Still Rotten

Five years after the "cartoon crisis," the precarious state of free speech in Denmark


Five years after the infamous "cartoon crisis," many Danes still seem confused about what constitutes free speech and why it is important to defend. The Danish public is tired of discussing the case, worried that the debate is becoming a sectarian issue between left and right rather than a rallying point for shared values. Meanwhile, the pressure on free speech continues with threats of violence, lawsuits, and changes in international law.

The "cartoon crisis" began in the fall of 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, following a number of incidents in which illustrators refused to draw the Muslim prophet for fear of violent response from fundamentalists, published 12 cartoons, some of which depicted the prophet Mohammed. Through an unforeseeable chain of events, including the provocative actions of a group of Danish imams, Jyllands-Posten's publication sparked a global crisis that culminated in early 2006 with violent demonstrations and attacks on Danish embassies in Syria and Lebanon and riots from Nigeria to Indonesia. Death threats and terrorist plots were directed against Flemming Rose, the editor at Jyllands-Posten who conceived the cartoon publication, and the illustrator Kurt Westergaard, who drew the now-infamous bomb-in-the-turban cartoon. Earlier this year, Westergaard was attacked in his home by a would-be axe murderer but escaped by hiding in a panic room.

While the threats are still real and the "cartoon crisis" refuses to die, a solid majority of Danes support the right to publish the cartoons, as did the Danish chief prosecutor and the Danish courts, which have turned down requests from Muslim organizations to prosecute Jyllands-Posten for blasphemy, hate speech, and defamation.

But still, the cartoon crisis has not resulted in as much clarity about the value of freedom of expression and the inherent danger of criminalizing "offensive" expressions as one might have wished. In a recent survey, 69 percent of the Danish population supported keeping the country's hate-speech laws on the books, despite the fact that they criminalize offensive stereotypes—the very complaint that many Muslims leveled against the cartoons.

Even more worryingly, freedom of expression has become a proxy debate for those on both the left and right, often becoming a debate about being either "for" or "against" Muslim immigration. On the multicultural left in Denmark, many leading figures still view the cartoons at best as an unnecessary and gratuitous offence against Muslims and, at worst, as a form of hate-speech comparable to the infamous anti-Semitic cartoons found in Der Stürmer. That numerous foiled terrorist attempts (both by Muslims in Denmark and abroad) and death threats against Kurt Westergaard and Flemming Rose have proven Jyllands-Posten's point about self-censorship seems entirely lost on this segment of the Danish population.

Earlier this year the leading center-left newspaper Politiken—among the most critical of the cartoons—entered into a settlement agreement with a Saudi lawyer claiming to represent 95,000 descendants of the prophet Muhammad. In the agreement, struck immediately following the foiled terror plot against Westergaard, Politiken apologized for having offended Muslims by republishing the cartoons. Had the newspaper really just come to realize that it had offended Muslims and needed to make amends, as editor Tøger Seidenfaden purported, or was the newspaper mainly responding to a very real threat of violence and legal action? No matter their real motivation, all critics of the cartoons would be faced with this uncomfortable question: Are you acting out of respect or fear?

Leading Danish human rights organizations, such as the government-sponsored Danish Institute for Human Rights, have expressed their disappointment that Jyllands-Posten was not prosecuted under hate-speech laws. At the same time, Denmark is facing pressure from international organizations like the United Nations, where the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its acolytes push relentlessly for stricter limits on criticism of religion.

At a recent conference in Copenhagen, featuring Flemming Rose as well as Muslim bloggers, journalists, and human rights activists, a prominent Danish anti-racism lawyer accused Rose of having launched an attack on a vulnerable minority by commissioning the cartoons. U.S.-based Egyptian blogger Mona Eltahawy spoke of the need to defend the right to offend whether through cartoons or even burning the Quran and that Muslims should be treated as adults not "five year olds apt to throwing tantrums." Asmaa Al-Ghoul, a Palestinian blogger from Gaza, lectured the bemused Danish lawyer that Hamas' religious fundamentalism in Gaza shows what happens when religion is put before freedom of expression. These replies reveal the suicidal course of Europe's multicultural left who view people as primarily belonging to various inescapable religious or cultural groups, rather than as individual citizens with equal rights before the law.

