December 9, 2008

The Controversialist

By: Jacob Laksin

For someone who inadvertently triggered a clash of civilizations, Flemming Rose doesn’t look much like a provocateur. With his salt-and-pepper hair, college sweatshirt, and jeans over sneakers, the cultural editor of the largest Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten, seems disarmingly casual, a far cry from the frothing “Islamophobe” and “far-right” reactionary—never mind the “Straussian neocon Mossad agent”—that some of his more intemperate detractors imagine him to be. But such is the reputation that has shadowed the mild-mannered Rose since September 30, 2005, when he published the 12 now-famous (or infamous) cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that took the world by storm.

By now, the basic outlines of what the Danes call the Karikaturkrisen are well known. Troubled by what he saw as a growing tendency toward self-censorship in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe, especially on the sensitive subject of Islam, Rose commissioned 40 Danish artists to submit drawings of the prophet. Contrary to later accusations, the idea was not to insult Muslim believers but to test whether freethinking artists were prepared to privilege a religious taboo over freedom of speech. Rose made his point. Revealingly, only 12 artists participated, submitting drawings that ranged from lampoons of the center-right paper to a drawing of the prophet with a bomb-shaped turban.

Then all hell broke loose. Although the initial response was muted, by February 2006, the cartoons, distorted to destructive effect by a group of Danish imams, had stoked a backlash in the Muslim world. Rage-fueled riots killed 139 and injured 823; Danish embassies were torched in Lebanon and Syria; and Denmark was hit with boycotts and diplomatic sanctions from Muslim countries. Whatever one’s views of the offending cartoons, they were, by any objective measure, the deadliest drawings ever published.

All of which raises the question: Knowing in advance what the reaction would be, would Rose still have published the cartoons? “It’s a hypothetical question, and usually I don’t answer that kind of question,” he says. “But let me put it this way. If I say I wouldn’t have done it, I send a powerful message to those behind the violence and intimidation: ‘If you just make enough noise, kill and threaten people, then we’ll do exactly as you demand.’ That would be a very wrong signal because we know from experience that if you give in to intimidation you will not get less but more intimidation. On the other hand, I don’t think that a cartoon is worth a single human life, so if I say, ‘Yes, I’d do exactly the same again,’ I may look like a cold-hearted and cynical individual that doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions.”

It’s a diplomatic answer, and an unsatisfying one. So it is a testament to Rose’s commitment to free speech—and also, perhaps, to his comfort with controversy—that he needs no prompting to give a more unequivocal response. “I do not regret having published the cartoons,” he says.

* * * *

Rose knows the costs of such firmness personally. At the height of the violence, when Palestinians in Gaza burned Danish flags to cries of “War on Denmark!” and “Death to Denmark!” there was little doubt as to which Dane was at the top of the hit list. Even in Denmark, Rose has had his share of close calls. A September 2006 police sweep in the largely immigrant suburb of Odense netted a nine-man terrorist cell. It later emerged that one of the men, a Danish-born convert to Islam, had hoped to build a remote-controlled car bomb to crash into Rose’s home. And just this past February, police arrested three men, one from Morocco and two from Tunisia, who had planned to attack Jyllands-Posten’s offices in order to kill Rose. Such are the perceived perils of being Flemming Rose that a Dane of the same name (there are several) decided to change his name rather than risk a fatal misunderstanding.  

Unlike some of his more zealous critics, however, Rose is uneager to be a martyr.  If anything, he wants to downplay the dangers to his life. He is not under police protection, he says, although he does have a specially assigned number he can call in case of emergency. As for his downtown Copenhagen office, it doesn’t feel even a little like the bunker of the embattled journalist that headlines suggest Rose to be. Empty but for a computer desk and stacks of packing boxes, it feels abandoned. And, in a way, it is: Rose is currently on leave from Jyllands-Posten, working on a book about the fallout from the cartoons and the threats to free speech around the world.

It is a story that the 50-year-old Rose feels especially qualified to write, and his experiences since 2005 are only part of the reason why. In fact, his controversial decision to publish the cartoons flows logically from a worldview—unafraid of taboos, unapologetic in its defense of free speech, confident of the resilience of Western democracy—that began taking shape in the then-Soviet Union a quarter century ago.

