Flemming Rose talks to Antonio Mora

Editor and journalist Flemming Rose discusses his controversial decision to print cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad

Antonio Mora: I've got to start with the horror of what happened in Paris. What did you think when you heard about the attack on Charlie Hebdo?

Flemming Rose: I was shocked. I mean, I was grieving because I knew some of these people. But I was not surprised. In 2006 when the Danish embassies were burning in Beirut and Damascus and Tehran, I was shocked and surprised. It felt very unreal, so I couldn't relate it to an event in a serious way. But this time, it hit me very hard, because it couldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has been following events over the past nine years.

And I want to talk about those events. But I do want to ask you in the context of these friends of yours being killed — you are on the same Al-Qaeda hit list, and Inspire magazine, the Al-Qaeda magazine, as was the editor of Charlie Hebdo, as is Salman Rushdie a quarter-century after he published “The Satanic Verses.” What is it like for you to live knowing that you have to worry about this constant threat?

Well, I'm trying not to focus on it. I really put a lot of effort into doing exactly the same as I would have done without being on this list. Because if I start to change the way I live my life and what I do and what I believe in, then I would hand those who would like to come after me a victory. And I don't want to do that. 

But some changes have happened, and certainly the cartoonist who, back when you published these in Denmark — he still lives today under round-the-clock protection.

Yes. And the challenge for him is the same as for me. You have to do what you want to do even though [you have] around-the-clock bodyguards and heavy security.

Let's go back a decade, when you were thinking about publishing these cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. You had seen self-censorship happening throughout Europe and in different situations. And the straw that broke the camel's back for you was a man who wanted to write this and couldn't find an illustrator to draw the prophet for this children's book. So what was your intent, then? Because you went out and you invited people, cartoonists throughout Denmark, someone to come up with these drawings. What was your intent behind that invitation and then the subsequent publication?

I think there were two issues. In fact, we were not sure about how wide a problem self-censorship was. We had this one case. So one person self-censorship in fact taking place when it comes to dealing with Islam? And if it is taking place, is it based [on] a fiction of the mind or of our imagination, or is it based in real fear? And nine years after the fact, we have to acknowledge that we received an affirmative answer to both questions.

Censorship does take place, and it is based in real fear. We saw that in Paris two weeks ago.

And you saw it back then, even though the violent reaction was not immediate. It took a while before violence broke out over the cartoons you published. And you wrote in your new book, “I have become a figure many love to hate. Some would like to see me dead. I do not seek conflict for its own sake, nevertheless I have been branded by many as a careless troublemaker who pays no heed to the consequences of his actions.” So you ask that question, you know, was there self-censorship? Would there be this kind of violence? You really didn't believe, you didn't expect that you would see the kind of violence that ended up killing hundreds of people? Of course not. And even experts on Islam were telling me in the fall of 2005 that this would never turn into an international scandal. So it's a rationalization after the fact to say you should have known.

But there were people in Denmark who were concerned about it and who were worried that you were making the country a target back then. And even now things have changed? There's a different attitude toward all this in Denmark from what there was back then?

Absolutely, this week a [poll] was published in one of the big Danish newspapers. Back in 2006, 49 percent of the Danish population said it was the wrong thing to publish, and 33 percent said yes. Today 65 percent says it was the right thing to do, and only 17 percent say it was the wrong thing to do. So you've seen a change in the attitude to the publications, the cartoons after what happened in Paris.

You also wrote back then, “One cartoon depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist, or that every Muslim is a terrorist.” But then you said that wasn't at all your intent. You said, “Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell under his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet — very intellectual. But did you really think that the general population would see something as subtle as that and wouldn't just take this as Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, clearly equating him as a terrorist?

The quote you refer to, I think it was an article in 2006. And I've learned a little since that. And one of the things I learned is that images are open for interpretation. That's what makes them so difficult to handle, and you can receive unexpected reactions to images. I acknowledge that some people do read that cartoon in a different way. But I have reinforced my analysis of that cartoon in my book, “The Tyranny of Silence.” Also adding that, this cartoon is, in fact, not targeting Muslims as a group. It's targeting a religious doctrine. You see no racial feature in that figure. 

You're talking about Islamic extremists?

Yes. And you cannot say that that cartoon is saying something about every Muslim — like you cannot say if you depict Karl Marx with blood on his hands that every Marxist is a killer or if you depict Jesus Christ on the cross with beer in his hand that all Christians are drunkards.

Let's talk then about whether there are double standards in all of this. Because in Charlie Hebdo's case, they fired a cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, at one point, because he drew something that was critical of Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president's son, who was getting married to a Jewish woman. This was deemed to be anti-Semitic. So is there a double standard, where this guy gets fired for that but then has no problem publishing cartoons that are seen as making fun of the Prophet Muhammad?

