. An analysis of the controversy reveals that referring to ‘universal values’ can be exclusionary when dominant actors fail to distinguish their own culture’s embodiment of these values from the more abstract ideas. The article suggests that the solution to this problem is not to discard liberal principles but rather to see them in a more deliberative democratic way. This means that we should move from focusing on citizens merely as subjects of law and right holders to seeing them as co-authors of shared legal and moral norms. A main shortcoming of the way in which dominant actors in Denmark responded to the cartoons was exactly that they failed to see the Muslim minority as capable of participating in interpreting and giving shared norms. To avoid self-contradiction, liberal principles and constitutional norms should not be seen as incontestable aspects of democracy but rather as subject to recursive democratic justification and revision by everyone subject to them. Newcomers ought to be able to contribute their specific perspectives in this process of democratically reinterpreting and perfecting the understanding of universalistic norms, and thereby make them fit better to those to whom they apply, as well as rendering them theirs.


  • universalism;
  • liberalism;
  • deliberation;
  • democracy;
  • fallibilism


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