Danish Editor Reflects on Muhammad Cartoon Controversy in New Book

Nearly a decade after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed 12 controversial cartoons on the theme of Islam and free expression, a book by the editor who commissioned the illustrations has finally made its way into print in the United States. Last week Flemming Rose, now the foreign editor at Jyllands-Posten, spoke to Michael Cavna of the Washington Post’s “Comic Riffs” blog about his intentions in publishing the cartoons, his reaction to the controversy that ensued, and the difficulty he had in finding an American publisher for his book.

Rose said that when he asked 12 different cartoonists to “draw the Prophet [Muhammad] as they saw him,” his aim was not to offend Muslims but to “integrate them into the larger ‘Danish tradition of satire because [they] are part of our society, not strangers.’ ” Nevertheless, the gesture clashed with a prohibition on depictions of Muhammad that is deeply ingrained in some interpretations of Islam. Initially the cartoons drew protest from Muslims in Denmark and other European countries, but by the next year they were cited as motivation for attacks on Danish overseas, as well as death threats against Rose and some of the cartoonists.

Despite the violent response from some extremist factions, Rose says he harbors no regrets over publishing the cartoons. He compares the current atmosphere to clashes over Christian doctrine during the Enlightenment:

People took on those taboos. It was uncomfortable and not always pleasant. Christians had to accept that this is the price you have for living in a democracy. People from time to time will say something that is offensive to your religion. It’s a painful process, but I don’t think you solve anything by shutting it off.

Although the Danish version of his book The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech was published in 2010, Rose struggled to find a U.S. publisher. The book was ultimately published this year–without the cartoons–by the libertarian Cato Institute. (Incidentally, an academic work on the controversy published by Yale University Press in 2009 also omitted the cartoons.)

Rose says that when he published the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten, he truly believed that one Danish newspaper could destroy a cultural taboo that’s existed for centuries. He’s since realized that expectation was naïve, but remains convinced that it only means even more cartoonists need to be unafraid of challenging the status quo: “Now I understand you need growth and support in society in order to fight intimidation. You need thousands and thousands [of artists] to do the same thing in order to counter that fear.”

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.