Civil Liberties

Revisiting the Danish Cartoon Crisis

An interview with newspaper editor Flemming Rose


Over a year after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published those now-infamous cartoons of Mohammad—one of which portrayed the Muslim Prophet carrying a lit bomb in his turban—the country is still noticeably on edge. When I recently visited Copenhagen, a week after a pre-dawn raid netted a handful of suspected Islamic extremists, the twin issues of Islam and integration were difficult to avoid. On television, the news and chat shows were dominated by discussions of coexistence with the country's approximately 200,000 Muslims; newspapers were brimming with reader letters and editorials on Islamophobia, secularism and democracy; and a bookshop associated with the country's left-leaning daily Politiken prominently displayed Norman Podhoertz's latest book World War IV in the window, with a large stack on sale inside.

To get a sense of how this diminutive socialist country (previously famous for pork products, liberal views on pornography and Jante's Law) was tranformed into a main front in Europe's culture war, I sat down with the man responsible for printing the offending cartoons, Jyllands-Posten's culture and arts editor Flemming Rose. In a wide-ranging discussion, Rose expounded on his years in the Soviet Union, free speech versus "responsible speech" and his Muslim supporters.

I spoke with Rose in September at Jyllands-Posten's Copenhagen office.

reason: Did your time in Russia and as Berlingske Tidende correspondent in the Soviet Union inform your ideas of free speech and political freedom?

Flemming Rose:
Yes. I am going to write a book about the cartoon crisis and I am going to compare the experience of the dissidents in the Soviet Union to what has happened to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji… I am very much informed by my contact with [Soviet dissidents] and I'm close to the Sakharov camp—people like Natan Sharansky and Sergei Kovalev… The dissidents were split between what I would I would call the nationalist camp and the human rights movement. And I would say that I identified more with the human rights movement, although I am a big admirer of Solzhenitsyn, of course, because of what he accomplished. But today he is, in fact, supporting Putin and he believes that he's conducting a very wise foreign policy program. I don't think Sakharov would have subscribed to this view.

Were you surprised by the reaction of those who argued not for unfettered free speech, but "responsible speech?"

Well, no. I think many people betrayed their own ideals. The history of the left, for instance, is a history of confronting authority—be it religious or political authority—and always challenging religious symbols and figures. In this case, they failed miserably. I think the left is in a deep crisis in Europe because of their lack of willingness to confront the racist ideology of Islamism. They somehow view the Koran as a new version of Das Kapital and are willing to ignore everything else, as long of they continue to see the Muslims of Europe as a new proletariat.

Like during the Cold War, there is a willingness to establish a false equivalence between democracy and oppression—between a totalitarian ideology and a liberal ideology. When I look back at my own behavior during the "cartoon crisis," it was very much informed by my experience with Soviet Union because I saw the same kind of behavior both inside the Soviet Union and those dealing with the Soviet Union in the West.

At the height of the "cartoon crisis," were you surprised to turn the television on to images of people in Lahore burning Danish flags, mobs attacking Scandinavian embassies? Did anyone at the paper anticipate such a response?

Not at all. No one expected this kind of reaction. Last year, I visited Bernard Lewis at Princeton and he told me: "Your case in unique in a historical sense. Never before in modern times, on such a scale, have Muslims insisted upon applying Islamic law to what non-Muslims are doing in non-Muslim country. It has never happened before. And you can't really compare the Rushdie affair, because he was perceived to be an apostate." And as he told me, there is a long tradition of offending the Prophet in history. In the St. Petronio church in Bologna there is, on the ceiling, a painting of Mohammad in hell, based Dürer's paintings of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Those people who say, "you offended one billion people," or "you offended a weak minority," they lack the understanding of the raw power game that was at play here. This had very little to do with insulting religious sensibilities, though it was being used by influential groups and regimes in the Middle East to stir up emotions. It was a very well planned and executed operation. It was not spontaneous in any way.

Abu Laban
, the Danish imam that promoted the cartoons in the Arab world, was saying that we aren't allowed to build mosques in Denmark, that the Koran is being censored, that we aren't allowed to have our own cemeteries, that Muslims are almost on the verge of being sent to concentration camps. But the fact is that Muslims in Denmark enjoy more rights than they would in any Muslim country. In fact, two weeks ago a delegation from the Egyptian parliament were in Denmark and they were surprised when they spoke to Danish Muslims who said "we enjoy living here."

Naser Khader, a Danish parliamentarian who was very supportive of me and stood up in parliament and said "I am very offended by those who insist on an apology to one billion Muslims, because I am not offended by these cartoons." But, he said, I am offended by being lumped into this grey mass of "one billion Muslims."

How do you rank the reactions of European politicians?

I think it's a mixed bag. I think [European Commission President] Manuel Barraso, who has a background in an authoritarian regime, understood the situation better than others, like, for instance, Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who behaved disastrously. Barraso came out very clear—a little late, maybe—but he said that free speech is non-negotiable; it's the foundation of European civilization. A lot of governments and opinion makers in Europe and the West were driving this line that we have offended one billion people and we should be ashamed of ourselves, free speech and but responsible speech… all this crap.

But what really bothers me today—and this hasn't been reported very widely—is that right after the cartoon crisis, the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the United Nations sponsored a resolution condemning the "ridiculing of religion." It didn't pass, but in March of this year the United Nations Human Rights Consul, which is the highest international body in the world for the protection of human rights, passed a resolution condoning state punishment of people criticizing religion. I think this is a big scandal. This was a direct result of the "cartoon crisis." Fortunately the European Union voted against it. But countries like Russia, Mexico and China supported the resolution. And in this resolution, they call on governments to pass laws or write provisions into their constitutions forbidding criticism of religion. This would give a free hand to authoritarian regimes around the world to clamp down on dissidents.

One of the lessons I have drawn from this experience is that free speech is indivisible. I am in favor of removing all blasphemy laws and laws criminalizing Holocaust denial… I think that in a globalized world, the way forward is not raise barriers "protecting people," or calling for "responsible speech," but to do away with all kinds of limitations of speech.

Things have perhaps changing when they have their own cartoon crises. I'm amazed that Swedish newspapers are republishing [artist Lars Vilks cartoon of Mohammad as a dog]-and not noticing the hypocrisy that they didn't want to publish our cartoons. We published the Vilks cartoon; almost all Danish newspapers did.

Whose response disappointed you the most?

In Europe? Jacques Chirac, who lambasted [Jyllands-Posten] and then flew to Saudi Arabia the next week to sign a large weapons contract.

How are the cartoonists doing?

They are OK: All back in Denmark. But they are still under surveillance by the police.

Are you under surveillance?

Every now and then. But we [at Jyllands-Posten] don't feel in any immediate danger; we aren't getting any information that we are being targeted. There is an ongoing terror trial in Odense, and according to the prosecutor, these young men planned a terrorist attack against parliament and this building.

I do receive some supportive emails from Muslims in Denmark, who think that my struggle is their struggle. And I think this is very important: Fundamentally, this is a struggle within the Muslim community, and I think our duty is to send a very clear message whose side we are on.

Michael Moynihan
is an associate editor of reason.