Not only do the multiculturalists fail to protect freedom of expression against the increasing threat of violence from religious fundamentalists—which is most often directed at the dissident voices of Muslim gays, women, and apostates—but they infantilize Muslims by assuming that they require special protections from criticism and satire. This approach marginalizes the voice of liberal Muslims and legitimizes the voice of the fundamentalists already in ascendancy in many European countries. This problem is even more prevalent in neighboring Sweden, where the Danish debate on Islam and freedom of expression is widely regarded as a symptom of Danish racism and where the media colludes in keeping voices that are critical of multiculturalist immigration policies out of the public debate.

Unfortunately, the multiculturalist left is not the only problem. The conservative, nationalist right, which often adopted a libertarian defense of freedom of expression when defending the cartoons, has been less interested in upholding this right when it comes to issues that conflict with its own cherished values. In 2006, while the crisis was raging, the populist Danish People's Party tabled a bill that would have criminalized the burning of Danish flags, since burning the flag would be offensive to Danes. In other words, almost exactly the same reason why Muslims in Denmark and abroad wanted to ban the cartoons.

In October, the leader of the Danish Peoples' Party, Pia Kjærsgaard, proposed a ban on satellite dishes in order to block immigrants from viewing Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera which, she says, spread "hatred against the Western world." When it became clear that the proposal would be impossible to implement, she suggested banning "only" the above-mentioned channels, including Internet access to them. Only a few months earlier, the Danish Peoples' Party tabled a (sensible) bill that would abolish Denmark's hate-speech provision from the criminal code, arguing that only totalitarian states ban expression whereas democracies ban actions.

Very few Danes and Europeans—on either the right or left—seem to have realized that if freedom of expression does not include the right to reject, criticize, or ridicule the things and ideas we cherish the most, then freedom of expression will always be held ransom to the heckler's veto. While most people feel that freedom of speech is great for themselves and those with whom they agree, the real point of freedom of speech is to protect even those kinds of speech we would rather not listen to—the views we find stupid, offensive, or reprehensible. Maybe the truth is that Danes see freedom of speech as such a self-evident value that they don't see any reason to defend it. Who, after all, would want to take it away?

Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs for the Danish think tank CEPOS and spokesperson for Fri Debat, a Danish network committed to freedom of expression. Lars Hvidberg is a freelance journalist based in New York City and a member of Fri Debat.

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  1. The European Right is just fucked in the head.

    1. European Right? The ones dropping their panties for the unicorn fucking?

      What the Danes “learned” was to cower deeper in fear, rather than going to battle the trashers of their freedom.

  2. and the European Left suffers from recto-cranial inversion. But is any of that a surprise? I’m starting to wonder how all of this will matter once the public debt crisis really starts to gather a head of steam.

    1. It will matter even more. Place an authoritarian system under fiscal stress, and it won’t get less authoritarian, that’s for damn sure.

      1. That’s been happening here, RC. Though I’m sure there are Democrats who can never bring themselves to ascribe “authoritarianism” to their style of governance…

    2. The European Left is just like the Left everywhere: Brain dead and stuck in a self-referential, Western-civ-hating rut. What’s disappointing is that the Right only differs from the Left in the targets they select for State repression.

  3. Wonderful article. I’m considering making a weekly “Monday Mohammed” cartoon on my blog in response to Facebook deleting my cartoons of Mohammed. The plan is to have Mohammed teach World leaders and nations about Libertarian principles.

  4. I find the fact that they find some speech to be offensive, to be offensive to me and demand that it be banned.

    Is that a circular argument?

