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The freedom fundamentalist: Flemming Rose

INTERVIEW! The International Literature Festival came to an end last night. We talked to one of its most inspiring guests: Flemming Rose, the man behind 2005’s infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons.

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Photo by Karolina Spolniewski

The man behind 2005’s infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons was at the International Literature Festival Berlin (ILB) to defend the right of free speech, from blasphemy to Holocaust denial… as the one and only way to protect our democracies against extremism.

Flemming Rose likes to quote George Orwell’s preface to Animal Farm (“If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”) to explain his unshakable commitment to free speech – not as a license to offend, but as a prerequisite for public debate. This commitment informed his decision to commission the “Muhammad cartoons” as the then-culture editor of the small centre-liberal newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. Under the title “The Face of Muhammad”, the 12 cartoons poked fun at the prophet “as we had at Jesus, Jews and the Queen in the past”, sparking immediate anger among Muslims (who believe it is sinful to portray Muhammad) and criticism from the Danish liberal left. But the affair took on unexpectedly dramatic proportions as fury and riots spread across the Muslim world from Syria and Lebanon to Pakistan and India early the following year. Embassies and consulates were stormed and torched in Damascus and Beirut; people died in riots. Danish goods were boycotted, editors who reprinted the cartoons put on death lists. Violence even reached placid Berlin in March 2006, when a Pakistani student crashed the Axel Springer offices with a knife and the alleged intention to murder Die Welt editor Roger Köppel for reprinting the cartoons.

Needless to say, the affair brought the former foreign correspondent the kind of international fame one would gladly do without and a spot on the Al-Qaeda hit list – alongside the likes of Charlie Hebdo’s editor Charb (whose name was crossed off following his murder with 10 colleagues in 2015) and Kurt Westergaard, the author of one of the most controversial Danish cartoons (Muhammad with a bomb in his turban), who was the target of several assassination attempts – the latest in 2010.

Despite ongoing threats on his life, Rose’s adamancy in favour of free speech hasn’t flinched – it’s rather deepened, a determination he often attributes to his decade-long experience of Soviet totalitarianism (he studied and lived in Russia 1980-96), and the enlightening experiences of the last decade. “I was never afraid physically. I was always more concerned about the intellectual coherence of my argument. That’s the most unpleasant thing I could think of over that decade…” The results are two books (one in English, Tyranny of Silence, and a third to be published) and many talks that are rigorous and bold.

In Berlin for a panel discussion on Islam at the International Literature Festival, he bashed protection laws, from blasphemy to Holocaust denial, as counterproductive censorship and pleaded instead for free public debate on Islam and democracy, with a two-way tolerance at its core. In times when mainstream politics have abdicated the right to critical speech in favour of populists and most debates are more driven by emotion than reason, Rose gave a clear and sobering talk, as mild as it was incisive – seldom heard today.

We meet the following day at the Paris Bar. It is the post-lunch lull and there is only one occupied table besides ours – late lunchers like us, I assume. One-and-a-half hours of absorbing chat later, I notice they’re still there. As Rose gets up from his chair to say goodbye, three men spring to their feet and one immediately rushes ahead to clear the way. “Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, they reassessed my protection.” explains Rose, as if it didn’t concern him. “They came to the conclusion that for many years I had been under-protected.” He hurries off , three bodyguards in his wake.

At the panel discussion you talked at length about self-censorship induced by fear – fear of terrorism, or fear of physical attacks. But something that might be even more commonly shared among politicians and intellectuals these days is the fear to ‘offend’. The common wisdom is ‘given the political climate, better not provoke people’. Is it a legitimate form of self-censorship?

I’ve been dealing with that myself many times. Just this summer, the University of Cape Town invited me for their lecture on freedom of expression. But then, three weeks ahead of it, I was disinvited! The reason they gave was that I was a divisive figure, hence represented a threat for the peace of the campus – it could even undermine academic freedom. Of course it is a strange argument: “We have to ban freedom of expression in order to save freedom of expression.” Like that general during the Vietnam War, “We have to destroy that village, in order to save that village.”

I also think it is a totally legitimate political view to be against immigration…. It’s about the kind of society do you want. But unfortunately people who are against immigration are often labelled as fascist. And it really hurts the debate. And the irony is that it has empowered the anti-immigrant parties.

