Is there a climate of self-censorship regarding Islam? Has fear led artists and writers to avoid discussion and criticism of Islam? So it seemed to the journalists at Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest daily paper, in the fall of 2005. To assess the situation, the newspaper invited artists to submit cartoons about Islam. The reaction to the twelve cartoons that were published? Protests, boycotts, deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies. Some 200 people are thought to have died in the protests. The “cartoons crisis” had gone global.
The aftershocks continued. Just two examples: Yale University Press decided to cut every image depicting Mohammad from a new scholarly book analyzing the cartoon crisis. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who depicted Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, was driven into hiding, escaping two attempts on his life.
What is the situation like today? That was one of the questions I put to Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned and published the cartoons. He has written a perceptive and riveting new book about the crisis, the reaction to it, and the future of free speech. The book’s title hints at the direction of the current trend: The Tyranny of Silence. Our conversation ranged widely. A few of the issues we touched on: what incidents prompted the commissioning of the cartoons, how self-censorship operated under the Soviet regime and the parallels to today, what lies behind the push to outlaw “defamation of religion,” and why the invalid term “Islamophobia” is so destructive.
When the cartoons crisis erupted, ARI launched a campaign to defend the freedom of speech as an absolute. We published articles explaining what’s at stake, we sponsored panel discussions on university campuses (at which the cartoons were displayed), and we published the cartoons online, when major news outlets in the U.S. had refused to do so.
Image: Ruggiero Scardigno via Shutterstock.com