FIRE’s Exclusive Interview with Flemming Rose, Editor Behind Censored Mohammed Cartoons

By September 24, 2009

On September 24, 2009, FIRE interviewed Flemming Rose, cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, about the censorship by Yale University Press of the controversial Mohammed cartoons he commissioned in 2005 to be published in his newspaper as an exercise of freedom of expression. The cartoons and several other previously uncontroversial images of Mohammed were removed from the book about the cartoons themselves, The Cartoons That Shook the World, in a widely criticized exercise of cowardice in the face of nonexistent threats.

Here is the full interview by FIRE’s Adam Kissel.

[AK] Yale University Press, apparently under pressure from Yale University officials, banned both historical and recent images of Mohammed from a scholarly book about the worldwide controversy involving cartoons of Mohammed first published by your newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005. Do Yale’s actions do any damage to freedom of expression or academic freedom?

[FR] Yes, Yale’s censorship is of course very damaging. Not only to academic freedom and freedom of expression but also to those Muslims around the world who want to enjoy the same kind of liberties that we do. Why is this? Well, by legitimizing censorship in the U.S., Yale sends a strong signal to those forces in the Muslim world who use censorship to silence criticism of the powers that be. They also tell Muslim majorities that they can play the offense card to attack religious, ethnic or sexual minorities. I think censoring the cartoons is very discriminating against Muslims because Yale in fact is saying, “OK, we understand that you are so wild and uncivilized that we apply a different standard to you than we do to everybody else.” If I were a Muslim I’d be very offended by this.

Academic freedom is based on the right to free inquiry, and that fundamental precondition for any path-breaking academic work has been undermined by one the most prestigious academic publishers in the world. What kind of message does this send to other academic institutions?

We know from history that innovation requires an open and free environment. That’s why the Muslim world did well in the early Middle Ages, and that’s why things went wrong later, when the Muslim world stopped interacting with other civilizations and cultures.

Freedom of expression is based on the notion that we have the right to tell other people what they don’t want to hearto paraphrase Orwelland it implies a right to offend. If one gives in to intimidation, as Yale didnot even intimidation but an imagined intimidationone will not get less, but more intimidation. I am eager to hear if Yale’s consultants can provide even one example to the contrary. The problem with giving in to intimidation is that it tells the intimidators that intimidation works, so why on earth stop it?

The big irony of this case is that Jytte Klausen never thought the cartoon crisis was about freedom of expression. She thought it was about mocking a weak and voiceless minority. I wonder if she still holds to this belief.

[AK] To what extent do you see Yale’s actions as political or diplomatic rather than as part of the scholarly enterprise? Why do you think Yale would turn to political figures rather than scholars to determine whether certain images should appear in a scholar’s book?

[FR] Yes, it is indeed strange that a publisher turned to this kind of advice. Politicians and diplomats want a world of harmony and less noisethat’s their job. So their advice would always be to keep quiet and not disturb the public order. If politicians and diplomats were to decide what to publish in Denmark, I am sure that we wouldn’t be able to read a lot of books. But is this the kind of society we would like to live in?

During the cartoon crisis I was often asked whether Jyllands-Posten had consulted with experts on Islam before publishing the cartoons. I always thought that was a stupid question because it implies a kind of unity among experts that doesn’t exist. I think it’s OK to ask experts on Islam about their opinion and then publish it in the paper, but why should I license my right to publish to these people? And should editors around the world then consult experts on Christianity every time we consider publishing something about Christmas or the Passion of the Christ? When I criticize or mock the soccer team Real Madrid or Chelsea, should I then consult with experts on soccer fans? It’s absurd. Should the New York Times have consulted with generals and politicians before they published the Pentagon Papers?

They consulted with lawyers, and we could have done the same if we were not sure whether publishing the cartoons was within the law. I think Yale could have done the same. The fact of the matter is that the press originally wanted to publish these cartoons, but in the end they refrained from doing so because of bad advice about possible violence. That is self-censorship, not good manners. If Yale from the outset had said, “Oh, we are nice people here, we don’t want to offend anyone, so we will not publish those awful cartoons,” that would have been quite another thing.

Also, we and other Danish newspapers have republished Westergaard’s cartoon dozens of times without any reaction, so why on earth anticipate violence because of a reproduction of the newspaper page?

[AK] To what extent do you see Yale’s actions as involving a genuine concern about safety? Why should Yale act as a censor in order to yield censorship power to some of the most violent persons in the world?

[FR] See my comment above about giving in to intimidation. Yes, Al-Qaeda has been appointed editor-in-chief of Yale University Press, congratulations.

[AK] In 2007, you told Reason Magazine that you were planning to write a book about the cartoon crisis, planning to compare “the experience of the dissidents in the Soviet Union to what has happened to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji.” Are you still planning to do so? Do you intend to pursue publication by an American university press? Would you consider Yale a legitimate, objective press for such a book?

[FR] Yes, I am still in the process of writing this book. Hopefully it will be published in Denmark next year. In fact, I already have had contact with some top publishers in the U.S., but it was my impression-though I can’t prove it-that they were quite positive to the book, but when I said that I couldn’t imagine a book without the cartoons, they lost interest.

[AK] Earlier this year, the United States refused to attend a United Nations conference on racism because its outcome document was expected to be “out of line with core U.S. commitments to free speech,” particularly in the area of inciting violence by insulting religion. The outcome document, in fact, “[r]eaffirms that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law; [and] reaffirms further that all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts shall be declared offence punishable by law …” Are Yale’s actions similarly out of line with core U.S. commitments to free speech? Should the United States or other countries have laws that ban the dissemination of particular ideas?

[FR] The Durban II conference that you referred to is just the tip of the iceberg of what is going on at the UN, especially in the UN Human Rights Council, an institution that was created to protect human rights around the world, but now is being used as a tool to violate those same human rights in the name of fighting insults to religion and other kinds of sensibilities. It’s a disaster and, yes, Yale is providing an excellent cover for those dark forces that use offended religious feelings as an argument for clamping down on any dissenting voice. I am a big fan of the First Amendment tradition in the U.S., and I think that liberal democracies should follow the American example and get rid of all kinds of insult laws, blasphemy laws, laws protecting royal families against insult, Holocaust denial laws, laws against racist speech, and other kinds of so-called hate speech laws.