Still Rotten

Five years after the "cartoon crisis," the precarious state of free speech in Denmark

Five years after the infamous —cartoon crisis,— many Danes still seem confused about what constitutes free speech and why it is important to defend. The Danish public is tired of discussing the case, worried that the debate is becoming a sectarian issue between left and right rather than a rallying point for shared values. Meanwhile, the pressure on free speech continues with threats of violence, lawsuits, and changes in international law.

The —cartoon crisis— began in the fall of 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, following a number of incidents in which illustrators refused to draw the Muslim prophet for fear of violent response from fundamentalists, published 12 cartoons, some of which depicted the prophet Mohammed. Through an unforeseeable chain of events, including the provocative actions of a group of Danish imams, Jyllands-Posten—s publication sparked a global crisis that culminated in early 2006 with violent demonstrations and attacks on Danish embassies in Syria and Lebanon and riots from Nigeria to Indonesia. Death threats and terrorist plots were directed against Flemming Rose, the editor at Jyllands-Posten who conceived the cartoon publication, and the illustrator Kurt Westergaard, who drew the now-infamous bomb-in-the-turban cartoon. Earlier this year, Westergaard was attacked in his home by a would-be axe murderer but escaped by hiding in a panic room.

While the threats are still real and the —cartoon crisis— refuses to die, a solid majority of Danes support the right to publish the cartoons, as did the Danish chief prosecutor and the Danish courts, which have turned down requests from Muslim organizations to prosecute Jyllands-Posten for blasphemy, hate speech, and defamation.

But still, the cartoon crisis has not resulted in as much clarity about the value of freedom of expression and the inherent danger of criminalizing —offensive— expressions as one might have wished. In a recent survey, 69 percent of the Danish population supported keeping the country—s hate-speech laws on the books, despite the fact that they criminalize offensive stereotypes—the very complaint that many Muslims leveled against the cartoons.

Even more worryingly, freedom of expression has become a proxy debate for those on both the left and right, often becoming a debate about being either “for” or “against” Muslim immigration. On the multicultural left in Denmark, many leading figures still view the cartoons at best as an unnecessary and gratuitous offence against Muslims and, at worst, as a form of hate-speech comparable to the infamous anti-Semitic cartoons found in Der St—rmer. That numerous foiled terrorist attempts (both by Muslims in Denmark and abroad) and death threats against Kurt Westergaard and Flemming Rose have proven Jyllands-Posten—s point about self-censorship seems entirely lost on this segment of the Danish population.

Earlier this year the leading center-left newspaper Politiken—among the most critical of the cartoons—entered into a settlement agreement with a Saudi lawyer claiming to represent 95,000 descendants of the prophet Muhammad. In the agreement, struck immediately following the foiled terror plot against Westergaard, Politiken apologized for having offended Muslims by republishing the cartoons. Had the newspaper really just come to realize that it had offended Muslims and needed to make amends, as editor T—ger Seidenfaden purported, or was the newspaper mainly responding to a very real threat of violence and legal action? No matter their real motivation, all critics of the cartoons would be faced with this uncomfortable question: Are you acting out of respect or fear?

Leading Danish human rights organizations, such as the government-sponsored Danish Institute for Human Rights, have expressed their disappointment that Jyllands-Posten was not prosecuted under hate-speech laws. At the same time, Denmark is facing pressure from international organizations like the United Nations, where the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its acolytes push relentlessly for stricter limits on criticism of religion.

At a recent conference in Copenhagen, featuring Flemming Rose as well as Muslim bloggers, journalists, and human rights activists, a prominent Danish anti-racism lawyer accused Rose of having launched an attack on a vulnerable minority by commissioning the cartoons. U.S.-based Egyptian blogger Mona Eltahawy spoke of the need to defend the right to offend whether through cartoons or even burning the Quran and that Muslims should be treated as adults not —five year olds apt to throwing tantrums.— Asmaa Al-Ghoul, a Palestinian blogger from Gaza, lectured the bemused Danish lawyer that Hamas— religious fundamentalism in Gaza shows what happens when religion is put before freedom of expression. These replies reveal the suicidal course of Europe—s multicultural left who view people as primarily belonging to various inescapable religious or cultural groups, rather than as individual citizens with equal rights before the law.

Not only do the multiculturalists fail to protect freedom of expression against the increasing threat of violence from religious fundamentalists—which is most often directed at the dissident voices of Muslim gays, women, and apostates—but they infantilize Muslims by assuming that they require special protections from criticism and satire. This approach marginalizes the voice of liberal Muslims and legitimizes the voice of the fundamentalists already in ascendancy in many European countries. This problem is even more prevalent in neighboring Sweden, where the Danish debate on Islam and freedom of expression is widely regarded as a symptom of Danish racism and where the media colludes in keeping voices that are critical of multiculturalist immigration policies out of the public debate.

Unfortunately, the multiculturalist left is not the only problem. The conservative, nationalist right, which often adopted a libertarian defense of freedom of expression when defending the cartoons, has been less interested in upholding this right when it comes to issues that conflict with its own cherished values. In 2006, while the crisis was raging, the populist Danish People—s Party tabled a bill that would have criminalized the burning of Danish flags, since burning the flag would be offensive to Danes. In other words, almost exactly the same reason why Muslims in Denmark and abroad wanted to ban the cartoons.

In October, the leader of the Danish Peoples— Party, Pia Kj—rsgaard, proposed a ban on satellite dishes in order to block immigrants from viewing Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera which, she says, spread —hatred against the Western world.— When it became clear that the proposal would be impossible to implement, she suggested banning —only— the above-mentioned channels, including Internet access to them. Only a few months earlier, the Danish Peoples— Party tabled a (sensible) bill that would abolish Denmark—s hate-speech provision from the criminal code, arguing that only totalitarian states ban expression whereas democracies ban actions.

Very few Danes and Europeans—on either the right or left—seem to have realized that if freedom of expression does not include the right to reject, criticize, or ridicule the things and ideas we cherish the most, then freedom of expression will always be held ransom to the heckler—s veto. While most people feel that freedom of speech is great for themselves and those with whom they agree, the real point of freedom of speech is to protect even those kinds of speech we would rather not listen to—the views we find stupid, offensive, or reprehensible. Maybe the truth is that Danes see freedom of speech as such a self-evident value that they don—t see any reason to defend it. Who, after all, would want to take it away?

Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs for the Danish think tank CEPOS and spokesperson for Fri Debat, a Danish network committed to freedom of expression. Lars Hvidberg is a freelance journalist based in New York City and a member of Fri Debat. This column first appeared at