Reflections on Kurt Westergaard and Sharia Speech Suppression

The power of a cartoonist's pencil.

Among 12 caricatures of Islam’s prophet Muhammad published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005, “it was Westergaard’s image that would change my life,” the paper’s cultural editor Flemming Rose wrote. As he detailed in his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Kurt Westergaard, who died July 14, ignited a firestorm over the right to criticize Islam.

“I am not by nature a provocative person,” Rose related, despite a “global view of me as a dangerous and irresponsible troublemaker” for his role in unleashing what became known as the Cartoon Crisis. He had solicited cartoons of Muhammad in order to examine self-censorship and intimidation after Rose became aware of the difficulties confronting a Danish author who struggled to find illustrators willing to depict Muhammad in a children’s book. Almost immediately after publication, the Cartoon Crisis “spiraled into a violent international uproar, as Muslims around the world erupted in protest. Danish embassies were attacked, and more than 200 deaths were attributed to the protests.”

Muslim anger fixated on Westergaard’s drawing of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, something that for him began innocently enough. As Rose recalled, this “drawing was done on September 21, 2005, the same day that [Westergaard] and other members of the Danish cartoonists’ society received my letter inviting them to depict Muhammad.” Westergaard remembered:

The idea came to me immediately. The bomb is an age-old symbol of terrorism, and I thought if I use the Arabic inscription from the Islamic creed I’d be able to make the point clear that Islam is the terrorists’ spiritual ammunition….It took maybe an hour, all told. It was just another day at the office, really.

No stranger to controversy over his political cartoons, Westergaard merely felt that “I did a job. I’m entitled to my opinion, and what I expressed in the drawing is true.” Rose noted that Westergaard had been an equal opportunity offender of others, including Christians and the Jewish state of Israel. A previous Westergaard cartoon had “showed the Star of David with a bomb attached to it—reminiscent now of his depiction of Muhammad in 2005,” Rose noted.

Maria Gomez agreed with Westergaard that the “drawing expressed how I felt inside my heart. It represented a piece of reality.” This Spanish woman lost her husband in the March 11, 2004, bombing of Madrid commuter trains by an Al-Qaeda cell. She later appeared at the 2007 trial of the bombers wearing a T-shirt with Westergaard’s Muhammad caricature, only to be told by the trial judge that her shirt was prejudicial to the trial proceedings.

“After the attack, Maria developed a deeper interest in Islam,” Rose unsurprisingly observed. “When she was a child, her grandfather had been concerned about immigration into Spain from North Africa and the Middle East, and he had often told her about Spain’s long history with Islam.” This historic subjugation only made Gomez identify more with Westergaard’s drawing.

Analyzing this identification, Rose observed that the “glorification of Muhammad among Muslims may be perceived as offensive to those whose kin have been killed in Muhammad’s name.” For Gomez, a “group of Muslims had murdered her husband and destroyed her life.” “Should it not be considered a mark of civilization that in the face of barbaric violence, we respond only with a cartoonist’s pencil and a T-stint?” Rose contrasted.

Not all Muslims agreed, and Rose, Westergaard, and the Jyllands-Posten received numerous threats after 2005. From 2007 on, Westergaard lived under police protection, which saved his life on New Year’s Day 2010. A Somali man linked to al-Shabab terrorists broke into Westergaard’s home while he was there with his five-year-old granddaughter and almost stabbed him to death before he was able to flee to a previously installed safe room and call the police.

These threats took numerous tolls on Westergaard’s liberty. For example, he resigned his Jyllands-Posten freelance position in summer 2010 in order to spare his colleagues concerns for their safety, and the “attack so alarmed Westergaard’s hairdresser that she refused to cut his hair,” Rose noted. Yet Westergaard remained resolute, stating, “I’m an atheist, and I can only say that the reactions to my drawing have made me stronger in my faith.”

As Rose extensively documents, many other creative individuals have drawn a hypocritical line at offending Muslims, even though otherwise the “breaking of taboos is considered to be progressive.” “Examples of self-censorship, intimidation, and pressure exerted by governments and interest groups on free speech were legion, both before and after we published the cartoons,” he noted. The late American writer and free speech advocate Nat Hentoff described in the book’s forward a “growing amount of self-censorship among individuals and societies confronted by highly-combative cultures that allow no criticism of their sacred beliefs.”

The reaction of Danish public figures, European Union (EU) leaders, and United Nations (UN) officials during the Cartoon Crisis particularly disgusted Rose. Their pandering to Muslim representatives recalled the “fawning Danish media’s appeasement of the Nazis” in Denmark’s powerful neighbor Germany during the 1930s. “And how did the EU respond to that challenge to its fundamental values? Basically, it left Denmark high and dry,” Rose lamented.

