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  • September 2015: 10 years after the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy

Today, 30 September 2015, we observe the 10 year anniversary of the publications of 12 editorial cartoons in Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons were originally commissioned as an attempt to contribute to the debate about legitimate criticism of Islam, freedom of speech and self-censorship. The cartoons were accompanied by an article by the culture section editor, Flemming Rose, titled “The Face of Muhammad.” Rose wrote on 30 September 2005:

“Modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. ... we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.”

Today, the debate continues in Denmark and it focuses on three things; firstly, what is the state of freedom of expression today in Denmark especially when it comes to religion, and in relation, secondly, should editors re-run the cartoons on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary, and thirdly should teachers in primary and secondary schools show and teach the cartoons as part of recent Danish history?

This morning, Jyllands-Posten ran the exact same page and text as they did 10 years ago, but this time all the 12 cartoons had been censored away leaving only an outline of where they used to be. Flemming Rose’s text quoted above remained. None of the major Danish newspapers are running the cartoons again, although most of them have done so before, and the arguments on behalf of the editors in chief run are different, but loosely related. Some say that the security risk and the risk to human life outweighs the journalistic value of running the cartoons again. Others say, that this is part of history and that people can look up the cartoons, if they want to see them. Despite this, it is worth noting that Information, a mainly intellectual newspaper, spends five pages in their paper, including an editorial, on the cartoons. Berlingske Tidende, a major Danish daily newspaper, covers the story in six pages, and Jyllands-Posten covers the story in 15 pages including both the editorial and the op-ed. The overall sentiment seems to be that the cartoons are still dangerous. And this sparks debate from critics and politicians, especially, when it comes to freedom of speech in the face of Islamic fundamentalism.

Naser Khader, a Danish politician of Syrian origin, member of parliament with the conservatives and a key figure in defense of democracy and freedom of speech during 2005 and 2006, argues strongly in favor of printing the cartoons again. “The cartoons are to me the symbol of freedom of speech over no freedom […] One must remember that only 14 per cent of the world’s population enjoys full freedom of speech. Therefore it is important to defend. Is it an unnecessary provocation? No, it is a celebration.” (‘A case for eternity,’ in Berlingske Tidende, 20 September 2015). As a part of this celebration, Naser Khader promised to – and did – bring the cartoons on his Facebook page.

Frederik Stjernfeldt, a professor at University of Copenhagen, argues that,

“Most Western media have become afraid to do satire of religion especially when it comes to Islam. Today very few newspapers in Denmark and only at special occasions are doing satirical cartoons about Islam. Caricatures of the prophets are not seen. It is a terrible consequence of the Muhammad crisis. There should be not special right for religions.” (‘The Muhammad crisis has severed public opinion,’ in Information, 25 September 2015)

Stjernfeldt expands on his remarks in todays Information, and in the name of a qualified freedom of speech, he calls for,

“… [a] coordinated reprinting of controversial things jointly in many papers and media – it could e.g. happen here on the 10 year anniversary. If everyone prints in solidarity then no one will to a significant degree find themselves in the searchlight of the terrorists … ” (‘Ten years after the Muhammad cartoons: fundamentialism and a culture of violation,’ in Information, 30 September 2015).

In this context, it is worth noting that 93 percent of Danish Muslims believe Jyllands-Posten was wrong to publish the controversial cartoons. For the general population, some 57.6 percent say Jyllands-Posten was right to print the drawings, compared to the 47 percent who felt the same back in 2006. (‘Danish Muslims still against Mohammed drawings,’ Copenhagen Post, 30 September 2015).

The debate about freedom of speech continues, and currently takes its focus on whether Danish teachers should show the cartoons as part of the curriculum. The newspaper Berlingske Tidende quotes a poll saying that 57 per cent of Danes agree that primary and secondary school students should see that cartoons as part of the teachings. A head of schools leaders’ organization, Claus Hjortsdal, argues against it: “Well, now, the schools are not crawling with terrorists. But there are pupils who are more fundamentally inclined than others. This goes for some Muslim pupils, but also to a significant degree inner missions Christians, Jews and confessors of other religions. The cartoons would easily provoke and that is not the task of the school.” (’Danes: Show the Cartoons in School’, Berlingske Tidende, 20 September 2015). In March 2015, the public schools’ association for religion teachers, Religionslærerforeningen, has urged that the controversial Mohammed Cartoons should become part of the public school curriculum as quickly as possible. Several political parties – including Social Democrats, Danish People’s Party (DF) and the Conservatives – have voiced their support for that idea, although the degree of support varies. (‘Politicians want Mohammed Cartoons to be part of school curriculum’, Copenhagen Post, 6 March 2015).

Niels Valdemar Vinding
  • March 2015: attacks in Copenhaguen

On the 14th and 15th of February 2015 two attacks took place in Copenhagen. The first attack was at the cultural venue Krudttønden, where an event with the title Kunst, Blasfemi og Ytringsfrihed (Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression) was taking place. The event was organized by the Lars Wilks committee, and the Swedish cartoonist Lars Wilks, involved in a controversy concerning drawings of Muhammed, attended the event. During the attack, one person was killed. The attacker fled the area. The second attack happened at the Synagogue shortly after midnight. Here, a Synagogue guard was shot and killed. Following both attacks, a named suspect was identified, and later shot and killed by the police. The suspected attacker was therefore never put on trial. His motives for the attack were supposedly linked to radicalized views. The attack and the response of the police, especially in relation to the protection of the Synagogue prompted discussions concerning the protection of religious minorities in general and the Jewish community specifically in relation to prior attacks in Paris.

Marie Vejrup Nielsen

D 22 October 2015    AMarie Vejrup Nielsen ANiels Valdemar Vinding

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