  5. Aaaahhh for the good old days when the Danes, Swedes and Wegies had balls….they were called Vikings!

  6. “Through an unforeseeable chain of events, including the provocative actions of a group of Danish imams, …”

    unforeseeable? Does the author not know of the Satanic Verses?

    Apart from that I agree with the rest of the article.

    1. @Fakename:

      In the eyes of the Ayatollah Salman Rushdie was an apostate Muslim and so could be condemned. Non-muslims such as Gary Larson had published cartoons of Muhammed after the publication of the Satanic Verses without any problems.

      1. Theo Van Gogh then.

    2. Heh, I see what you’re going at. The thing is that it literally took months for the Muslim world to get into their trademark rage about this. An Egyption newspaper even published some of the Muhammad drawings and nothing happened.

      What we didn’t see coming at the time was that a delegation of several imams would actively tour the Middle East in order to stir up riots and hatred of the West. In fact, these imams, living in Denmark, even resorted to misinformation, the most well-known was the image from a completely unrelated French “pig squealing contest” in which one of the contestants worde a papier mach? mask of a pig, which was then laid out by the lying imams as an image om Muhammad.

      Only then did the riots, threats and terror start.

      After the fact I guess everyone have adjusted what they deem “unforseeable” and “unintended”. Which is good. It’s important to realize just how destructive these people are and how their religion fuels pretty much just one thing.

  7. Maybe you should be blaming the Islamofascists instead on the Danes?

    1. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

  8. Interesting how we’re not allowed to criticize Islamofascist savages, but the release of the name’s or informants who are helping Coalition forces is protected by free speech laws.

    1. You must not live in the USA I do.

      I crap on all religion equally – well they all suck equally as well.

      Bible = Koran (same shit – different title).

      1. There were many updates to Judaism and Christianity in the past 2000 years. Each nation also puts it’s own spin on things. You have too look at each church separately in a given decade to judge it fairly.

      2. Err weren’t we criticizing Danes here?

        1. Claire Danes, I think she is hot, wouldn’t criticize her.


      4. Y’know, shrike, not everyone with a religious background is evil.

        Just the ones who use religion to push for misguided control-freak causes.

        Unfortunately, you can’t see the difference.

  9. All religion is superstitious shit although at what age children can grasp this is debatable.

    Its the duty of any secular state to shun religion – (yeah – save the Alabamastan jokes – Shelby and Runtboy Sessions are demi-mullahs there).

    1. I think religion is a relatively harmless way to channel an innate human desire for a king. Check out the Chinese Cultural Revolution for a taste of a society purges of religion.

      1. Or Ataturk’s forced secularization of Turkey.

      2. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck …

        The same *pattern* is at work here. Notice how in the article Pia Kjaersgaard wants libertarian free speech for herself, yet threatens to ban sattelite channels and burnings of the Danish flag? If you don’t know it deserves mention that the Danish People’s Party is our far-right wing.

        The Soviet Union or China didn’t abolish religion per se. For what is religion? It’s simply faith, and things resting on faith are unstable and provokes aggression in the believer.

        Communism had for all their apparent “atheism” ever single trapping of religion. Their ideology was their faith, their leaders put on a pedestal that could not be critisized, and when met with opposition led to internment, concentrations camps (gulags) and of course just outright murder.

        Our clearest example of this path is North Korea. Here their leader is deified in every religious way you can imagine. Although we tend to refer to it as just “Communist”. But that phrase does no justice to the conditions in North Korea.

    2. For someone who worships government, shrike, it’s fun to watch you whine and bitch about religion…

  10. U.S.-based Egyptian blogger Mona Eltahawy spoke of the need to defend the right to offend whether through cartoons or even burning the Quran and that Muslims should be treated as adults not “five year olds apt to throwing tantrums.”

    You go, girl.

    I just don’t understand how or why a state would get caught up in the endless, boundless boondoggle of guaranteeing people the right never to be offended.