* * * *

It all started in Moscow. In 1980, Rose became one of the first foreign students to attend the city’s esteemed Institute of Russian Literature. “I arrived at a very strange time,” Rose recalls. “It wasn’t long after the Soviets’ defeat in Afghanistan, and the authorities were not eager to place Western students at the universities because they might interact with Soviet citizens.” But official efforts at isolation failed, and Rose received an education he would never forget. “I arrived with an open mind,” he says. It didn’t stay that way for long.

Despite holding a foreign passport, Rose found that he was not immune from the daily struggles of Soviet citizens. Living in a cramped communal apartment—the same oppressive arrangement as other Russians—taught Rose a valuable lesson about political freedom. There was no privacy from the neighbors, and the constant government surveillance of his Russian girlfriend (and future wife), an editor at the Soviet news agency TASS, assured him that the personal always would be the political. “I learned more about the Soviet system and Marxist-Leninist ideology from living in that apartment than from all the Sovietology I read. There was no space of sovereignty around the individual, and the state had every right to invade personal space. That was a crucial experience for me. It turned me into a Lockean liberal.”

And a committed Cold Warrior. On returning to Denmark in 1981, Rose took a job at the Danish Refugee Council. There he forged friendships with arriving Soviet dissidents, who confirmed the abuses of the system they had fled. “Everything I learned about the Soviet Union I learned from dissidents in Western Europe,” Rose remarks. Even today, Rose boasts an impressive grasp of Russian dissident literature. Asked about his influences, he name-checks everyone from anti-communist icon Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to lesser-known figures like Kronid Lubarsky, the Soviet astrophysicist and political prisoner who spent five years in Soviet camps after being arrested by the KGB in 1972.

Not all of Rose’s contacts at the refugee council were equally inspirational. It was there that he first encountered political extremists from the Muslim world, such as Marxist PKK guerillas from Kurdistan. “I saw that the rest of the world isn’t like the West, and so I wasn’t naïve about the fact that radicals lived in Denmark,” Rose says. What he could not have foreseen is that he would one day be at the center of an explosive debate between radical Islam and the West.

That debate had not even begun when Rose returned to Russia in 1990, as a foreign correspondent for the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende, to cover the first Chechen war. Back then, the breakaway republic was not yet the nursery of Saudi-sponsored jihadism it would become just a few years later. “Islam was not a dimension” in the war, Rose remembers. “The Chechens didn’t read the Koran—they drank vodka; they listened to Western music.”

Things had changed dramatically when the Chechen war flared anew in 1996. Having covered both conflicts, Rose was well-placed to observe the malign influence of foreign Islamists on Chechen society. But if the changes—including the proliferation of hard-line Sharia courts, televised executions of petty criminals, and bans on alcohol—were startling, there were still another surprise in store. Among the ranks of militants who poured into the region in search of rigid religious rule and a martyr’s death were fellow Danes.

One such Nordic holy warrior was a Danish advisor to Chechen militants going by the nom de guerre Ibn Wahab. Interviewing Wahab in a Russian prison, Rose discovered that he had taken six wives, three of them Russian girls, naming one Aisha after the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad. “That was when I was first confronted with radical Islam,” Rose says. “I concluded then that it was a totalitarian ideology, very aggressive and framing itself in the same us-vs.-them dichotomy as Nazism and Stalinism.”

Looking back on it, Rose thinks that the Chechen conflict made him skeptical of the underdog-is-always-right mentality in vogue, then as now, among the Western intelligentsia. “I still think that Russia is primarily responsible for Chechen discontent,” he says. “But there was a view that the small party in the conflict is always right, and I see that as a kind of intellectual surrender.”

* * * *

If the phrase sounds deliberate, it is. It is aimed, generally, at the media and political elites who sought to apologize to the Muslim world on Denmark’s behalf in the wake of the cartoon riots. Counted in this category might be Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights who was so traumatized by the “alarming” cartoons that she launched an investigation into “racism” and “disrespect for belief” and demanded an official explanation from the Danish government. It also could include the Vatican, which announced that freedom of speech “cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers,” and the U.S. State Department, whose spokesmen urged “tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices,” neglecting to consider whether all such beliefs and practices were in fact deserving of respect.

