Danish newspaper editor says free speech is in jeopardy

Three years after a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that sparked international protests and attacks on Danish embassies, the images are still stirring controversy and forcing debate about free speech.

A group of editors who decided to run the cartoons are being tried on blasphemy charges in absentia in a Jordanian court. Death threats against the cartoonist who drew Muhammad with a bomb nested in his turban have forced the 73-year-old and his wife into hiding. And writers, artists and performers are stifling themselves from producing work that might provoke violence from Muslim extremists, said Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten.

During a talk Wednesday at Cubberley Auditorium, Rose addressed the continued fallout from the cartoons while railing against what he described as an international increase in hate-speech laws, including prohibitions in some countries against Holocaust denial theories.

"These insult laws—blasphemy laws that are intended to protect religious symbols or religious sensibilities—in fact are being used to silence critical voices around the world. I think we have to remove them. I think the only laws that are needed to be kept on the books when it comes to speech are laws that criminalizes incitement to violence."

And he rejected the notion raised by an audience member who said he was offended by the cartoons that their publication in 2005 was intended to ignite violence. Rose said he commissioned the 12 cartoons to draw attention to self-censorship, pointing to several instances in Europe of art exhibits being pulled and critics holding their tongues for fear of insulting Muslims.

"I didn't ask for satire. I didn't ask for mocking of the prophet," he said. "I wanted to see if there was self-censorship. I did not think it would be controversial."

But Islamic law generally prohibits any depiction of Muhammad for fear it could lead to idolatry, and Rose's forecast of little controversy proved to be way off.

A few weeks after the dozen cartoons ran in Jyllands-Posten, they were reprinted in Western newspapers and posted on the Internet. The global circulation touched off attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Iran and Lebanon and prompted boycotts of Danish products in Muslim countries.

Rose said the daily newspaper apologized for angering Muslims, but recently joined two other Danish newspapers in reprinting one of the cartoons to show they would not be intimidated after three people were arrested for allegedly plotting the assassination of its illustrator.

Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew Muhammad in a bomb-topped turban, has been in hiding since late last year, Rose said.

"They had a detailed map of his house and were hanging around his house," Rose said of the would-be assassins. "For the past six months, he's been in eight different places."

Meanwhile, Rose said that he and about a dozen other Danish editors who published Westergaard's cartoon face three years in prison if convicted of blasphemy in a Jordanian court. While none of the defendants have been present since the trial began late last month, Rose said officials in Jordan have threatened call for their extradition if they are found guilty.

The continued controversy has helped feed an extreme sensitivity to Islam that has resulted in the clampdown of free expression and a decrease in discussion about religious extremism.

"Ideas, cultures and religions should be questioned all the time," he said.