The Washington Diplomat / February 2015
By Larry Luxner
Cartoons and the Prophet Mohammed do not seem to mix very well. Flemming Rose learned that the hard way nine years ago — long before anyone even dreamed that two masked terrorists, dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, would storm the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and gun down 12 staffers after the irreverent French magazine published caricatures deemed offensive to Muslims.
Rose knows what that special hell feels like more than most. In early 2006, violent riots shook the Islamic world after the Danish newspaper editor commissioned and published 12 satirical drawings that depicted Mohammed — including one showing the prophet with a bomb-like turban.
After the Paris attacks, dozens of newspapers, magazines and websites around the world reproduced the very cartoon that had so angered the terrorists. But Jyllands-Posten, the Copenhagen paper where Rose works, wasn’t among them.
“We caved in and we’ve been very honest about it,” Rose told BBC-TV on Jan. 14, a week after the carnage in Paris. “Sometimes, the sword is mightier than the pen. We have been living with death threats and several foiled terrorist attacks in my own office for the past nine years. Perhaps if the reaction worldwide had been a little bit different in 2006 — if we had received stronger support from media organizations insisting that this is something we have the right to do, even though you may disagree with what we did — we would not have been in the situation we are now.”
Rose said it’s obvious there’s still a lack of understanding of the reasoning that goes into editorial decisions.
“One thing is to publish a cartoon as an act of solidarity. Another is to publish a cartoon because it’s news,” he said in the BBC interview. “Publication does not mean endorsement. And our cartoons had nothing to do with mocking a minority. It was about targeting blasphemy. We’re losing a battle, but we’re not losing the war.”
In the beginning, few people outside Denmark saw the offending cartoons, which had appeared in September 2005 in Rose’s newspaper. Local Muslims protested, claiming the drawings had insulted Islam. The controversy quickly spread throughout Europe, and efforts by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to resolve it diplomatically failed when Danish officials refused to punish the newspaper, and in fact stood by the newspaper’s decision to publish the cartoons in the name of free speech.
By January 2006, demonstrations began erupting from Beirut to Benghazi, and furious Muslims — most of whom had never seen the caricatures — attacked Danish embassies in half a dozen countries. In India, a minister in the state government of Uttar Pradesh announced a cash reward for anyone who beheaded cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. An Arab boycott of Danish goods caused a 50 percent drop in exports to the Middle East.
All told, the violence triggered by the newspaper’s cartoons killed more than 100 people around the world. But Rose — whose life was threatened numerous times — stands by his actions in the autumn of 2005.
“I don’t feel guilty for these peoples’ deaths, and I don’t think a cartoon is worth a single human life. The problem was, a lot of other people did feel that way,” Rose told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. “They were willing to kill because of a cartoon. Human beings are not robots or animals who are not able to reason. When violence is committed, it means individuals made a decision to commit violence.”
Rose, 56, visited Washington in mid-November to promote his new book, “The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech.” Curiously, neither the cartoon in question, nor any of the 11 others, appears anywhere in the volume’s 240 pages.
And that doesn’t bother Rose, whose main objective was to tell his side of the story — in this case with the help of his publisher, the Washington-based Cato Institute. In fact, during his week in the United States, Rose did at least 15 interviews with a variety of media outlets including The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Fox News Business, MSNBC, Foreign Policy magazine and Politico.
“There’s been amazing interest in the book, far more than I expected,” he said.
One reason, he muses, is that it touches on universal principles that affect all societies, like the protection of free speech versus fear of offending a particular minority, religion or ethnic group.
“I think this is the basic debate,” Rose explained. “There are people in other countries who would like to determine what a newspaper in Denmark should be allowed to publish. The diversity in societies around the world means there is social pressure for passing laws, and even if you don’t pass laws, for people to submit themselves to censorship in order not to say anything that might be offensive.”
Two relatively new factors frame this debate, he said.
“One has to do with technology, the fact that what is being published by a newspaper in a small country in a language very few people can read is immediately accessible by people all over the world. That creates a lot of room for misunderstanding and manipulation, because when information travels, quite often the context gets lost in transmission,” Rose said. “The other new factor is migration. People are moving across borders never before seen in the history of mankind. Every society in the world is getting more multicultural, more multi-ethnic and more multi-religious.”
But intolerance is increasing as well. Barely two years after publication of Westergaard’s cartoon showing Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, Danish police arrested two Tunisians and a Moroccan-born Dane and charged with planning to murder the cartoonist. Two years after that, Westergaard was surprised in his own home by a 29-year-old Somali wielding a knife and an axe. He fled to a recently installed panic room and called police, who arrested the intruder. It was later determined that the would-be assassin had links to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab; he was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by deportation from Denmark.