    The only thing Denmark should be guaranteeing these violent and threatening Islamof#ckers is a ride back to the 10th-century, 110? rockpile from whence they emerged.

  11. Perhaps relevant reading = Al Jazeera’s cartoonist on the topic of ‘appropriate censorship’ in regards to the Danish cartoons…,1518,398792,00.html

    Basically he thinks the Danes deserve the death fatwas and that, ‘when you cross a line, ‘higher authorities’ need to address it’.

    I’m not sure if the ‘higher authorities’ he means are supposed to be our enlightened Sheikh overlords, or Martyrs blowing themselves up.

    He was relatively sanguine about the death threats and violent outrage:

    …SPIEGEL ONLINE: In response, Arabs have burned effigies of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, boycotted Danish products, threatened their nationals and burned the country’s flag. The Muslim reaction to the cartoons has been shocking to many in the West. Extremists attacked the EU offices in Gaza Strip and Indonesian Muslims stormed the Danish Embassy in Jakarta. Do you feel these reactions have been exaggerated?

    Shujaat Ali: I think correcting the Danish cartoonists and trying to show them the feelings of the masses is a good thing. We cannot tolerate any disparagement of the Prophet — for whom we have the highest respect. “”

    See, cause death threats are a *logical response* to cartoons…

    Personal favorite part of the interview:

    SPIEGEL ONLINE: You say cartoonists should show sensitivity in their drawings, but the US State Department has accused you of lacking it in your own cartoons. After you drew a comic depicting dead US soldiers and another with gas tanks superimposed over the collapsing Twin Towers in New York, Washington complained and Al-Jazeera removed them from its Web site. Were you thinking about the sensitivities of an American audience when you drew those?

    Ppppptt! It was directed at *US policy*! not the ‘american people’! How dare you suggest there is anything hypocritical about our blatant racism, drawing jews with horns, or mocking the deaths of American civilians in the Arab press…

    I have never quite understood how the irony of: “”You dare suggest Muslims are violent?? I WILL BLOW UP YOUR CHILDREN YOU INFIDEL!!!” …has never really caused any cognitive dissonance in the islamic world.

  12. in my kartoon i do something with a giant kamel.

  13. I live in the United States, where we have a very strange concept of law.

    “The truth is an absolute defense”

    Translation for the English, Germans, and French: In the US you can not be (legally) punished for telling the truth.

    1. You can be legally punished for telling an official state secret truth.

      1. Complete misunderstanding of law.

        In the case you propose, you are not punished for telling the truth, you are effectively punished for stealing and using for your own purposes, what does not belong to you. You have a security clearance? The secrets do not belong to you, you have permission to access them for approved purposes. Same thing is common in business, and has nothing to do with the truth (accuracy) of the material and trust you have abused.

    2. depends whether it’s copyrighted

  14. There’s really no such thing as free speech in Europe anymore. With all the so-called hate speech laws over there comedians don’t even do ethnic or religious humor anymore out of fear of being prosecuted.

    1. Actually it’s starting to get that way here to. Not even black comedians can do black jokes without Al Sharpton coming after them. Let’s not forget Comedy Central pussing out and censoring South Park over Muhammed.

    2. I can personally attest to the fact that there is plenty of religious satire over here. Our blasphemy and hate-crime laws arent’ taken very seriously, or rather they are very broad.

      Also, almost every single country over here – comparable to US states – had press that published the drawings. This in more than can be said for the USA where most media was oh-so-respectful of the Muslims and refused to publish the drawings.

      The so-called “multiculturalism” is a nasty package the contents of which cannot be deduced from the term in itself. However, be aware that this works on even the UN level. If your country and mine have these ugly laws it’s because of the multiculturalists.

  15. I’m waiting for the day when some holy books are brought before a Hate Speech Tribunal on the grounds of promoting hatred and disrespect to women, homosexuals, atheists, pagans, and anyone else who doesn’t believe in the holy book.

  16. It seems Europeans tend to think of Americans as politically naive and unaware of the realpolitick.

    Ever wonder what we think of Europe?

    Well, You claim freedom of speech, but can be punished for telling the truth.

    The English child “farewell” system is appalling.

    You brag of gun control, but one of the biggest contraband items smuggled into Europe is guns and ammunition (I suspect most of it ends up packed in cosmoline and buried – “Just in case” the NAZIS ever return).

    You have a lower crime rate than we do, but not on all things, and not much of a difference after you take account of the different accounting methods used by the US vs most of Europe (we count every reported crime. Convicting one guy who committed 200 crimes, counts as 200 crimes, not one).

    France likes Jerry Lewis movies (’nuff said)

    In England a man was punished for flipping off a police camera. The judge ruled it would have been protected free expression if he had flipped off a constable in person (I sure hope English constables are aware of that case and keep their sense of humor).

    In most of Europe, only the paper media is declared free. The electronic is just plain controlled and no one pretends otherwise (the Web may be an upcoming exception to this one, but try bucking the bureaucrats on TV).

    1. I think most people share their prejudices equally here. Just following this thread I’m a bit shocked at how your Americans seem to perceive Europe.

      BTW, I don’t know about crime rates. But here’s a funny couple of numbers. Denmark has an incarceration rate of about 80, the USA 750. Kinda makes you go “hmmm”, doesn’t it?

      I don’t believe you’re correct when you say that only paper media is protected by free speech. How’s that supposed to work law-wise? You’d simply have to document this. That’s all I have to say.

      Britain, however, does have some notorious laws that are completely destructive. Especially the libel laws. Here you cannot in fact state plain, scientific truth on, say, alternative medicine without someone suing you for libel. These laws are appallling, and I know people like Richard Dawkins oppose them.

      Britain has also officially accepted real Sharia courts operated by parallel-society Muslims.

      Also, my neighboring country, Sweden, has a very peculiar public debate when it comes to taboo subjects. It reminds me of Denmark 20-25 years ago. They are so politically correct, yet below that pretty thin layer of paint weird, radical things are going on. Like political parties being excluded from TV debates in election years (mind you, not by the State, but by some very PC media over there – lots of self-censorship). Or members from the same immigration-critical party being assaulted in their own homes.

      Of course, it didn’t help. So now Sweden is pondering its next move following the suicide bomber that recently managed to off his stupid ass in a botched attempt at murdering Swedish citizens.

      1. Denmark has a population of about 1/3 of the Los Angeles area. It is also so flat, the OSS never sent teams there as there was so little cover, any team was expect to be caught in about an hour after being dropped. The country is also very ethnically uniform and has a short border that is so easy to patrol the only effective way to sneak anything into the country is by submarine.

        Don’t think the two cases are parallel.

        1. I must be having a slow day. I read your original posting and my reply and I don’t really know what you’re trying to argue?

          What’s the OSS? What two cases are you referring to? I’m not sure.

          If it’s comparing “crime” to “incarceration rates” I sorta get it. In my view, though, incarceration rates are better because they’re not fraught with nearly the same amount of accounting methods.

          But this is getting off topic anyway.

  17. Jacob Mchangeama and Lars Hvidberg presume that Jutlands Posts publishing of the cartoons was really to do with free speech.

    I unfortunately do not see the newspapers actions that way. The Jutland Post is also the well known supporter and trumpeter of the nationialst and racist Danish Peoples Party.

    Seen in that light the newspapers actions seem suddenly to reek more of intolerence, provocation and lack of self-censorship, than the fight for free speech.

    One should also ask the two liberals what point there is in protecting the majoritys right to free speech while still denying the minority that same right. The Muslims do not have access to mainstream media in Denmark.

    All these issues might have been more thoroughly debated if the muslims had been allowed to try the case in court, but also if Liberals like the two authors hadn?t been so quick to redefine “racist abuse” as freespeech.

  18. PS Using the reaction (death threats) to legitimize the action (cartoons) is just ridiculous and reeks of desperation.

