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Editor Behind Cartoon Controversy Discusses Islam, Free Speech

'Jyllands-Posten' culture editor Flemming Rose (AFP) Journalist and author Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten," became famous internationally in 2006 for having commissioned and published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The controversy that ensued provoked violence in some countries and led to global debate on Islam and free speech. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten interviewed Rose about the recent reprinting of the drawings as well as his reaction to the just-released movie by radical Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

RFE/RL: When we last spoke at the start of 2006, your newspaper was embroiled in a firestorm of international protest after publishing satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. You said at the time that you believed there was a "culture war" going on between the West and Islam as well as within Islamic societies themselves, which must be discussed. Recently, a Danish citizen of Moroccan descent and two Tunisians were arrested in Denmark. They are suspected of planning to kill 73-year-old Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists. In response, several newspapers in Europe reprinted his drawing. Many Muslims have again protested the reprint -- including thousands of people in Afghanistan. So my question is: two years later, it seems things haven' t changed much have they?

Flemming Rose: Oh, they have definitely -- at least inside Denmark. The reason why 17 newspapers published the now famous cartoon of [the Prophet] Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, was because this isn't controversial anymore in Denmark. Just two weeks ago, a new opinion poll showed that two-thirds of the Danish population now thinks it was right to publish the Muhammad cartoons back in 2005. So the debate in Denmark has moved very far.

The problem is that Denmark is ahead, in this debate, compared to several other countries. So what's not controversial anymore in Denmark, even among the Muslim population, is still controversial in other parts of the world. But I would also like to stress that I do not think that this is a conflict between "them" and "us." There is a culture war going on inside Islam, but I think in Denmark and in Europe, we do have a conflict, but it is between those who support the values embedded in the constitutions of the liberal democracies and those who don't. And among those who do support liberal values are a lot of Muslims. And in fact, quite a few of them came forward during the cartoon crisis 2 1/2 years ago. So I think definitely that the debate is moving [forward], but this is a debate that won't be won overnight.

RFE/RL: It' s interesting that you say there' s been movement within the Muslim community in Denmark. How has that happened? Is it the fruit of all these interfaith forums and conferences that happened in the wake of the cartoon controversy? Or is it due to something else?

"I think we'll have to be very clear that in a democratic society, you do have many rights ... but the only right you do not have is the right not to be offended."

Rose: It is a consequence of that fact that now we have a far more fact-based debate about integration and what a democratic community means in reality. Just to give you a few examples, during the cartoon crisis, several Muslim organizations were created in Denmark -- organizations that explicitly committed themselves to democratic values, in opposition to the radical demands of those who had traveled to the Middle East and tried to stir up public opinion against Denmark.

And in fact, one of the leading Muslims who had tried to take me and my newspaper to court, and who had said at the time that this would never end until Flemming Rose apologized to 1.5 billion Muslims, this time came forward saying: "OK, we now know from the court decision that we live in a country where it is allowed to ridicule and defame our religion. We don't like it but we have to accept it."

RFE/RL: So the change in Denmark is a consequence of the government and institutions standing firm to protect freedom of speech and a bottom-up realization by people in the local Muslim community that they should respect this right?

Rose: I think it's a combination of several factors and definitely the strong stand by the government is very important. And I think this is what is so problematic about Geert Wilders' new movie that was released [March 28].

The Dutch government tried, in advance, to censor a movie that nobody had seen, which is unheard of. It reminds me of very unpleasant times in Europe -- this kind of approach. And just today, the chairman of the European Union -- Slovenia -- supported the Dutch government in its condemnation of Geert Wilders. And I think there is a fatal lack of proportion in this debate. As far as I understand, Wilders hasn't threatened anyone -- to kill them, or intimidate, or threaten them in any way.

He has just made a movie while he, for the last three years, has been living under heavy protection. He is subject to death threats every other day. What is really controversial in this case, I think, is that Europe cannot unite around one of its fundamental values, which is free speech and open debate. You should be allowed to say what you want without risking being killed or receiving death threats.

RFE/RL: I gather you've seen Geert Wilders' movie. Wilders said he made a "very decent film" that was "within the boundaries of the law." He added that the film was a call for debate. What did you think?

Rose: I think this is like an op-ed in the newspaper. I think it's a pretty simplistic movie. It's not very well done. I would compare it to what Michael Moore did in "Fahrenheit 9/11." It's a propaganda movie, it's simplistic. And what's interesting here is not so much the movie itself, because there's nothing new in there. What is really interesting are the reactions we are receiving, both within the Muslim world, within the Muslim community in Europe and within European governments. This is what we have to debate.

The film in itself holds nothing new. And I have to stress that Wilders does not even appear in the movie. This movie is made up of documentary pictures linked together by quotes from the Koran. And what Wilders wants to say is that the violence -- in 9/11, 7/7 in London, in Madrid, the killing of [Dutch filmmaker] Theo van Gogh and others acts -- was committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. And he referred to the quotes in the Koran that -- according to the people who committed these acts, justified their actions. So, Wilders didn't make up things. I just think he didn't strike the right balance.

Absent in this movie were all the moderate Muslims that also live in Europe and are trying to build a normal life, as everybody else. They were not part of this movie. But you know, I read letters to the editor and op-eds in the newspaper every day that are lacking this kind of balance. And they do not receive the same kind of attention and reactions.

RFE/RL: In a sense, you could argue that Wilders has fallen into the same trap as the jihadists -- he' s painting all Muslims with the same brush, just like the jihadists see all non-Muslims as 'infidels.' Everyone is either 'good' or 'evil.'

Rose: I think that is a very unfortunate comparison and it reminds me of the Cold War, when some people in Europe were saying: "The United States and the Soviet Union are equally bad." There was a great difference between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And there is a great difference between the jihadists and Geert Wilders. The fundamental difference is that Wilders is not threatening anyone. He doesn't want to kill anyone, he's not intimidating anyone. Yes, he is painting a very simplistic picture of Muslims. But it is also a fact of life that a lot of violence is being committed in the name of Islam. And that is what he shows in this film.

RFE/RL: Lastly, where do we go from here? There are increasing Muslim populations in many European countries. Is there no sense you should meet them halfway? Does European society make no concessions? Does it simply say: "Accept our rules or get out?" Is there a way to make everyone more comfortable and avoid confrontation or would that betray key principles?

Rose: This is a process and I think from situation to situation, you'll have to negotiate -- what is negotiable and what is nonnegotiable. I think that free speech is nonnegotiable. I think that Islamic countries and quite a few Muslims inside Europe are pushing for passing laws to protect religious sensibilities. And unfortunately, a lot of European laws have blasphemy laws on the books, although they are not being put into practice anymore. I think we have to remove them as fast as possible so these laws will not be applied in this new situation.

I don't think that you should offend people just for the sake of offending them or make a provocation just for the sake of making a provocation. But I think we'll have to be very clear that in a democratic society, you do have many rights -- the right to vote, the right to free movement, the right to assembly, freedom of religion, free speech etc.... But the only right you do not have is the right not to be offended.

And it seems to me that some people now want to legislate, in order to protect people against being offended. You had two paragraphs in the Soviet penal code -- I think it was Nos. 70 and 190. And all the dissidents in the Soviet Union were put into labor camps referring to these two laws on protecting the Soviet way of life and punishing people defaming Marxism-Leninism. This attempt to protect people's religious sensibilities is being misused around the world every day. And I would not like to see Europe in a situation where they will go down this road. I think it's very dangerous.

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