There is a double standard, and I think that is a problem. Though I will say this — I do not think that mocking a religious doctrine is the same as mocking the memory of 6 million people who were killed during the Second World War. France does have hate speech laws, and among them, Holocaust denial is a criminal offense. And I have, for a long time, spoken out against those laws. I do think that we have to get rid of hate speech laws in Europe. And it's given some Muslims a reason for accusing France of exercising double standards, because on the one hand, how is it possible that Charlie Hebdo can do what they are doing, being taken to court and acquitted, and then you have a French comedian who is saying something that some people perceive as anti-Semitic, and he's taken to court and convicted.

Right, that's Dieudonné, who was taken to court and put behind bars. I should say that the cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo who was fired won a wrongful-termination lawsuit. But you bring up those laws that do limit free speech. Denial of the Holocaust and things like that. So you think it is important that the law should be completely open, that if we're prohibiting anti-Semitism, we should also prohibit anything that's anti-Muslim?

We should fight anti-Semitism not by banning it but fighting it with words. With education, with a free exchange of opinions. And how are we going to have an exchange of opinions? How are we going to fight these false convictions if they are not allowed to air them them in public?

So what do you say to Pope Francis, who just recently said, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” He's arguing that there should be some limits to free speech. That mocking Muhammad is seen as a terrible insult by many Muslims.

I think that the pope, who is chairing a church responsible for the Inquisition in Europe, should be very careful talking about the right to answer mocking with violence.

Well, that was 500 years ago.


‘You cannot say that that cartoon is saying something about every Muslim – like you cannot say if you depict Karl Marx with blood on his hands that every Marxist is a killer or if you depict Jesus Christ on the cross with beer in his hand that all Christians are drunkards.

Flemming Rose

Certainly in the United States there's a very strong feeling of free speech. But there are some polls that have shown that 79 percent of people in France believe that you shouldn't be publishing anything that mocks any kind of religion. So just as most papers and magazines will put limits on what they publish, they will not advocate violence. They will not publish pornography. Is there such a thing as appropriate self-censorship, where we as journalists can make the appropriate decision say, “Well, some things shouldn't be put out there.” And in fact, if you look at what's happened with the cartoons, most American news outputs have not shown what Charlie Hebdo has published, including this one. And your book in the United States, the publication in the United States does not have the cartoons that you published in Denmark.

Yes. Of course every individual has a right to exercise his internal line. But [what] I'm skeptical about here is motivation. In fact, we did not republish Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in my newspaper. And we wrote an editorial saying, “Violence works.” Because that was not a journalistic judgment. It was a security judgment. And I think that there's been some confusion among editors both in Western Europe and here about the real motivation. Is it because want to be nice? Or is it because of fear? And I mean, publication does not mean enforcement. We have things in my newspaper that offends me and with which I disagree every day. I think it would be justified to publish Charlie Hebdo's cartoons because they're news. 

I just want to give up one [example]. The New York Times and those American newspapers, some American newspapers, published a photograph from Paris by a French police officer lying on the ground, a split-second away from being killed. I think that was a very offensive photograph, to that man and to his family. It was published.

But going back to something you just said, that the fear of violence prevented you from publishing those Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I mean, in fact, isn't that what the extremists want? They want their violence to shut you up, to shut everyone up.

Absolutely. And that it says that sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen. And for the pen to be mightier than the sword, you need more backing. I mean, we have been in this situation for nine years. I don't know what I would have decided, had I been the editor-in-chief. But having worked at Jyllands-Posten for the past nine years, I perfectly well know the kind of concerns that he had to deal with. I mean, people are going to psychologists. They cannot sleep at night. So I think fear, concern for security is a very legitimate concern and feeling. We should just be honest about it.

I want to talk a little bit more about censorship and about the appropriateness of what we publish or don't publish. After Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011, the paper was criticized in Time magazine. That editorial said the paper was baiting Muslims, it was openly begging for violent responses, creating more division and anger. And Tony Barber, the Europe editor for The Financial Times, on the day of the Paris attacks, he actually called the paper “stupid” initially, in something he wrote, for provoking Muslims. And the paper then edited out the insult after that happened. Both pieces are clear that the attacks were inexcusable. But they raised that issue. Should we say something just because we can?

Of course not. Not because we can. But I think that a cartoon is a very civilized response to intimidation and violence. I mean, what can be more peaceful? Cartoonist is not killing anyone. He's just making a cartoon. But I think the logic behind this, “They were asking for it” …

That is a whole other issue, whether they were asking for it or not.

No, but that's behind — they were provoking. They were, you know, baiting Muslims. So if you are baiting, then you had to expect some kind of response. And I think that in a democracy, you have many rights. But the only right you should not have in a democracy is a right not to be offended. The price we pay for living in a legal democracy is that from time to time, people may publish or say something that we may find offensive. So we need to grow thicker skins. 

Antonio Mora and Flemming Rose

You have argued that in many ways, satire is the most powerful form of free speech because it really just cuts deeply to the truth. But again, where do you draw that line between satire that tells the truth, that calls attention to important issues, and satire that can incite anger and violence? Do you have to draw that line?

