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The Danish Editor Who Published Mohammed Cartoons in 2005: "This Idea That Charlie Hebdo Had an Anti-Islamic Bias Is Stupid"

ADEM ALTAN / Getty Images

Flemming Rose, editor of the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, is experiencing a painful deja vu. In 2005, he made the decision to publish now-infamous cartoons of Mohammed.  His aim was to highlight the tendency towards self-censorship in European media and to insist, unequivocally, on freedom of expression. In the process, he earned a heaping of death threats. Meanwhile, the paper’s cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, went into hiding, narrowly escaping an assassination attempt in 2010.

Rose has spent the years since then defending free expression against a culture of compromise and conciliation, but he remains deeply pessimistic about the future of free speech in Europe—not just because he knows the journalists killed in the Charlie Hebdo shooting and not just because they were killed for printing cartoons. He’s pessimistic because it’s a continuation of what he calls a decade-long assault in Europe on liberal ideals and freedom of expression. The assault is gradually snaking its way across the continent: Amsterdam 2004, the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh; Madrid 2004, train bombings; London 2005, bus bombing. 

Now France 2015: Twelve journalists and cartoonists murdered. Rose fears that this latest act will make editors across Europe pause before they go to the printers. It will encourage self-censorship; it will bring us closer to a “tyranny of silence.” I spoke with him by phone from Copenhagen about the massacre and where Europe needs to go from here. 

Elizabeth Winkler: Where do you think France stands—relative to other European countries—in terms of this conflict between cultural sensitivity and the right to criticize?

Flemming Rose: What is specific to France is the tradition of the republic: the ideals of the republic, the separation of church and politics, the secular and the sacred, and it means that it's far more legitimate to take on religion [there] than in other countries. More than one French newspaper re-published Jyllands-Posten's cartoons in 2005. There is a strong tradition of satire and mocking religion. This idea that Charlie Hebdo had an anti-Islamic bias is stupid. They mocked everything—Christianity, Judaism, French politics.

EW: But some French immigrants—these terrorists, for instance—aren’t adopting the ideals of the French republic. Do the murders highlight something about immigration and assimilation challenges in France? 

FR: When it comes to the issue of integration, they do have some problems. Integration is not working. It's not working in most European countries. France has a hierarchy. It's very difficult for an outsider to make it up the social ladder in France. A lot of immigrants leave France for the U.K. to get jobs. The culture there is more accepting. So there is a gap between the proclamation of the values of the republic and how a lot of immigrants experience daily life. It's not an explanation for what happened, but France does need to assimilate better, to provide opportunities for newcomers to integrate.  

The welfare state is also a problem when it comes to integration in Europe compared to the U.S. In the U.S., people [immigrants] have to take care of themselves very quickly. In Europe, you can be on welfare for decades and that doesn't promote integration because immigrants aren’t getting jobs, aren’t becoming a part of French culture. And it also promotes anti-immigration perceptions. They are perceived as an economic burden on society. 

EW: There is already, of course, a good deal of xenophobic sentiment in France, especially in the National Front party. How do you think the murders are going to affect French politics? 

FR: They’re saying the next French elections are going to be decided by this event. I’m not sure if that is true. It will give lots of support to the far right. It will polarize France, which is not a good thing. Radical forces on both sides will prevail. Front Nationale is clearly marginalizing Muslims. But I’m not in favor of unlimited immigration either. It’s a question of how many immigrants society can absorb in order to function.  

EW: You’re calling for institutional reforms; you’re calling for cultural transformations in how immigrants are welcomed in French society. What else do you think leaders in France need to do to make sure this kind of violence isn’t repeated? 

FR: We have not been very good about making clear what is the foundation of our [European] society, what kind of values people have to subscribe to in order to be integrated. We need to have a broad definition of what it means to be French, Danish, Dutch, so it becomes a more political definition, not just about blood and soil, but about democratic beliefs. And this way we can welcome newcomers to our society and make them feel like part of our society [if they accept these democratic beliefs].

EW: Isn’t it widely understood that free expression is a fundamental principle of Western society? How can we be clearer about that? 

FR: There is a distorted understanding today when it comes to free speech, tolerance, respect. It's very clear that nobody will condone these kinds of actions; there's a uniform condemnation of the killing. But you also have this notion that, “We are for free speech, BUT,” that Charlie Hebdo crossed a line. People say they should have known what kind of reaction they would receive. Then you have this identity politics, the idea that there is a right not to be offended. When somebody says something offensive, it can be [taken] as offensive as physical violence and therefore people have to shut up, to show respect. There is an erosion of the distinction between words and deeds, and that is very problematic.