So it was a little déjà vu. Over the years since the cartoons’ publication I was labelled a fascist, a racist, an Islamophobe, whatnot. I’m used to it. But the racist card is played so often, also by mainstream politicians. Take immigration. I’m in favour of it, but I also think it is a totally legitimate political view to be against immigration, or in favour of limiting immigration. It’s about what kind of society you want. But unfortunately people who are against immigration are often labelled as fascist and xenophobic, if not Nazis. And it really hurts the debate. And the irony is that it has empowered the anti-immigrant parties.

Our societies are in a process of total transformation: immigration, globalisation, digital technology. In order to secure political legitimacy, we really need a free and open debate about this. And political correctness shouldn’t come in the way. People are censoring themselves not because of the kind of threats I was subjected to, but because they want to sound ‘nice’ and they’re afraid to say ‘un-nice’ things.

Can one still be a progressive leftist and criticise immigration policies? How did we get to that point that there’s no space left for criticism or free debate without being pushed to extremes – radical parties such as the AfD here, or Front National in France?

The key factor might have been identity politics, which have replaced old debates on left versus right and economic and social models. ‘Who you are’ has become the gateway to political influence. It’s understandable. People made insecure and vulnerable by globalisation and digitalisation and bombarded with so much information are provided a ‘safe’ space as part of a group and they have started to align themselves according to ethnic or religious affiliation. It’s very unfortunate, because identity politics focus not so much on what we share as human beings but on what makes us different: you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a secular person. And it’s also become a tool for some people to gain power.

Another factor: parents and kids. We’re living in a time in which parents are overprotecting their children. This goes hand in hand with this nanny culture, the idea that human beings are very vulnerable and need to be protected – instead of thinking that human beings have the capacity to overcome a lot of things and deal with conflict and criticism if we teach them to use their minds instead of their emotions.

That’s what you called the “grievance culture”, right?

In a democracy, you have many rights. But one right you do not have… is the right ‘not to be offended’.

Yes. I think we are living in a grievance culture. When you play the insult card, every time you say “I am offended by what you say, so you should shut up” – because I’m vulnerable as part of this part of this ethnicity or minority, that is exactly the opposite of what tolerance meant after it was born following the wars of religion in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. In fact, tolerance meant learning the ability to live with the things and people that you hate, that you deeply dislike, as long as they did not resort to violence. That is the way Catholics and Protestants were able to live side by side. But today tolerance means, “I don’t like what you say, and because I don’t like it, you are intolerant if you do not shut up.” This grievance culture is a deep problem. If you live in a democracy, you have many rights – the right to free speech, the right to vote the way you like, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly… but one right you do not have is the right “not to be offended”.  Maturity is also about managing disagreement – and being able to deal with it without feeling destroyed as an individual, in an identity group. Unfortunately this feeling is promoted by many laws.

Blasphemy laws are a good example, right? Germany, like Denmark and most European countries, has a blasphemy law, Article 166. It prohibits blasphemy “if it disturbs public peace”.

Actually in Denmark we considered abolishing it in 2004, and we came close to a consensus – even human rights NGOs were in favour. But after the attack in Copenhagen in 2015, the government decided to keep the blasphemy law.

Are you saying it’s getting worse? The more free speech is attacked – including the murder of artists – the more you protect the right of people to be offended, and curtail free speech?

We’ve never had so much regulation of speech as we have today. And that’s very problematic.

We’ve never had so much regulation of speech as we have today. And that’s very problematic. When Theo van Gogh was killed in 2004 the Ministry of Justice said “If we’d had better anti-hate-speech laws, Theo Van Gogh would still be alive.” Meaning if we had been able to ban his speech, he wouldn’t be dead and would have spared us this situation. You blame the victim for the offence it incited – like rape victims. “Why did you wear such a short skirt to go clubbing on a Friday night?” Like that director of a school in Germany who kindly asked all parents to make sure their daughters dressed in an appropriate manner, because of that asylum centre nearby. They were told to restrict personal freedoms in order not to “provoke” a potential situation. It’s the wrong way to go!

It also vindicates the idea that refugees might be potential sexual offenders. It reminds me of the Cologne scandal. How do you deal with a situation in which some asylum seekers misbehaved towards women without coming across as “racist”? Is this intellectual entrapment?