It might even include Rose’s own Jyllands-Posten, which in January 2006 published a statement on its website explaining that the cartoons were not “intended to be offensive…but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.” (Rose is quick to note that the statement was not his decision; moreover, since the paper did not apologize for the original publication, “it didn’t change its fundamental position. We still insisted on our right to publish offensive material, [and] we did not withdraw the cartoons.”)

More specifically, though, when Rose invokes “intellectual surrender,” he has one man in mind: the journalist Tøger Seidenfaden. The editor of the left-leaning Politiken, Denmark’s second largest newspaper after Jyllands-Posten, Seidenfaden was one of the earliest opponents of the decision to publish the cartoons, anticipating much of the criticism leveled at Rose and Denmark in the West. Both men remain friendly, a testament to Denmark’s close-knit society, and even share a common history as anti-communists. But on the defining issues of the day—the cartoons and questions of Muslim immigration and integration more broadly—the two leading figures of the Danish commentariat find themselves on hotly sparring sides.

I meet Seidenfaden in his Politiken office overlooking Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen’s tourist-thronged and noisily cosmopolitan City Hall square. On a warm early-August morning, the square is a cacophony of foreign accents, mostly from EU countries but lately also from newly moneyed Russia and China. The square has also been the site of more ominousscenes. In February 2006, a clash erupted here between Muslims and far-left activists on the one side and right-wing Danes on the other, in which 179 were arrested. In July of that year, amid Israel’s war with the Lebanese Hezbollah, the pan-Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir held a demonstration here. By some accounts, the event quickly degenerated into an anti-Semitic hate fest, with speakers denouncing Israel as a “terrorist state” and extolling the murder of Jews.

Despite having a literal window onto these proceedings, Seidenfaden insists that the threat of Islamic radicalism in Denmark is vastly overstated. As for the cartoons, he believes they have done nothing to illuminate the issue. Yes, he concedes, there are some extremists in the Danish Muslim community. But Seidenfaden maintains that when Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons the “atmosphere of a threat was nonexistent.” Seen in this way, the cartoons were a gratuitous insult to Muslims. “I am a believer in provocation,” Seidenfaden says. “But you have to think about the context. Jyllands-Posten is the biggest newspaper in the country. And publishing the cartoons was an act of provocation of the strong against the weak. This makes a big difference.”

As one might expect, Rose is not in agreement on these points. If free speech means anything at all, he says, paraphrasing George Orwell, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear. “I acknowledge that certain things are sacred to people and I acknowledge that some people have been offended [by the cartoons]. But the fact of the matter is that we live in a globalized world, with complex societies where people have different taboos. If we all agree to respect each other’s taboos it will greatly limit freedom around the world. If we can’t poke fun at people who are doing ridiculous things in the name of religion, who are we?”

Rose takes still sharper exception to the suggestion that Islam should be exempt from criticism or satire because Muslims are a minority in Denmark. “There are 200,000 Muslims in Denmark” out of a population of 5.4 million, he says. “It’s a minority but it’s the largest minority in the country.” Indeed, as 3.5 percent of the Danish population, Muslims make up the country’s largest religious community after the official Lutheran Church. In any case, Rose counters, Muslim leaders have had ample access to the media. He points to the late Imam Abu Laban of the Copenhagen-based Islamic Society of Denmark, a prominent critic of the cartoons who helped incite Muslim tempers abroad and “had more access to the media than any other group.”

For all their disagreements, the differences between Seidenfaden and Rose can be exaggerated. Free-speech absolutist though he is, Rose admits that he had qualms about publishing the cartoons and that he deliberated with his assistant editors for several weeks before making the decision. Only a pattern of what he considers unmistakable self-censorship—most prominently the complaint of Danish author Käre Bluitgen that he could find no illustrator for his children’s book about the life of Muhammadpersuaded Rose to go ahead with the publication.

