'I'm Not Willing to Sacrifice Freedom of Expression on the Altar of Cultural Diversity': Muhammad Cartoon Publisher Flemming Rose Talks about Immigration, Free Speech, and Toleration

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, May 2017 | Go to article overview

'I'm Not Willing to Sacrifice Freedom of Expression on the Altar of Cultural Diversity': Muhammad Cartoon Publisher Flemming Rose Talks about Immigration, Free Speech, and Toleration


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


IN 2005, WHILE an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose commissioned a series of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad. His goal was to highlight the dangers of self-censorship in an age of political correctness. The response was explosive: Islamic terrorists greeted the cartoons with violence, riots, and attacks on western embassies that left at least 200 dead, according to The New York Times. Rose has been under threat ever since, frequently traveling with bodyguards. Yet he remains one of the planet's most committed and articulate defenders of free speech, the open society, and the enlightenment values of tolerance and universal rights.

Rose sat down with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie in February to talk about his book The Tyranny of Silence (Cato), a defense of his decision to publish the cartoons and a guide to unfettered expression in the 21st century.

Reason: Since the Muhammed cartoons came out, we've seen any number of violent reprisals against free speech, most catastrophically the gunning down of a good part of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. We've also seen the continuing rise of hate speech laws in Europe and a stultifying climate on college campuses. Are things good for free speech right now or not?

Rose: If we take the long-term historical view, free speech is in better shape than in the 17th century or the 18th century or even the beginning of the 20th century. No doubt about that. But if we look in a shorter-term perspective--let's say the past 20,30 years--I think free speech is in worse shape. You can see it when you check out statistics. Freedom House puts out a report every year; Reporters Without Borders in Europe does the same thing. And the trend is the same all over. For the past approximately 10 years, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are in decline.

I think that is the new thing. We know China. We know Cuba. We know North Korea, Russia, where things usually are in bad shape. But the new trend is that freedom of expression is in decline even in Western Europe.

What forms does it take, say, in Western Europe? Are there legal actions against reporters, or is it a chilled atmosphere where people just don't talk about certain things?

It's both. In the first half of 2015, France--of all countries in the world--was the most dangerous place to live for a journalist. That's, of course, not the case anymore, but a couple of years ago, I interviewed the most famous French cartoonist, Plantu, who works for Le Monde. I asked him when was the last time a cartoonist was killed in Europe, and he couldn't recall. The only name he came up with was a Palestinian cartoonist who was killed in London in 1987, by either the Mossad or the [Palestine Liberation Organization]. Even Honore Daumier, the most famous French cartoonist who worked in the 19th century--he was sent to jail several times but he came out and he continued mocking the king. He was not killed. He was not physically threatened.

Where are the threats coming from? Are they exclusively coming out of religious intolerance? Is it Islamic jihadists? It is broader than that?

It's far broader than that. It has to do with our ability to manage diversity in a world that is getting increasingly globalized. The debate of free speech is going on in a qualitatively new situation driven by migration, the fact that people move across borders in numbers [and] at a speed never seen before in the history of mankind. The consequence being that almost every society in the world right now is getting more and more diverse in terms of culture and religion. That's one factor.

The second factor is digital technology. The fact that what is being published somewhere is being published everywhere and people can react to speech across cultures, but in a situation where speech loses context and can be manipulated and exploited and political, and so that's what happened to me. …

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