You need to stick to your points. You need to step in and make your case. The wrong way would be to opt out – to leave the field of argumentation to those whom you disagree with. That’s the way public debate in democracy develops. In Denmark the situation’s changed – people who attacked me 10 years ago are of a different mind today. I wrote books, I took part in public debates and tried to make my point by sticking to my values. Just two examples: in 2006 only 43 percent of Danish people thought it was right to publish the cartoons. In 2015 65 percent did. In 2006 I was called a dangerous fascist. I just received the most prestigious journalism prize. So, that’s the only way you can progress – keep explaining yourself.

But a large majority of Muslims would still oppose the publication of the cartoons, don’t you think?

Yes, that’s true. I’m now in a dialogue with a social conservative Muslim from Norway. He didn’t like me and was against the cartoons, but then he published a book, Norwegian Islam, which I really liked, and I wrote a positive paper about it. He believes homosexuality is a sin, that women should wear hijabs, is against sex before marriage, etc. He has conservative moral values – I have liberal ones, so we disagree about many things. But he believes that secular liberal democracy is the foundation on which we can secure freedom of religion, including Islam. With his book he was trying to find a way to make Islam compatible with our democracies. 
That’s what we need to discuss. Of course he didn’t like the cartoons, but he doesn’t want to ban them, because freedom of expression – hence to disagree – is a fundamental right.

So a reasonable status quo could be: “the burqa offends my secular feminist convictions, but we shouldn’t ban it; you feel offended by the Muhammad cartoons, but should tolerate them.” Burqa against cartoons, all in the name of freedom of expression?

Yes. And that’s why people like him are our most important allies in the struggle for liberal democracy in Western Europe. We need to have actual Muslims on our side, people who believe you can be a good Muslim and stand by liberal democracy. The problem right now is that most “Muslims” supporting secularism are not real Muslims any longer. They’re very nice to listen to, but they have no influence in the Muslim world!

In your talk before, you mentioned a “war of ideas”?

I think we’re in a hot war against violent Islamists in Iraq, Syria etc. but we’re also in a cold war – a war of ideas – with non-violent Islamists who are against liberal democracy and oppose the liberal values we believe in. We had a similar situation during the actual Cold War with communist parties and the violent terrorists who wanted to sabotage or overthrow liberal democracy using their own means. But there also were the Social Democrats – and they too were Marxists, committed to social justice and believed in class struggle so on – and for decades the Soviet Union saw them as their most dangerous enemy, not the conservative. It is of course a lot more difficult. You have 14,000 years of history and many religious taboos, etc. So it is a huge task. It’ll take a few generations probably, but you need to argue and debate and find a way – together with Muslims – a way to reconcile Islam with our liberal democracy. But that’s the only way to go.

What should the role of the democratic state be in this fight?

Our European states should not cooperate with Islamists! In Denmark they receive money from the state. Every time there’s a terrorist attack, we tend to look for ways to respond with compromises. When threatened, people tend to compromise, but you know the famous saying by Benjamin Franklin – “The people who are willing to sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither security nor freedom.” When it comes to terrorism, all governments tend to overreact. They pass too many laws. So, the pressure on freedom comes from all sides: you have that grievance culture and people asking for the right to be protected from being offended, you have the Islamists, and then you have the government cutting civil liberties in the name of their war against terrorists.

What about the fear that we might incite terrorism by angering Muslims?

The best way to fight terrorism, and the best way to reduce its presence, is to not let yourself be terrorised. If you’re not terrorised by terrorism, then terrorism will fall into the realms of any other crime. Of course this is a very unpleasant moment, and of course you will not be able to stop terrorism at once, but if you give in to intimidation, you will not get less of it, you will get more. Because you show the terrorists that it works. So, we have to be very clear that you will not get any results, we will not give in. We should not treat Muslims as if they are children, immature individuals who are not able to deal with their religion.  

Even after they were murdered, Charlie Hebdo‘s Charb and Cabu were called “Islamophobic” by many people among the so-called progressive Left, especially among Americans, in the very name of that tolerance they were obviously not granting to those cartoonists. “Islamophobia” seems to have become that catch-all insult to discredit anyone daring to mock or criticise Muslims, even if humour is their job and they used it against all religions and even more against Catholics and Le Pen. Phobia means fear, right…

