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Danish editor tests right to violate Muslim taboos

By James BrandonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 2005



COPENHAGEN

When Flemming Rose heard last month that Danish cartoonists were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children's biography of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, he decided to put his nation's famous tolerance to the test.

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The cultural editor of Denmark's largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, then recruited cartoonists to depict Islam's Prophet Muhammad and published them in the paper.

Since then, thousands of Danish Muslims, whose religion strictly prohibits depictions of the prophet, have demonstrated in protest, though some have rallied in support of the paper, too. Ambassadors from 11 Islamic countries including Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey signed a letter demanding that the Danish prime minister "punish" the newspaper. In contrast, a young Iranian woman started a petition in favor of the move.

"This issue goes back to Salman Rushdie. It's about freedom of speech and Islam," says an unrepentant Rose, who feels a culture of fear and self-censorship has taken hold across Europe since Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for criticizing traditional Islam's treatment of women.

As accusations of racism and discrimination fly amid the ongoing unrest in France, European countries are being pushed to pinpoint the causes of - and solution to - the social exclusion of their significant Muslim populations. A key ingredient to the dialogue, Rose says, is making room for a frank discussion of the compatibility of democratic principles such as free speech, and traditional Islam.

"Some Muslims are asking for an apology pointing to a lack of respect," he says. "They're not asking for respect; they're asking for subordination - for us as non-Muslims to follow Muslim taboos in the public domain."

Although Rose expected some complaints, he was unprepared for the deluge of criticism.

Among those who attacked the newspaper's lack of sensitivity was prominent Copenhagen imam Raed Hlayhel, saying "I will not tolerate this. If this is democracy, we disagree with democracy."

But despite the barrage of criticism, Rose defends his decision, which coincided with the arrest of seven Danish Muslims two weeks ago for planning a terrorist attack - the first evidence of Islamic militancy among Denmark's 200,000 Muslims. As evidence of the Islamic pressure for censorship, he points to several events in the last month. The individual who translated a new book by Van Gogh's collaborator, Dutch MP Aayan Hirsi Ali, has requested anonymity. A London art gallery removed a modern art exhibit "God is Great," which featured a Koran, for fear of retaliation. While in Copenhagen, a delegation of Danish imams asked the prime minister to force Denmark's media to supply "more positive coverage" of Islam.

For its part, the newspaper has found Muslim allies. When the controversy first broke, hundreds of Danish Muslims demonstrated in Copenhagen in support of the newspaper. Among them were refugees that right-wing, anti-immigration parties would like to see turned away at Denmark's borders.

"People have a right to say what they want without being killed," says Nasim Rahnama, the 20-year-old Iranian woman who started a petition in support of the newspaper. "These Islamic groups have to be stopped. I just can't sit down and do nothing."

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