This appeasement played into longstanding ambitions of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a grouping of 56 Muslim-majority nations, to suppress criticism of Islam globally. “The OIC has learned to adapt its demands to modern human rights jargon. It no longer demands the protection of Islam as such. Instead, it pleads protection of Muslims,” Rose wrote. Within this scheme, “Islamophobia” is an “ambiguous concept that had wormed its way into UN documents, covering a hodgepodge of legitimate criticism of religion and illegitimate discrimination against Muslims.”

The OIC thus joined in the chorus of those who accused that Jyllands-Posten had with the cartoons “misused its right to free speech to step on a group generally held in low esteem and often kicked around by the media,” Rose noted. These charges often invoked the “nonsense” that Europe’s Muslims had a position equivalent to the Jews in the 1930s in the face of rising Nazism. Some even suggested prosecuting Jyllands-Posten under Danish blasphemy or hate speech laws.

Such laws in Denmark and elsewhere made Rose worry that the “lack of a universally accepted definition of ‘hatred’ in international law” threatens free speech. Indeed, “intolerance and hatred toward others may, in many contexts, be quite legitimate emotions,” he noted. This includes Muslims and others “who commit violence, oppress women, persecute homosexuals, or indeed in any number of contexts involving gross injustice and abuse of power.”

Dissidents from Muslim backgrounds joined Rose in challenging the narrative of Jyllands-Posten and other critical voices as victimizers of Muslims, such as Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born Marxist in the United Kingdom. “I don’t think women who are stoned to death would see those responsible for their deaths as representatives of a persecuted and oppressed minority,” stated this woman who experienced Islamic theocracy’s rise to power in Iran in 1979. “People are slaughtered in the name of religion by Islamic governments and movements,” she added.

Namazie’s fellow Iranian émigré, University of Leiden law professor Afshin Ellian, meanwhile noted that “Muslims in Europe are a powerful minority with representatives in European parliaments and governments.” His fellow immigrant to Holland, the Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, also doubted that questioning Islam harmed Muslims. This ex-Muslim atheist noted that many of Europe’s disadvantaged Muslims, “who live in ghettos in Europe, are being brainwashed with totalitarian doctrine” promoted by a “rich oil state” such as Saudi Arabia.

Ali and others reminded Rose, who met his Russian wife during his many years as a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union, of the human rights struggle under Communism. “A line of continuity runs from Eastern Bloc dissidence through the triumph of freedom in the Soviet Union in 1989—1991 to the struggle for civil rights that is going on today” against a “new totalitarian movement based on Islam,” he noted. “Freethinking forces exist in the Islamic world, insisting on free religious exercise and freedom of speech,” such as the Iranians who emailed Rose in support of the cartoons’ publication.

Rose’s experience has given him the insight that “no fundamental distinction exists between offending the feelings of communists or Muslims.” He noted Politburo archives released after the Cold War that revealed the anger of Soviet leaders towards Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident whose multivolume Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s exposed Soviet tyranny. The denunciations of him by “communist high priests were riddled with religious metaphor.”

Rose accurately concluded that the Cartoon Crisis was “about how to coexist in a world in which old boundaries have crumbled.” Modern technology and immigration have created a globalized world where “societies everywhere are becoming more multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious.” Thus “if freedom and tolerance are to have a chance of surviving in the new world, we all need to develop thicker skin.”

More speech, not less, was Rose’s answer to inevitable culture clashes. “Words are a democracy’s way of dealing with conflict,” he noted. In reality, the “violence, destruction, and killings that occurred during the Cartoon Crisis took place in countries without freedom of speech and religion” such as Nigeria.

Rose admired how “freedom of speech enjoys a hallowed status in the United States.” Here in modern times racism had subsided precisely as free speech legal standards had liberalized. This “undermines those who in Europe insist on a causal link between legalization of hate speech on the one hand and racist violence and killings on the other.”

Similarly, the “widely touted claim that hate speech against the Jews was a primary cause of the Holocaust has no empirical support,” Rose noted. Weimar Republic authorities prosecuted numerous Nazi leaders under hate speech laws. Yet these legal processes merely offered Nazis a “glorious opportunity to bait the Jewish community in the bully pulpit of the court.”

Yet free speech advocate and lawyer Deborah Weiss, who met both Rose and Westergaard in the course of her work, understands how often isolated their views are. She observed in a recent conversation that free speech has only become more imperiled in the years since Westergaard’s cartoon. All the more reason to return to Rose’s arguments about the late Westergaard’s legacy.

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