Flemming Rose, the former cultural editor of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which controversially published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the mid-2000s, believes the incident highlighted the impact globalisation and migration were having on free speech.
Mr Rose was the keynote speaker at an Institute of Race Relations event at the River Club in Observatory on Thursday May 11. Last year, he was disinvited by UCT vice-chancellor Max Price to deliver the annual TB David lecture after having earlier accepted an invitation from the university’s academic freedom committee.
Explaining why he withdrew the invite to Mr Rose, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, Dr Price said in measuring the justifiability of any action which sought to further a right or freedom, the impact on the immediate community would weigh heavily with the reviewing authority.
The UCT executive had, he said, considered the context of UCT in 2016, during which protests were frequent, and had been concerned whether Mr Rose’s appearance would provoke conflict on campus, the security risks of presenting the lecture, and that his appearance might retard the advancement of other academic freedoms on campus.
However at the River Club, Mr Rose called the decision to disinvite him an “intellectual disgrace”, adding that Dr Price had quoted from people who had distorted his work, rather than reference him as the primary source.
“The cartoon crisis started in mid-September 2015. An author had written a children’s book on the prophet, but was having difficulty in finding illustrators for the project,” he explained.
“The one person who was willing to illustrate the book would only do so anonymously, so here you already had self-censorship. This illustrator cited the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie as well as a film-maker who had made a documentary about Islam and had been killed by a young Muslim in 2004. This was on the front pages of every Danish newspaper.”
For Mr Rose and his team, this was the starting point, and they soon began asking sources about censorship when it came to Islam. Their idea was to come up with a new angle on the story, and this took the form of inviting cartoonists to depict how they viewed the prophet.
“The first thing we did was to depict Muhammad in words, then to draw him. We were still considering whether to publish, but then several things happened.
“At the Tate gallery in London, a decision was taken to remove an exhibit because of its content. It showed a Bible, Qur’an and Jewish scriptures torn to pieces in a glass container.
“At the World Art Museum in Sweden, an artist depicted a man and woman having sex under a quote from the Qur’an. There were complaints from Muslims and the artwork was removed.
“Then a book was published with references to Islam, and the translators also wanted anonymity. Two more incidents occurred in that week. One of the most famous comedians in Denmark said he had no problem mocking the Bible, but did so when it came to the Qur’an.
“Finally, the Danish prime minister met with a group of imams, who called on him to use his influence to get more positive coverage of Islam in Denmark.
“All this happened within eight days, and these events influenced our decision to publish,” Mr Rose said.
Conceding that he did not imagine the kind of reaction the newspaper received, he emphasised that it was “not true” that for
1400 years there had been no depictions of the prophet, according to some Muslim critics.
He said in the 1400s there had been such depictions in Turkey, and in Tehran, Iran, people could buy images of Muhammad on the streets.
“On the day the newspaper came out, we received a call from a newsagent that he would no longer sell our paper. But it all really erupted in January 2006. If you look at where the protests occurred – Nigeria, Palestine, Egypt and the Middle East – the cartoons were being exploited by political forces.
“For example, the cartoons became convenient for (then Egyptian president Hosni) Mubarak, as he could show the Muslim Brotherhood, which was allowed to enter the electoral process, that he was for Muslims and he could control the Danes by rebuking them for the cartoons.”
Mr Rose was shocked that in some cases, critics had not even seen the cartoons.
“A year after the demonstrations, a reporter asked one of the guys who had organised the protest in Iran if he had ever seen the cartoons. He admitted he had not, but was asked whether he would like to. He said he would, but when he looked at them, his first question was why one of the depictions which showed Muhammad with a turban on his head looked like an (Indian) sikh.”
Mr Rose said with increasing numbers of Muslims in Denmark, he believed publishing the cartoons would actually serve to integrate them into religious satire, which was part of Danish culture.
“We were not marginalising Muslims. We were saying, ‘You are here to stay and are part of our society’.”
He said the incident showed the impact of globalisation arising from the internet, as people in small towns thousands of kilometres away were now able to react politically to something that occurred in another part of the world. Migration the other factor, as people were now able to move back and forth between countries easily, which presented a “big challenge” for integration into a country.
“This means most societies in the world are becoming multi-religious, creating a lot of tension because people in the same society all have different values. The key question is how we manage this growing diversity without compromising free speech, freedom of religion and the right to gather.”
He said if a person could not publish images of Muhammad, then they also could not depictions of Jesus. But then that law should also be applied to “secular gods” like Karl Marx or Milton Friedman, he added.
In his view, the key limitation to freedom of speech should be incitement to violence. He also believed people should not have the right to say what they wanted about another person’s private life.
Among the audience was South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro.
Mr Shaprio who has found himself on Isis and al-Qaeda hit lists on account of his cartoons, wanted to find out Mr Rose’s views on what was meant by intolerance.
He said many people were not tolerant of cartoons, but it seemed to him that religious people were deliberately looking to point out works which people should take offence to.
Mr Rose said the key was to support the engagement of all role-
players in civil society and that in a truly free society, people had to accept and live with the things they hated. “You have to accept that people will cause you to be offended without resorting to violence. We also need to establish a differentiation between words
and deeds. In a dictatorship, you criminalise words as if they are deeds.”