Of all the incidents involving Islam and free speech in recent years—with the possible exception of the “teddy bear” case in Sudan late last year—the crisis of the now-infamous “Muhammad cartoons” stands out, primarily for the absurdly disproportionate reaction in the Muslim world vis-a-vis what prompted it. Riots following the publishing of 12 cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people around the globe and the torching of the Danish embassies in Beirut, Damascus, and Teheran in early 2006. The man who commissioned the cartoons, Flemming Rose, came to Stanford on May 7 to present his views on free speech as well as his unique perspective on the cartoon crisis. Students for an Open Society (SOS), The Stanford Review, and the Department of German Studies co-sponsored the event, part of SOS’s “Media Week,” which also featured Philippe Karsenty on May 12.
After an introduction by Professor of Journalism and 25-year veteran of the New York Times Joel Brinkley, Rose began his talk by describing the declining state of the free press around the world. He emphasized the importance of defending free speech at a time when doing so is increasingly difficult and even dangerous, and specifically mentioned the inadequacy of the common affirmation that “I support free speech, but….” The right to free speech, he explained, precludes all other supposed rights to hear only inoffensive, respectful, tolerant language. “The only right you do not have in a democracy,” Rose pointed out, “is the right not to be offended.”
Rose then described a conference to which he was invited by Amnesty International in December of 2005, entitled “Victims of Free Speech,” which he felt exemplified the mindset of many people on this issue. “I thought I was going to talk about Theo van Gogh,” Rose recounted, “the Dutch filmmaker who was killed on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004 because he made a film that a young Muslim didn’t like. Or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script, the Dutch politician who now resides in the US and who had to go into hiding. Or,” he continued, “the people I knew back in the Soviet Union, the dissidents…people like…Natan Sharansky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov.” Rose was told, however, that “these people are not victims of free speech. They are victims of totalitarian regimes. The victims of free speech in this context were, among others, all the Muslims who were offended by the publication of Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons.” Rose mentioned that the conference was held at a time when several of the cartoonists involved in the Muhammad cartoon controversy had already received death threats. Why is it, Rose asked, that the cartoonists “were…seen as the perpetrators of a crime, while those who wanted to kill them were portrayed as victims of free speech?”
The talk then turned to Rose’s personal experience with the Muhammad cartoons. He explained that he published the cartoons because he felt that self-censorship with regard to Islam had become too prevalent. He cited several incidents, but emphasized a case in which the author of a children’s book about Muhammad had great difficulty in finding an illustrator for the book due to fear of violent reactions from radical Muslims. Responding to such incidents, Rose invited 25 illustrators to draw pictures of Muhammad “as they saw him” to be published in his newspaper. Rose was careful to point out the completely open nature of his invitation; satirizing Muhammad and/or insulting Islam was not the goal. Rather, Rose explained, the goal was to evaluate the status of self-censorship in Denmark based on the responses of the illustrators. Of the 25 artists asked to submit cartoons, only 12 actually sent in drawings. And, far from insulting Islam, some of those 12 make reference to, and even criticize, Jyllands-Posten itself. One notable caption reads, “the journalists of Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.”
Rose then described the battle for public opinion in Denmark in the months following the publishing of the cartoons. After roughly four months, he said, the tide of public opinion had turned in favor of his paper. Unsatisfied and disappointed with this outcome, several radical Danish clerics then took the cartoons (along with some others, which had no connection whatsoever to Jyllands-Posten) to the Middle East in order to stir up controversy. This would explain the long gap between the publishing of the cartoons in September and the first violent protests in February. Rose postulated, however, that much of the rioting can be attributed to the fact that the Middle Eastern governments at the time wanted to deflect criticism from themselves and saw this controversy as the perfect opportunity to do so.
Rose concluded his speech by listing close to a dozen events that have been censored due to fear of violent reactions from radical Muslims and observing that two possible ways of addressing this problem have been put forth. One is the point of view that, “if you respect my taboos, I’ll respect yours.” Rose commented that this “sounds very nice, but the fact of the matter is that the consequences of that approach would be dramatic for free speech around the world…These insult laws—blasphemy laws that are intended to protect religious symbols or sensibilities—in fact are being used to silence critical voices around the world.” The other option, which Rose is in favor of, is “to remove as many laws as possible around the world in use today that are limiting free speech…The only laws that need to be kept on the books,” said Rose, “are laws that criminalize incitement to violence, libel, and invasion of privacy.”
The timing of Rose’s Stanford visit was especially a propos, since just three months ago a second round of the cartoon crisis erupted. In February, the Danish police arrested three men who were plotting to kill 72-year-old Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the most controversial of all of the Muhammad cartoons—that of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. In response, and out of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, several Danish newspapers reprinted that cartoon, sparking riots and protests in Gaza, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Rose remarked on the terrible irony of the current situation; radical Muslims such as those plotting to kill Westergaard seem to have the view that “if you say we are so violent, we are going to kill you.”
The event largely went smoothly, despite several students’ holding signs outside the event reading “Hate speech cannot be free speech” and “Peaceful coexistence comes with respect.” These students also asked somewhat hostile questions during the question and answer session, but were generally respectful and gave Rose the chance to defend himself and publicly respond to his critics. One of the students, however, spoke at length about how the Muhammad cartoons personally offended him, then turned on his heel and was out the door before Rose could even answer.
The main message Rose tried to impart was that the idea of not saying anything offensive is truly impossible to implement in a globalized world, for every individual and every group has a different “threshold of tolerance towards offense,” as he put it. “I am offended every day when I read other newspapers,” he offered. “I am offended when I watch television. And it’s a very unfortunate feature of our time that you can intimidate other people and speech by always referring to the fact that you are offended.”