It’s a stupid word, as if it were a disease and you can take a pill or get treated. But you’re right, that’s even more absurd in this case. Le Monde ran an analysis in which they found out that out of some 500 front pages, only seven were targeting Islam. But yes, it’s a lot worse in the US. The US is sick with political correctness. Paradoxically, the US has the best legal protection of free speech in the world. You can almost say anything as long as you don’t incite violence. But at the same time you have huge social pressure on free speech. In Europe we have much more legal restrictions on free speech, but a lot less social pressure. In American universities, where you’re supposed to learn how to think in a critical way, debate and bring good, convincing arguments, you now have rules against “microaggressions”, anything that someone might interpret as offensive. Works such as The Great Gatsby, some Virginia Woolf books, old Greek poetry, were subjected to so-called “trigger warnings” – professors having to warn against their potentially offensive material. And then that concept of “safe space” where you can withdraw away from exposure to potentially harmful free speech. This is the result of that cultivation of vulnerable human beings and identity politics.

You actually said that you saw the publications of the Muhammad cartoons as an “act of inclusion”, not exclusion. Can you explain?

Well, those cartoons were not transgressing the canon of satire in Denmark. That’s what Danish cartoons have done with Jesus, the Queen, anything sacred to our society, for decades. With those cartoons we were telling Muslims: we’re not expecting more of or less of you. We’re actually expecting exactly the same as we do from any other groups in our society, and in doing so, we recognise you as equal citizens. You’re not children; you’re not immature individuals needing some special standard. We won’t exercise the racism of low expectations. In doing this, we are integrating you into the tradition of Danish religious satire. You’re part of the club!

I also think that satire is a very civilised way of reacting to violence – you don’t call the cops or take arms yourself, you draw a cartoon! Religious satire has been very important in European history, from Dante to Goethe to Monte Python. But only in the 20th century do cartoonists get murdered for their work. Even Daumier, who ridiculed the King, would sit in prison for a few months at a time. But no one would kill him! Meanwhile in nine or 10 Muslim countries blasphemy is punished with capital punishment – like in Pakistan, for example.

That’s of course extreme, but can’t our societies protect religious minorities from the majority with laws putting limits to offensive speech? In your discussion about blasphemy with a French judge yesterday he suggested some criteria – like the notion of satire which exists in libel law, for example.

I think that is very problematic. When society gets more and more multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious, we will have a very different perception of what is blasphemous, what is ridiculous, what is right, and what is wrong. One man’s blasphemy is another man’s poetry. People are being killed because of references to the Quran and I am listening to an installation. The notion of blasphemy changes from culture to culture, from time to time. It turns out that the sins of blasphemous insult is always in the eye of the beholder. Take Edward Manet’s “Lunch in the Green Grass”, which today looks like a beautiful and harmonious piece of art. When it was first exhibited in Paris in 1865 there were people who wanted to destroy it. They found the sight of this lady looking at the painter, being naked, and not being shy as very, very provocative. So there is no objective definition. If you take the famous Danish cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, I have heard many, many interpretations. Some people say that it shows that the prophet is a terrorist, others say that it shows that all Muslims are terrorists. I think the artist intended to say, well, there are some Muslims who in the name of the Prophet Muhammad are becoming terrorists, but that is the essence of images. They are open to interpretation, and in a digital world they can have the power to really make things happen.  

Limitless freedom of speech sounds excessive, even dangerous. Shouldn’t the law at least criminalise abuse – anti-Semitism or racism, for example?

I think we should not put too much confidence in the power of the law to regulate human emotions. The Weimar Republic had strict hate-speech laws and they were used against a certain Joseph Goebbels, who made many anti-Semitic statements against Bernhard Weiß, the deputy Chief of the Berlin Police and Goebbels lost every case. The editor of Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, Julius Streicher, spent two jail terms and his paper was taken to court 36 times for anti-Semitic comments. In France, there is the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné – every time he goes to court, he becomes more popular among his own audience. So I think we should try to work these things out without the law. The media has a role to play there. It has this “if it bleeds, it leads” approach – if you can build up a confrontation, it sells and they go for it. You had this pastor in Florida some years ago. He had a congregation of 50 people!! And he said “I am going to burn the Quran” and 2000 reporters were standing outside his house. You had the Security of Defence of the United States calling this mediocre individual to ask him to not go forward with the burning of the Quran.  Even though he had that right in the framework of the US constitution in the First Amendment. The media blew this up rather than asking, how relevant is this guy, really?

But what about your own editorial responsibility back then when you published these cartoons? Can you publish anything – even Holocaust cartoons, which you ended up doing despite huge controversy in 2006?