As for Seidenfaden, though he has been a steadfast critic of Rose’s decision to publish the cartoons, he freely admits that his own paper has printed them, not once, but 17 times since 2005. While Seidenfaden says that he published the cartoons as a news story rather than a political statement, the nuances of the editorial process have gotten lost in translation. This June, when a Jordanian prosecutor subpoenaed Danish journalists to appear in his country on charges of offending Islam, Seidenfaden was named along with Rose and several of the cartoonists. 

* * * *

Even as the cartoons continue to enrage abroad, they have had some salutary effects back in Denmark. For one thing, the role of Danish imams in inciting Muslim outrage against Denmark has highlighted the extent to which many immigrants—particularly those from countries like Somalia, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraqremain estranged from mainstream Danish society. “In the ’70s and ’80s it was thought that immigrants [from Muslim countries] would develop the same way as other immigrants,” says Geert Laier Christensen, a research director at the Copenhagen-based libertarian think tank CEPOS. “But the new consensus across the political spectrum—even in the socialist parties—is that this is just not true.”

In deference to this new consensus, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s Liberal-Conservative coalition has sought to stanch the flow of immigrants and to integrate those already residing in Denmark. Thus, the overall number of immigrants from third-world countries has been reduced for the first time in decades, a belated attempt to absorb the restive ethnic ghettos that grew out of unchecked immigration and multicultural aloofness.

More controversially, the government has taken on cultural practices seen as discouraging integration. A prime example is the Islamic tradition of arranged and forced marriages. In response, the government has passed a so-called “24-rule” law restricting Danes from bringing in spouses from outside Denmark unless both partners are over the age of 24. Because these marriages take place primarily among young Muslims, the 24-year rule is an attempt to limit these practices without stigmatizing the Muslim community. Another component of the law requires Danes to prove that they have not withdrawn social security payments for at least one year and to post a $10,000 bond before their spouses can join them. The hope is that Danes (including naturalized immigrants) who can support themselves also will be able to provide for their immigrant spouses. And while welfare payments remain generous, few dispute that the politics of immigration and integration have changed. “It’s a completely different ballgame,” CEPOS’s Christensen observes.

Equally significant, the cartoons have led to the public emergence of a previously overlooked group: moderate, pro-democratic Muslims. In the past, the most vocal figures of Denmark’s Islamic community were often the most extreme, effectively drowning out more temperate voices. “If someone calls me a bad Christian, I won’t have sleepless nights,” says Rose “In the Muslim community that can be very intimidating.” But when a group of clerics seized on the cartoons to appoint themselves official spokesmen of Danish Muslims, fissures began to form. Rose points out that the leading group of moderate Muslims in Denmark, the Democratic Muslims Network led by Syrian-born parliamentarian Nasser Khader, was founded in February 2006 to distance itself from the angry rioters condemning Danish democracy. “They revealed a whole new reality that people did not see,” Rose says.

Rose doesn’t claim credit for these developments. But he does see his refusal to recant in the face of foreign threats as a personal achievement. As is his wont, he explains by giving an example from the Soviet Union. “One of the reasons it never came to my mind to give in to the intimidation was the example of Soviet regime, and the way it would break people down,” Rose says.

This also explains Rose’s curious choice of recent reading: an anthology of protocols from the Soviet Politburo, transcribed in the 1960s and published in 1994. Of particular interest to Rose are the denunciations of dissidents like Solzhenitsyn, who in one case is deplored for “blaspheming” against the Soviet state. “When I go back and read this, it obviously informed my approach to the cartoons,” Rose says. “I think the parallel is obvious. It’s the idea that there are some things that you just don’t talk about,” whether it’s Soviet human-rights abuses or fundamentalist Islam.

The point is well-taken. But after spending time with the man whose name, for better or worse, is synonymous with controversy, you suspect that there is something else besides his belief in free speech that drives him. The suspicion is confirmed when Rose reveals—startlingly, in light of recent history—that the book he is working on about free speech and the cartoons will not include the 12 illustrations that started it all. How can that be? Rose shrugs his shoulders. “It’s no longer controversial,” he says.

-Jacob Laksin is a 2007 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.


Shares 0