The Tyranny of Silence: An Interview with Flemming Rose

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Flemming Rose is the Foreign Editor for Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest daily newspaper. In September 2005, he commissioned and published twelve cartoons about Islam, prompted by his perception of the European media’s self-censorship. One of those cartoons, an image of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his hair, sparked what would become known as the “cartoon crisis,” in which both peaceful and violent protests erupted across the world. In his new book, The Tyranny of Silence, Rose recounts his personal journey throughout this crisis, and discusses his views on freedom of speech and religion, tolerance and intolerance, immigration and integration. The Undercurrent’s Jon Glatfelter had the honor of speaking with him regarding these timeless—and timely—issues.

The Undercurrent: Mr. Rose, as a writer, I want to first express that it is an honor to speak with you. I think your commitment to publicly ridiculing religion, and defending all peoples’ right to free speech—including your intellectual adversaries—is extremely important and courageous.

I’d like to begin by talking about your decision to publish Kurt Westergaard’s Muhammad cartoon in September 2005. Why did you feel it was important to do?

Rose: Westergaard’s cartoon was one of twelve cartoons published. From the outset, my intention was not to offend Muslims’ religious sensibilities. Those cartoons were published for a reason, as part of a debate about self-censorship in Denmark, and Western Europe broadly, when it came to Islam. Westergaard’s cartoon was made in a context that included, just two months earlier, the “7/7 bombings” in London.

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On September 11th, 2005, Jyllands-Posten had a piece in the Sunday paper about a research project by Dr. Tina Magaard of the University of Aarhus, which compared concepts of the enemy and images of violence in the central texts of ten religions. That started a big debate in Denmark. Imams joined in. People critical of Islam joined in. And during this time, a Danish children’s writer, Kare Bluitgren, came forward and gave an interview to Jyllands-Posten. He was writing a book for children about the life of the prophet Muhammad, but having difficulties finding illustrators to depict the prophet. Jyllands-Posten had an editorial meeting the following Monday. At that time, we didn’t know if Bluitgren was telling the truth or not. One of our reporters came up with the idea to invite illustrators and cartoonists to draw the prophet to see if self-censorship was legitimately happening. So I sat down and wrote a letter to the Danish cartoonist association and I invited 42 members to draw the prophet as they saw him. There was no requirement to ridicule. Denmark does have a tradition of religious satire, though only four of the twelve drawings published were actually depictions of Muhammad.

Meanwhile, several incidents happened in Denmark and Western Europe that convinced me that this climate of self-censorship was real. First there was the incident at London’s Tate Britain gallery in mid-September 2005 involving an installation by artist John Latham. Latham’s work was a copy of the Bible, Talmud, and Koran torn into pieces, titled God is Great. Right before the installation was about to open, the museum’s board removed it without consulting Latham or the museum’s curator—nor did they ask Muslims, Jews, or Christians how they felt about the work—nor did they ask the police whether they saw any danger in displaying the installation. They retracted it because they were afraid of what might happen if they didn’t. So this was a clear example of self-censorship. A similar case in Gothenburg, Sweden occurred, when the Director of the Museum of World Culture removed the work of an Algerian artist that depicted a man and woman having sex. Inscribed above them were the Koran’s opening words..

And then Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who co-wrote the manuscript for a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was killed in 2004 for the film’s focus on the Koran’s justification for violence against women. In 2005, while one of Ali’s books was being translated into several Western European languages, several of the translators insisted on anonymity. They didn’t want to appear on the same cover as Ali because she was receiving death threats. The publisher even deleted a sentence from her book’s manuscript that was critical of the prophet.

Around the same time, in an interview with Jyllands-Posten a Danish comedian told me that he had no problem mocking the Bible in front of a camera, but feared for his life in mocking the Koran publicly.

Lastly, in Copenhagen, there was a meeting between the Danish Prime Minister and a group of Imams after the 7/7 Bombings. They talked about the relationship between the Muslim communities of Denmark and society-at-large. Afterwards two of the Imams called upon the Prime Minister to use his political influence to mandate that the Danish media cover what they viewed as blasphemous acts against Islam in Europe. They specifically called for laws that would criminalize criticism of Islam. That was clearly a call for censorship, to use governmental laws to control the press, which is incompatible with a liberal democracy.

All of these cases happened within a very short period of time. They convinced me that Bluitgren’s difficulty finding an illustrator for his children’s book was part of a broader story.  That’s why we published the twelve cartoons. The key point is that the cartoons didn’t come out of the blue. It wasn’t a way to provoke and gratuitously offend. There was a history and a debate and it made perfect sense to me. As a journalist you hear about a problem and want to find out if it is true or not. And one way to find out was to see how cartoonists would handle an invitation to depict Muhammad. We learned that there is self-censorship, and the fear is based in reality. People are being killed for drawing cartoons, as we saw in Paris earlier this year.