It's difficult, because it's all in the eyes of the beholder. It depends on how people react to that. So for me, it's about, “Is it legal, or is it illegal?” And it should be illegal if it's incitement to violence. But it's very rare that a cartoon would be incitement to violence. But unfortunately, we are living in a time of grievance fundamentalism. That you can play the offense card every time you want somebody to shut up with whom you disagree. And I think that is the deeper danger to freedom of expression in the West today.

And you're talking about freedom of expression, that what you were doing was not so much striking the blow for free speech but more about battling self-censorship. Did you succeed? 

You know, I'm not an activist. I'm an editor and journalist. And [the job of] an editor and journalist, I mean, is to raise the issues. It's not for me to win this battle, of course. But I think we succeeded in focusing on a very serious problem. And nine years later, the problem has not gone away. In fact, it's got worse. 

Are we losing that battle?

It will depend on whether the people will support the right to freedom of expression or not out there. So it's a question of how individuals will react to this. It's not predetermined how this will play out. But I'm saying that I'm more pessimistic today than I was nine years ago.

You were a reporter in Moscow for quite a while back in the '80s, when the Soviet Union started falling apart. But certainly free speech was something that was not accepted in any way. So I do wonder whether that was one of the things, that it inspired you to be so outspoken about censorship. And you end the book by saying, “When words run out, violence begins. If we forbid offensive speech, individuals will resort to direct action.” But in this case and the Charlie Hebdo case, didn't we see the opposite? In fact, that offensive speech was allowed and we saw violence?

Exactly. But we have to do it the other way around. I mean, we have to keep on talking, and the appropriate response to offensive speech is speech. Maybe also offensive speech. 

Not violence, of course?

Not violence. And as long as we can have a conversation going, even if it applies [to an] exchange of offense, then we will be able to take these ideas without violence and the kind of killings we saw in Paris. And I think that is the hallmark of civilization against barbary.

You've also said, “Tension between cultural diversity that protects democratic freedoms is the defining issue of our times.” But how do you reconcile those two? Is it possible for Islamic extremism to in any way co-exist with Western society?

I mean, as long as they do not commit violence during times of the Cold War, you had communists in the West who wanted to establish a communist regime. But as long as they operated within the frame of the law, they had a right to promote their point of views. But I think the key issue about a multicultural society and free speech is that we are living in a time where there's increasing diversity. And a lot of people sincerely believe that increasing diversity should be followed by less diversity when it comes to speech. So the more multicultural, the more diverse our society, the less freedom of expression we need. And I'm trying to argue for the opposite point of view. 

But the problems, some would argue, that the diversity of religion is leading to this push to have religion be dominant in a secular society?

I mean, we have to be very clear about that. One of the great achievements of the enlightenment in Europe and the United States is the separation of church and state. And there can be no negotiation about these principles. That's a foundation of our society.

‘I think that in a democracy, you have many rights. But the only right you should not have in a democracy is a right not to be offended. The price we pay for living in a legal democracy is that from time to time, people may publish or say something that we may find offensive.’

Flemming Rose

What would you say to the enormous majority of Muslims who repudiated the Paris attack who said it was a horror but say that they can't stand with Charlie, that freedom of speech has to come with responsibilities?

I would quote Aryeh Neier, who used to be the president of the ACLU here. He, as a Holocaust survivor, defended the right of Marxists to march through Skokie in Illinois in 1977, and he wrote a very good book called “Defending My Enemy” — that is, yes, you may disagree with what Charlie Hebdo did, but as long as it is within the law, you have to accept their right to do it. You may risk if you don't do that, soon or later, that others will come after you and apply the same principles that you would like to apply to Charlie Hebdo to yourself.

On the other hand, if you look at Charlie Hebdo or if you look at the cartoons you published, are you at all concerned that it could fuel anger against Muslims and Islamophobia in the West?

I think “Islamophobia” is a very tricky term. I agree that discrimination against Muslims is taking place, and we have to fight that. But if you want to use the term “Islamophobia,” it has to imply only if Muslims are not able and given the possibility to exercise their rights as citizens in a democratic society. And as far as Europe is concerned, at least in Denmark, Muslims do have all the same rights as everybody else. And I think that is very important. That you make a distinction between real discrimination when it comes to jobs, housing, access to all kind of benefits and this and that. And on the other hand, offensive speech, which do not prevent Muslims from exercising their rights in a democracy — that's the price you have to pay, that you may be offended from time to time.

The last time we spoke, I asked you if you would have done what you did, in publishing these cartoons back then. That conversation took place before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, so I will ask you again. Given everything you have now seen over what is almost a decade, would you do it again?

And I will give you the same answer. If I say I would not do it again, I will tell the extremists that if you intimidate, threaten and commit violence enough, I will do exactly as you please. On the other hand, if I tell you that I would do it again tomorrow, I think a lot of people will think I'm crazy. And as I said earlier, we did not republish Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. We caved in to intimidation. And I don't think that we will get less intimidation because of that. Because we are telling the extremists that it works. That we just find ourselves in a very difficult security situation.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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