Israel: Flemming Rose on free speech

Israel: Flemming Rose on free speech

This past week the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, hosted a panel discussion on Free Speech and Religion titled "Freedom of expression - victim of religion?". The speakers were Flemming Rose, the editor of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten who published the Mohamed cartoons, Michael Kichka, an Israeli cartoonist, and David Horowitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post.

An Israeli reader sent me a summary of the discussion together with pictures. Below is the summary of the talk given by Flemming Rose.

Additionally, I found several interviews with Flemming Rose while he was in Israel:

And here:


When asked why he decided to publish the cartoons, Rose said, "Not to insult the Muslims. It was in response to the spreading self censorship with regards to Islam. It started with a discussion on a children's books about Muhammad, whose author could not find an illustrator for it. One person was willing to do the drawings, but demand to remain anonymous, and later admitted this was out of fear of the Muslims' reactions.

"The publication also came after the murder of Dutch director Theo van Gogh at the hands of a Muslim (in response to his film about the Islam's attitude towards women), and the assault of a non-Muslim professor in Denmark after reading from the Quran to his class in the university.

"It's a classic journalistic case, you hear about a problem and want to find out if it really exists. We decided that, instead of describing it in words, we can let the cartoons demonstrate it and prove that they cannot be censored. It's an age-old journalistic principle: Don't settle for telling the story, but also show it."

When asked if he had anticipated the Muslim world's reaction, Rose said, "No one expected this." He pointed out that cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad had been published in the past in Danish newspapers, and he was even depicted as mentally ill in one of them, that did not lead to protests.

"There are even experts on Islam who didn't see this coming," he said. "I talked about it with the orientalist Bernard Lewis, who told me there was a long culture of insulting the prophet in Europe. He referred me to Dante, and the cathedral in Bologna where Muhammad is depicted in hell. Muslims didn't respond to that, because they said it these were heretics that they shouldn't be concerned with."

When asked why he thought Muslims reacted so harshly this time, Rose said, "According to Lewis, this is the first time Muslims try to impose Islamic law on non-Muslim countries."


If any of my readers attend such events, I'll be glad to hear and post about it.

Flemming Rose says that there have been two major changes in recent times affecting journalism:
1) previously, people read only their local newspapers. but nowadays the internet has changed the world, and now people know what's published in newspapers halfway around the world.
2) immigration is changing and people are now moving between places faster then they've done in the past.

In medieval times, countries had "blasphemy laws" and punished "heretics" who did not agree with the official state religion. But today, most western countries have freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is meaningful only if it includes the ability to say "no" to religion and and to say negative things about religion. Moslems want a society based on religion (i.e. *their* religion), but they also wants freedom of religion as afforded by secular societies.

In May 2008 in Amsterdam, Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot was arrested. Nekschot is known in the Netherlands for his provocative cartoons. Three years before that he was reported to the authorities, who claimed it took them this long to find him. Rose doubts this since he says it took him only half an hour to locate Nekschot.

Dutch blasphemy laws exist on the books, just as they exist in other countries, but they are not used. The Justice Ministry suggested broadening the law to include other religions, minorities, and "life philosophies". Rose points out that this is a dangerous notion that would allow practically anyone to sue anyone else - e.g. a Communist could sue a Capitalist who offends his "life philosophy".

In 2004 Theo Van Gogh was killed by a Moslem who was offended by Van Gogh's movie. The Dutch Ministry of Justice later pushed to update the blasphemy laws, saying that if the law was better, the movie wouldn't have been released and Van Gogh would have still been alive. But is this the solution?

The prosecution has yet to decide what to do with Nekschot. Rose says this is a way of keeping a "sword of Damocles" over his head.

Three weeks after the arrest, the Danish embassy in Islamabad was attacked. Al Qaeda took responsibility for the attack, saying this was a response to the Mohammed cartoons.

Pakistan has the strictest blasphemy laws, and this is used to prosecute minorities, such as the Christians and Ahmaddiya.

When Rushdie was knighted, the Pakistani minister said: "How can we fight terrorism if the West doesn't fight blasphemy?" But this is a very dangerous comparison between offending and killing people. Rose says that blasphemy laws actually promote terrorism in Pakistan.

He sees three notions that led to the crisis:

1) "People have a right not to be offended" - Rose calls this "insult fundamentalism". Prof. Dvorkin says that in a democracy you have many rights, but you don't have a right not to be offended. Rose says that today people who offend others are sent to sensitivity training, but he suggests sending those who are offended to "insensitivity training" instead. It's a global world, and there's a lot to be offended about.

2) "Religions and cultures have human rights" - According to Western civilization, humans have a right to protection, not ideas.

3) "Minorities are always right" - but following that logic, you wouldn't have been able to criticize the Nazis in their early years, before they came to power, because at first they were a minority.

Rose says there are two options to go from here.

1) "If you respect my taboos, I'll respect yours." The problem is that this could be used to silence speech in general.

2) Allow all speech unless it incites to violence or violates libel or privacy laws. Regarding incitement to violence, Rose says that today there is a blurring between words and deeds. The incitement should follow the American first amendment model and be counted as incitement only if it creates an imminent danger.

Several answers from a later Q&A session:

1) In answer to a claim as if only political cartoons insulting Islam are published, Rose emphasized that Jyllands-Posten had previously published cartoons which insulted Jews and Christians, and showed a series of such cartoons. The one insulting Judaism (which is a bit blurry), featured a bomb with a Jewish Star of David.

2) In answer to a question about why the panel did not include any Moslems, the panel moderator said that there was no Moslem on the panel since he could not find one who would agree to come and appear alongside the panelists. Additionally, Moslem students in the Hebrew University demanded earlier that day to cancel the panel discussion, or at the least, remove Flemming Rose from the panel.

(It should be noted that while the panel discussion was going on, a group of Moslem students protested outside the university. However, there were also many Moslem students inside the hall, particularly female students, who later got up to ask questions.)

In general it was an enlightening evening, and it was very good that the Hebrew University made this discussion available to the public.

h/t L.

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