I’m not making an exception. We publish cartoons about Jesus, about Muhammad, and yes, in 2006 we published cartoons from the Arab press, some of which were Holocaust-denying, anti-Semitic cartoons.

What was the relevance of that? At least Islamism was a current topic. Holocaust is historical fact.

When we saw the uproar in the Muslim world sparked by our cartoons, we decided to find out what they were publishing in their cartoons, what they were laughing at. And in fact they publish very offensive cartoons. Cartoons which we’d never publish ourselves. But publication doesn’t mean endorsement. You can publish things you disagree with – you can always express what you think in an editorial, and that’s what we did. We also published cartoons from the Iranian Holocaust contest – in fact all Danish newspapers did.

Do you know how contentious this is for Germans? You shocked part of your Berlin audience with your criticism of Holocaust denial laws. Would you really abolish laws making Holocaust denial a crime?  

Yes, I would, and I would do it both as a matter of principle because I am in favour of free speech, but also as a practical matter. Because to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, we need to be able to argue and put forward documentation and defend that position. If it becomes a taboo it’s the same that happened with the Catholic Church in the 15th century, in the end nobody knew what was being said through the mass because they just had to go to church and repeat everything. When the Protestants arrived, they had to learn who they were and defend their theology.

Yes, I’d abolish Holocaust denial laws. The new founding narrative has become the Holocaust, and ‘never again.’ Which is great, and it’s very very important to keep that memory alive. What I don’t like about it is that it has been accompanied by dictates.

For 50 years, the driving agenda within the European Union was reconciliation between France and Germany. But with the fall of Berlin Wall and integration of new countries, the European Union needed a new founding narrative, and that new founding narrative has become the Holocaust, and “never again”. Which is great, and it’s very important to keep that memory alive. What I don’t like about it is that it has been accompanied by dictates. In 2008 the European Union passed a framework decision which obliged every member of the European Union to pass Holocaust denial laws, and laws fighting free speech.

In Europe today, the biggest group of Holocaust deniers are Muslims. You have millions and millions of Muslims coming from the Middle East where they have been taught that the Holocaust was fiction, and how can we make them change their mind if they are not allowed to have their ignorant opinions? To change them and educate them, we need to confront them. Instead they will say, “Aha! Okay, so the Jews are also in power here! We are not allowed to say what we think.” I do not know of one historical example where you have been able to eradicate an opinion by banning it.

You’ve gotten death threats… and yet, have kept on speaking your mind. Are you ever afraid?

I was never afraid physically. I was always more concerned about the intellectual coherence of my argument. The most unpleasant thing I could think of over that decade was that someone could point to a weak point in my argument – and I of course would reassess and rethink. But that’s been my priority. I’m still on that hit list with those 11 names – and of course, even if I have had 24-hour police protection since the Charlie attacks, you never know. Maybe some crazy youth in Copenhagen wants to become a hero and he’ll come across my name on that list. So of course I’m concerned about my safety. I don’t know how I would react faced with someone threatening me or my family. I often ask myself. You have no idea until it happens to you. But somehow, this thought is secondary. It has to do with who I am and my own sense of dignity – what is important to me, what I value in life. And I lived in a dictatorship, my wife comes from a dictatorship and I worked with dissidents from the former Soviet Union. These dissidents were heroes in my life. I’ve witnessed the humiliation of having to hide, or conform or shut up and the price of the freedom of speech where you’ve been denied it. It’s very fundamental about human dignity – the right to free speech.

Have you ever feared being cheered on or supported by the wrong people, actual racist Islamophobes? Maybe that’s why the Literature Festival made sure to never open any of the Islamism panel discussions to the floor?

Yes, some xenophobic people might agree with some of my points, and cheered for me at panels. But the only way is to accept the dialogue and stick to your own message. You have no other choice. Recently I came to support the right of radical imams to free speech – as long as they were not inciting violence. In Denmark we’ve done very well without criminalising extremist groups, either communist or Nazi parties – they’ve always been legal and allowed to distribute their propaganda. And we survived and actually did quite well and showed we can manage that kind of speech. And now we’ve started to criminalise extreme religious speech – which in a way is very similar to some forms of Nazi speech – but on secular grounds, and I don’t agree with that. My radical right-wing cheerleaders are not that happy about this stance! And in that respect things have changed in the perception of my work, at least in Denmark. I don’t feel isolated any more.