In September of 2005, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad; which brought on riots and deaths. Many accused the publisher of deliberate incitement and blasphemy.
A decade plus has passed since Flemming Rose, Foreign Editor of Jyllands-Posten
; author of Tyranny of Silence
; commissioned drawings of the Prophet Muhammad to run in the paper. In a Huffington Post
blog, he says, “But despite countless op-eds and even a book that laid out my motivation for publishing the drawings, confusion and bizarre conspiracy theories continue to cause controversy about that fateful decision”.
Flemming, joins us to talk about how one cartoon ignited the global debate on the issue of free speech. He says, “There were two broad questions of importance. First: Were people in cultural life in Western Europe exercising self-censorship? And second: If that was the case, was the fear based in reality or was it just a fantasy? What should one do about it? To find out, we approached cartoonists and invited them to draw the Prophet Muhammad as they saw him”.
According to Rose, the decision to publish the cartoons was as a result of a debate on censorship which involved museums, publishing houses and newspapers. It started when a children’s writer was writing a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and needed illustrations.
Three illustrators refused to do so, one accepted, but wanted anonymity. This started a debate in Denmark about encouraging self-censorship when it comes to Islam. Rose says, “We discovered that, yes, there is self-censorship and the fear is great. People are killed over this in the public debate of blasphemy and art. We decided to approach others to draw cartoons of the Prophet to find out if there is censorship or not”.
Rose invited members of Denmark’s Cartoonist Society to participate; half did. He was quoted as saying,
“Modern secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position insisting on certain considerations of their religious feelings. It’s incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech; where we must be ready to put up with insult and mockery and sometimes ridicule. It’s certainly not always attractive and nice to look at.
It does not mean that religious feeling should be made fun of at any price but that this is a matter of importance in the present context. We’re on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how self -censorship will end. That is why our newspaper invited members of the Danish Cartoonists Society to draw Muhammad as they see him.”
The cartoons were published; and it was a non-event; however, several months later huge demonstrations and violence erupted in the Middle East. In Denmark many Danish Muslims demanded an apology. Rose says,
“A group of Imams, acting on their own, presented themselves as spokespeople for all the Danish Muslims. When they couldn’t get a law passed criminalizing what was published, they took us to court but couldn’t get it refuted. They could not get an apology or a new blasphemy law. So they lost the case in Denmark and then took it to Imams in the Middle East, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, to raise opinions in the Muslim world, and they succeeded.”
The cartoons became a lightning rod. Rose says, “I cannot exercise my profession without freedom of the Press. My safety? I will always have a security problem for the rest of my life. I’m in the top 10 of Al Qaida hit lists. The Danish producer was killed, so now there are 9 of us”.
Rose travels internationally debating these issues and has arrived at the conclusion that this is a global issue and a growing problem. He wrote his book Tyranny of Silence, to explain his decisions and offer a perspective on free speech and censorship.
He is deeply concerned as it relates to censorship,
“We are moving in the wrong direction. Here in the U.S. you have the 1st amendment which is the best protection in the world on freedom of expression. But, you are becoming more and more isolated. When it comes to protection of freedom of speech in law, in other parts of the world there are more laws criminalizing more and more freedoms of speech … People are limiting themselves because they are afraid of saying the wrong things that might be perceived as offensive by other people.
The more diverse we are as a society, the ways people will express themselves are more diverse. We need more freedom of speech not less… What has changed the world is our communication technology, the digital technology. Everything is published all over the place. You don’t have borders and at the same time you have migration. People are moving across borders in numbers never seen before in the history of mankind.
And these two factors frame the debate about free speech. So the issue is how are we going to safeguard free speech in societies that are getting more and more diverse when it comes to culture, ethnicity and religion?”
Rose is not alone in thinking freedom of speech is in danger. Tune into this sensitive topic to see how these freedoms are being eroded and the danger that poses to us all.
Join us as we talk about things that really matter… with people who care.
Niki N. McCuistion
Transformational Change Agent/coach, personally and professionally
Aligning Purpose, Performance and People