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Danish Cartoons, 10 Years On: Editor Who Enraged Muslims Speaks Out

Flemming Rose was the man who commissioned caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad for the Jyllands Posten newspaper. He reflects on Islam, free speech and silent fear.

Flemming Rose has no regrets.
Flemming Rose has no regrets.
Henryk M. Broder

BERLIN — Ten years ago, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Back then, Flemming Rose, was the editor in charge of the daily's culture section, and oversaw the series that appeared in the Sep. 30, 2005 edition, sparking violent protests around the Muslim world and set off a debate about free speech and religious pluralism that continues to this day.

Rose, 57, who now is the Jyllands Posten foreign editor, spoke with Die Welt about fear, self-censorship, violence and a borderless Europe.

DIE WELT: Flemming Rose, how are you today?

FLEMING ROSE: I'm well, thank you. The sun is shining and my new book comes out tomorrow.

It's about the caricatures of Muhammad you published 10 years ago?

Among other things. It's mostly about censorship, self-censorship and the interpretation of freedom. It's called Hymn to Freedom.

You mean freedom of opinion.

Yes. I'm often accused of being a "fundamentalist of freedom of opinion." I take it as a compliment. When talking about democracy or the fight against racism you can never be fundamentalist enough.

Have you ever regretted publishing the 12 caricatures?

Never. I don't think that a caricature is worth the sacrifice of even one single life. The problem is: what to do if others are willing to sacrifice human lives for the sake of a caricature? I don't regret having published them. It was an entirely legitimate journalistic undertaking, a contribution to the formation of opinion, even if we grasped only later the gravity of the matter. Almost everything we're discussing today refers to it. Life in a multicultural society, the consideration of religious feelings, limits of freedom of speech, immigration and integration of people coming to us from foreign cultures — all of it this is linked to those 12 drawings. They're a case study about how we live and what values we want to defend.

Back then, people said it was about adding fuel to the fire.

Nonsense. It was rather banal. Kare Bluitgen, a famous Danish author had written a children's' book about the Koran, and received nothing but refusal when he went looking for an image of the Prophet. So we contacted all members of the Danish society of caricature artists, and 12 answered. We wanted to know if there was a sort of self-censorship towards Islam. And if so, was it justified? Today we know. There is self-censorship, it's a dangerous reality.

And what are we supposed to do now with this knowledge?

Many people don't want to admit that they're scared. They'd rather say: "Why offend the religious feelings of a minority? You shouldn't do whatever you want simply because you can." Instead of re-printing the caricatures, they claimed that since they have already been printed, it would only be a waste of time …

There are exceptions, like Die Welt.

But they remain the exception. Something similar happened at the beginning of the year after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Suddenly everybody wanted to be Charlie, but nobody dared to reprint one of its cartoons.

Because of fear?

Of course. What else. If you mock the pope you don't have to fear for your life. Self-censorship is invisible. There are no black bars. It starts where you start to look at your own texts through the eyes of others, and if you can't or don't want to admit self-censorship, you've already lost … Obviously you can't ban fear, neither oblige people to be courageous or risk their life. It's simply about being aware of self-censorship, in order to have an honest debate. Most people aren't ready for that. They prefer to think they're free from all constraints.

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The attack on French satirical weekly "Charlie Hebdo" was a reminder — Photo: Elya

Still, we need to decide if we want to live in a world run by fear or in a society where freedom of speech rules.

Having lived for a long time in the Soviet Union, I know how a society controlled by fear functions. On the one side, men of conviction — on the other side, dissidents. In between, the majority of people, having come to terms with the situation. And who, at home, express quite different opinions than they do in public.

Sounds a bit like George Orwell.

Indeed. And it's exhausting, to pretend and deny. And this condition can't be overcome without overcoming the fear. Unfortunately, very often the sword is mightier than the pen.

Where do you see the limits of freedom of speech today?

You can say whatever you want to, as long as you leave Islam out of it. Blasphemy is not a criminal act, but profanity toward Islam verges on delinquency. If you still try, then it's your own fault — even the pope admits this.

That was shortly after Charlie Hebdo ...

And nobody even mentioned it. I think that in a multicultural and multiethical world, we need not less but more freedom of speech, simply because nobody has the monopoly on the "right" opinion. By the way, is it true that a school in Germany has told students to avoid dressing provocatively because of the refugees close by?

That's true.

See, I think that's the wrong way. I would have hired a translator, telling the refugees the following: "Welcome. We are here for you, but if you want to live among us, make sure to respect our rules. If you can't, nobody keeps you from seeking happiness somewhere else."

ls there a difference between Denmark and Germany? Have the Danish really become xenophobic?

I think we are less politically correct. Germany is traumatized by the events in its history; the burden of the past can make you feel like you owe the world something. We don't. For you, "nation" is a swearword. When Germans speak of integration, they mean the abolition of the nation-state. They don't understand that something like a liberal nation-state exists — seeking the liberty of its own nation, instead of power over others. Borders are important, they define where one state ends and another begins. A Europe without borders sounds great, but it's an illusion.

What has happened to the caricature artists who drew the cartoons of Muhammad 10 years ago?

Kurt Westergaard, who depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban lives like a prisoner in his own house. After two failed attacks on him, he is now being guarded around-the-clock and can't even leave the house. What the other are doing, I honestly don't know. I just know that none of them has ever mocked Muhammad again.

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