The Undercurrent: I’d like to turn to an idea you touch on in your book’s closing, which seems to underlie much of your thinking on free speech—the idea that any breach or limit placed on free speech is not merely a “political crime,” but a “violation of human nature.” Would you expand on that?

Rose: Yes, this in fact is something that I took from Salman Rushdie who I talked to in 2009. I think he put it very eloquently. The point here is what makes human beings different from other creatures is our ability to use language. We can use words to express ourselves in very eloquent and complex ways. We grow up telling and listening to stories. That’s what turns us into the people we are. We create stories about ourselves, about our family, our environment, about our social interactions. Language is the key in all of this. In authoritarian regimes, what happens is that those in power forbid you from having your own stories. You can’t say “This is the story that I want to tell,” or “This is what I believe,” or “This is important for this reason and that reason.”

Take the Soviet Union, where millions of people perished in concentration camps. You couldn’t make that story public in the Soviet Union. You start to talk about it, then people in power say, “No, that’s not the story, the story is building socialism in the Soviet Union.” Preventing people from having the opportunity to tell their own stories is a widespread method used by repressive regimes. But language, the ability to express oneself, is what it means to be human. I agree with Rushdie: when you infringe on that right, you not only commit a political crime against important democratic institutions, but against human nature itself.

The Undercurrent: What do you think of hate speech laws?

Rose: Hate speech is a relatively new phenomenon. If you look at history, hate speech becomes illegal after the Second World War. I’m not in favor of hate speech. I try to talk politely with people and appreciate when they speak politely with me, but we’re living in a world that is more diverse than ever before. What is one man’s hate speech is another man’s poetry. What is sacred to one group of people will be blasphemous to another group. Hate speech laws are not actually used to combat hatred. If that was their purpose, then to be consistent they would have to criminalize a lot more speech than they in fact do. The laws are ways to force a certain group’s social conventions upon society-at-large. Hate speech laws become more problematic the more culturally diverse a democracy becomes. You can see that clearly in places like Europe, where I live. Most of Europe has laws criminalizing denials of the Holocaust. That’s one example of a hate speech law. Denying the Holocaust is stupid, it’s insulting, it’s a lie, but I don’t think we should criminalize it.

Today, there are millions of Muslims coming to Europe, many of whom deny the Holocaust, and feel excluded by these laws. “If the laws protect Jewish populations from discrimination, why,” they ask, “is slandering the prophet Muhammad allowed?” In France, Charlie Hebdo publishes satirical cartoons of the prophet, but people denying the Holocaust are fined or imprisoned.

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Hate speech laws grew out of a distorted interpretation of the events leading up to World War II and the Holocaust; basically that “evil words will lead to evil deeds.” I don’t deny there is a relationship between words and deeds, but I do think this is an oversimplification. The right way to fight hate is not by criminalizing it, but fighting it through education and open debate. Criminalizing it sets the precedent for groups to foist their own demands on society and insist on banning speech they perceive to be offensive. In the end, there will be nothing left to say. We’ll end up in a tyranny of silence.

The Undercurrent: Some claim that there is something distinctive about the religion of Islam that makes it incompatible with freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. Some have argued that, for this reason, Muslims should not be welcome in the West. How do you respond to this line of thinking?

Rose: I disagree with that. I’m not deterministic. If you look at Turkey, its population is Muslim-majority, but it’s a secular state. I do though think that Muslims are challenged because the prophet was not just a religious preacher but also a warrior and political figure. He founded a religion and also built a state. There isn’t that clear a distinction between religion and politics in his life, but different people will from time to time interpret these texts differently. I don’t think you can say that by definition, practicing Islam is incompatible with secular democracy. In Western Europe, millions of Muslims are living peaceful, meaningful lives, seeing themselves as devoted Muslims and also democrats. Two weeks ago, I debated someone in Denmark who wants to ban the Koran, the building of mosques, and faith-based schools. I think that is wrong.

The Undercurrent: The final chapter of your book includes several modern examples of the tragedies that befall individuals and societies when freedom of speech is restricted. One that struck me was the story of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, an Afghani student who passed out literature at his university criticizing Islam’s view of women, and who subsequently was sentenced to death. Thankfully he was saved by UN intervention, but there are many other such incidents that don’t end so well. Is your point that people are much safer in countries that protect their choice to ridicule or revere religion, than countries that forbid certain ideas from being communicated?