Rose said that except for the attacks on Westergaard, the cartoons didn’t create a violent storm in Denmark. All the violence that erupted in the aftermath of [their publication] took place in countries where citizens do not enjoy free speech, and where they do not have the right to criticize religion.”
Westergaard, now 79, lives under constant, round-the-clock protection; police are camped out in his backyard, ready to foil the next assassination plot against him.
“That’s the irony. People said, ‘if you say we are violent, we’ll kill you.’ They don’t understand the irony of their own words,” Rose observes. “All the threats and attempts on Westergaard’s life, and terrorist attacks against the newspaper, confirmed the content of that cartoon: that some Muslims commit violence in the name of their religion. It’s a fact of life. That’s why I don’t understand why people are so upset with those cartoons.”
Unlike Westergaard, Rose said, “I did not expose my private home to the media, And I try to keep my family out of this and be careful.”
Rose told The Diplomat he’s been unfairly painted as a racist Islamophobe whose life’s mission was to denigrate Muslims in the eyes of the West. Nothing could be further from the truth, he assured us. “The publication of the cartoons, the reasons behind it, the sequence of events, my line of defense — it all makes sense to me. It fits my value system. I’m a liberal in the European sense of the word. I believe in freedom. I’m against hate speech laws, and I’m not anti-Muslim.”
What he’s against is violence, intolerance and a refusal to see the whole picture — particularly in Scandinavian countries that have opened their borders to refugees from Iraq and other war-torn Muslim lands.
“Sweden perceives itself as a humanitarian superpower. So they have this image that they are a very nice country, and it implies they should not accept any offensive speech,” he said. “But recently, an artist there was sentenced to six months in prison for having exhibited some posters at a private gallery. He was convicted for incitement to hatred. A black man had been beaten severely in southern Sweden, and it created a huge uproar because people thought white supremacists were behind this. But it turned out they were Arabs. Then the human rights industry didn’t want to discuss it anymore.”
The rise of Islamic radicalism across Europe cannot be ignored, Rose warned. In Malmo — a Swedish city just across the Øresund from Copenhagen — there’s one Arab district where police officers, firefighters and emergency responders hesitate to enter.
“A few years ago, Sweden’s Ministry of Integration polled the population in this ghetto, and the women said they enjoyed more rights and freedoms in the Middle East than they felt in this ghetto in Sweden,” he said. “A country like Sweden is doing quite badly because they don’t want to confront these issues. They are living in a world of extreme political correctness, so the debate is being suppressed.”
What many people don’t know is that, besides the Mohammed cartoons that grabbed world headlines, Jyllands-Posten also reprinted a full page of cartoons from the Arab world that were clearly anti-Semitic in nature. Often depicting Jews with hooked noses, some of these illustrations denied the Holocaust, while others painted Israelis as bloodthirsty terrorists who killed Arab children with help from Uncle Sam.
“The Muslims are so up in arms about these cartoons but then they endorse anti-Semitic cartoons that in many ways are more offensive,” said Rose. “Our cartoons did not target individuals or Muslims as believers. It targeted religious doctrine. In a democracy, you should have the right to question and challenge ideas. This is about free speech in a globalized world. If it should be a criminal offense to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, it should be a criminal offense to deny the Holocaust. And if it’s a criminal offense to deny the Holocaust, it should be a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, or the crimes of communism, or the Soviet occupation of Latvia.”
Rose, whose wife is Russian, spent many years covering the USSR as a foreign correspondent for a large Danish newspaper. He said the Soviet dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s had a huge influence on him.
“I used to work as a translator at the Danish Refugee Council, receiving refugees from the Soviet Union. Among them were dissidents. I was very influenced by them. They were struggling and risking their lives and welfare for the liberties we enjoyed in the West. Some of them went to prison camps. Their insistence on struggling for this human dignity really impressed me,” he said.
“In Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime, and I’m against that, although I understand the historical background. The majority of those laws were passed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think Holocaust denial laws are justified if you can make the case that it’s equal to incitement to violence. It might have been the case in the 1950s, but I don’t think that’s the case today.”
In 2009, Rose attended a UNESCO conference in Qatar, marking his first visit to a Muslim country since the Cartoon Crisis four years earlier. Locals were so angry with his presence that Qatar’s Ministry of Domestic Affairs set up a special hotline for citizens to call in their complaints. Five years later, people in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf emirate are still complaining he was let into their country.
But that’s OK, too. Rose clearly doesn’t mind a little controversy now and then.
“I like debate,” he said. “If you believe in something, you’ll want to defend it. You don’t need to talk to people with whom you agree. That’s boring.”