    1. So people shouldn’t be allowed to draw cartoons?
      Ban the simpsons in Denmark in case bright yellowed coloured people with 4 fingers get offended?
      Maybe catlovers can complain about of Tom in Tom and Jerry?

      1. I hope you posted your comment in the wrong place. Otherwise I have no idea what you are talking about, nor where you get the idea that I have in any way advocated banning cartoons.

        1. Your words?

          Also “The Muslims do not have access to mainstream media in Denmark.”
          What , they are banned form buying or writing for or appering in newspapers or on TV?

    2. In fact, publicizing those cartoons were *already* legitimized from our free speech laws. The newspaper wanted to test something, and the test went well and exposed something most of us didn’t think existed.

      It’s not “racist abuse” to draw Muhammad. Really, please do tell where that’s specifically racist? If that’s “racism” then it’s also racism to say that most violent demonstrations are perpetrated by the left-wing.

      In fact, add up the left-wing and islamists and there’s not that much terror and rioting left to worry about. Not even the neo-nazis can muster a good “Let’s Burn Down the City”-event.

      1. Hi Jesper.
        I think you misunderstood my point. In logical terms you cannot justify the action by the reaction. Its like saying “you trod on the breaks, because the car stopped” – it makes no sense.

        Wether it is racist abuse to draw Mohammed or not depends on the reason your doing it. If the idea is to stir up racial hatred or dehumanize a certain racial or religious minority – like doing it every day for several months, then it would be racist.

        I didn’t really understand the rest of your post.

        1. I would have thought whether or not something is “racist” depends on the definition of “racism”.

          The newspaper made SATIRE – y’know … fun – because they wanted to test especially the self-censorship going on and how this whole discourse is working. It turned out some other interesting things got unveiled as well, namely that certain islamists are violently opposed to free speech.

          Look at this rationally. Did the newspaper discriminate or make special rules? No, what they did was indeed wholly within the NORMAL discourse in Denmark. They even have the court’s word that this is so.

          We Danes critizise stuff. A lot. It’s a national sport. We critizise even our bosses (no kidding) and it’s not just behind their backs.

          Not a single Muslim or Islam was treated differently that any other group, religion or person in Denmark. Muslims received equal treatment.

          This can’t be racism. It’s not even discrimination when they were treated no differently than anyone else. However, THEY wanted – and want – special treatment. They want exemption from the normal discourse of my society – even if it means attacking embassies or going at Kurt Westergaard with an axe.

          If anyone is “racist” – or wants positive discrimination in their favor – it’s those islamists. They are the ones who will not follow democratic standards.

      2. One thing that really ticks me is the Muslim hypocrisy about pictures of Mohammed. Four 1600 years, the Muslims have painted and printed pictures (respectful of course) of Mohammed. You have to look to find them, but they are there and the “supposed” stricture of no representations of the Prophet are either a recent invention, or aren’t well enforced on people the Muslims like.

  19. At least the Danes actually published the cartoons.

    It would be great if the media in other countries wasn’t so cowardly.
    I know that it is entirely their right to choose what to do but I do get sick of all the hypocracy of the new york times etc

  20. And in a related story: Odor forces partial evacuation of UN buildings…..evacuation

    The stink at the UN is, of course, not any big surprise.

  21. Earlier this year, Westergaard was attacked in his home by a would-be axe murderer but escaped by hiding in a panic room.

    I take it firearm ownership in Denmark is highly frowned upon.

  22. 69 percent of the Danish population supported keeping the country’s hate-speech laws on the books, despite the fact that they criminalize offensive stereotypes?the very complaint that many Muslims leveled against the cartoons.

    Well, they are Europeans, so they’re kind of intrinsically wired to have this kind of thought process.

    1. has a lot to do with Europe’s history of anti-semitism.

      i do notice that lots of people who cooment on here seem to think that Europe is a country.
      It is of course a band.

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