The Danish Mohammed Cartoon Controversy and Free Speech

Release Date
March 20, 2017

Topic

Free Speech
Description

Do Islamic extremists pose a real threat to free speech? Danish journalist Flemming Rose published 3 cartoons of Mohammed to find out. Watch the full interview

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Dave Rubin:
You are sort of at the epicenter of everything that our current free speech battle is all about. So, I guess I’m going to give you an open, easy question to start. How did you end up in the middle of this battle?
Flemming Rose:
Well, you know, I didn’t choose this fight. It was imposed upon me 11 years ago, when I was the editor responsible for the publication of the so-called “Danish Muhammad cartoons.” They didn’t come out of the blue, as some people sometimes think. They were published as a response to an ongoing conversation in Denmark and Western Europe about the problem of self-censorship when comes to treating Islam. Back then, I think I was pondering two questions. Is self-censorship taking place when it comes to dealing with Islam? Do we make a difference between Islam and other religions and ideologies? Question number one. And question number two, if there is self-censorship, is that self-censorship based on reality, or is it just the consequence of a sick imagination not based in reality? Is the fear real, or is it fake?
Dave Rubin:
Yeah, so to-
Flemming Rose:
11 years later, I think we can say for sure, the answer to both questions is yes. There is self-censorship, and the self-censorship is based in reality, because people were killed in Paris, I live with bodyguards 24/7 when I’m back home in Denmark, so it is a real problem.
Dave Rubin:
Yeah, it’s so interesting to me that 11 years ago, 2005, you were addressing the idea of self-censorship, because that’s obviously different than, you know, what we have here with the First Amendment, where the government can’t censor us. Because my awakening over the last couple years about this has been about the self-censorship part, that we are doing it to ourselves. So just to back up to the specifics of what happened, you guys solicited cartoons from people, right?
Flemming Rose:
Yes, I did. Yes, yes.
Dave Rubin:
So tell me about the process.
Flemming Rose:
It started with a children’s book. A Danish writer was writing a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In Denmark, when you publish a children’s book, you need illustrations of the main character. I suppose you do the same here.
Dave Rubin:
Same here. That goes across borders, yeah.
Flemming Rose:
And it turned out that the writer had difficulties finding an illustrator who wanted to take on the job, and he went public, saying, you know, “I’ve written this book, but I had difficulties finding an illustrator because of fear.” And the guy who finally took on the job insisted on anonymity, which is a form of self-censorship. You do not want to appear under your own name, because you are afraid of what might happen to you. And in fact, this illustrator later acknowledged that he insisted on anonymity because he was afraid, and he made a reference to the fate of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was killed in 2004 because of a documentary he did that was critical of Islam.
Dave Rubin:
Yeah. Who, then, many people know the note to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who I think is one of the greatest people on planet Earth, saying that they were coming after her next.
Flemming Rose:
Yes, yes, who is a good friend of mine. Exactly. And the second individual was Salman Rushdie, who was, 1989, was the object of a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and had to live in hiding for many years. So that was, you know, the context. And some people were saying, “Oh, this was just a media stunt by this children’s writer to sell more books”; other people were saying, “No, there is self-censorship.” And through the commissioning of those cartoons, I wanted to put focus on this issue. Is self-censorship taking place, or is it not, and how do illustrators and cartoonists in Denmark face this issue? And I received 12 cartoons that were published September 30, 2005, and I wrote a short text laying out the rationale behind this journalistic project.
I don’t think that it in any way transgressed what we usually do. As an editors and journalist, if you hear about a problem, you want to find out if it’s true or not. And in this case, we asked people not to talk, but to show. Not to tell, but to show how they look at this issue of self-censorship. And, in fact, I think only three out of 12 cartoons depicted the Prophet Muhammad.