Rose: Exactly. There is no society that protects freedom of religion more than secular democracies, because in societies where one religion rules, different viewpoints will be labelled as heresy and blasphemy. Why? Because the society is built on religion—not freedom for all points of view. In many Islamic countries you receive the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy. For instance in Pakistan, the crime for blasphemy is being treated exactly the same way as the crime of terrorism. If you kill 500 people you will receive the same sentence as if you criticize a cartoon of the prophet. That is outrageous.

The Undercurrent: How would you evaluate European countries on their defense of free speech? America?

Rose: In terms of law, I am very critical of Europe. The right way to promote freedom in a diverse society is by allowing more freedom of expression. Unfortunately, many European politicians think the opposite, they say that the more diverse a society becomes, the less expression should be allowed.

I think the United Stated has the best laws on protecting freedom of speech. In Europe, the right to free speech is “balanced” with other rights: “right to human dignity,” and so on. In the United States there is no such “balance.” The only limit to free speech is speech that incites violence. Since I wrote my book, though, I have become more critical of the US—not its laws, but its culture. There is an enormous social pressure, far greater than in Europe, except perhaps in England.  The US has these inventions: “trigger warnings,” “micro-aggressions,” “safe zones for students.” In Europe people are pushing the limits of the law. There isn’t a big difference between what is allowed and what people are choosing to say. In the United States, even though you have the freedom so say almost anything, people self-censor due to social pressure. That’s extremely dangerous. I wonder what will happen when the current generation grows up and becomes society’s decision makers. The youth of the United States are not in favor of the First Amendment.

The Undercurrent: Before working for Jyllands-Posten, you worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Washington DC for 14 years. Could you talk about how your experiences in Soviet Russia influenced your views on free speech?

Rose: Very much so, even to a larger extent than growing up in Denmark. In the Soviet Union, working with refugees and dissidents hugely influenced my thinking. I admired them because they were willing to pay a very high price for speaking their mind and standing up for what they believed in. Many of them lost their jobs and friends. Many were sent to camps, others were exiled, and some even killed. I experienced firsthand the intimidation and difficulties of living in a dictatorship.

The Undercurrent: Since writing The Tyranny of Silence and having it published in 2014, what’s the reception been like?

Rose: I was happily surprised my book was so well received in Denmark and Europe. It was one of The Economist’s Top 10 Books of 2014, which was a great honor to me. What makes the book so rewarding for me is that I had the opportunity to write a coherent argument over several hundred pages (instead of the usual 500 word newspaper article). My argument for free speech is complex, but when people have the opportunity to read it in full, very few negative reactions follow.

The Undercurrent: What do you think citizens can do to defend free speech and help prevent another Charlie Hebdo massacre or Garland, Texas shooting from happening?

Rose: They can do many things. First, teach their kids the importance of free expression. Introduce these issues into the school curriculum. That’s where the battle for hearts and minds is being fought, at the various educational institutions. Right after the attack in Paris and Copenhagen, a lot of people were afraid—and still are. Editors are censoring themselves and are afraid to admit it. But I think it’s very courageous to admit you are afraid. So we can have this honest discussion: do we want to live in a fear society, or a free society? Many of the mechanisms that I saw in the Soviet Union, of a fear society, are showing their face in liberal democracies in Europe, even though Western Europe is fighting not a state, but rather individuals and groups who threaten to kill offenders. I want to have an honest discussion about that.

The Undercurrent: For those who are interested in learning more about the “cartoon crisis” and free speech issues, do you have any other reading recommendations?

Rose: Yes. Aryeh Neier’s Defending My Enemy. Aryeh, the Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 70’s, defended American Neo-Nazis’ right to march through Skokie, Illinois, where many Holocaust survivors lived. Aryeh, himself a survivor, lost most of his family in Nazi Germany in 1937.

The Undercurrent: What’s next for Flemming Rose? Can we look forward to any upcoming projects from you?

Rose:  I’m writing a small book right now. Hopefully, it will be published in September 2016, for the tenth anniversary of the twelve cartoons’ 2005 commission and publication. It’s called A Hymn to Freedom.

The Undercurrent: I look forward to reading it. Thank you for your time and it was a pleasure speaking with you.

Rose: It’s my pleasure Jon. Thank you for making the effort and having me. I hope some of your readers will enjoy my book.

The Undercurrent is happy to offer interviewees a platform for their ideas. Their responses do not necessarily represent the views of the publication at large.

Creative commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Valentina Calà

Posted by on June 29, 2015. Filed under Archive, Summer 2015. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry