In 2005, while an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose commissioned a series of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad. His goal was to highlight the dangers of self-censorship in an age of political correctness. The response was explosive: Islamic terrorists greeted the cartoons with violence, riots, and attacks on western embassies that left at least 200 dead, according to TheNew York Times. Rose has been under threat ever since, frequently traveling with bodyguards. Yet he remains one of the planet’s most committed and articulate defenders of free speech, the open society, and the enlightenment values of tolerance and universal rights.
Rose sat down with Reason TV’s Nick Gillespie in February to talk about his book The Tyranny of Silence (Cato), a defense of his decision to publish the cartoons and a guide to unfettered expression in the 21st century.
Reason: Since the Muhammed cartoons came out, we’ve seen any number of violent reprisals against free speech, most catastrophically the gunning down of a good part of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. We’ve also seen the continuing rise of hate speech laws in Europe and a stultifying climate on college campuses. Are things good for free speech right now or not?
Rose: If we take the long-term historical view, free speech is in better shape than in the 17th century or the 18th century or even the beginning of the 20th century. No doubt about that. But if we look in a shorter-term perspective—let’s say the past 20, 30 years—I think free speech is in worse shape. You can see it when you check out statistics. Freedom House puts out a report every year; Reporters Without Borders in Europe does the same thing. And the trend is the same all over. For the past approximately 10 years, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are in decline.
I think that is the new thing. We know China. We know Cuba. We know North Korea, Russia, where things usually are in bad shape. But the new trend is that freedom of expression is in decline even in Western Europe.
What forms does it take, say, in Western Europe? Are there legal actions against reporters, or is it a chilled atmosphere where people just don’t talk about certain things?
It’s both. In the first half of 2015, France—of all countries in the world—was the most dangerous place to live for a journalist. That’s, of course, not the case anymore, but a couple of years ago, I interviewed the most famous French cartoonist, Plantu, who works for Le Monde. I asked him when was the last time a cartoonist was killed in Europe, and he couldn’t recall. The only name he came up with was a Palestinian cartoonist who was killed in London in 1987, by either the Mossad or the [Palestine Liberation Organization]. Even Honoré Daumier, the most famous French cartoonist who worked in the 19th century—he was sent to jail several times but he came out and he continued mocking the king. He was not killed. He was not physically threatened.
Where are the threats coming from? Are they exclusively coming out of religious intolerance? Is it Islamic jihadists? It is broader than that?
It’s far broader than that. It has to do with our ability to manage diversity in a world that is getting increasingly globalized. The debate of free speech is going on in a qualitatively new situation driven by migration, the fact that people move across borders in numbers [and] at a speed never seen before in the history of mankind. The consequence being that almost every society in the world right now is getting more and more diverse in terms of culture and religion. That’s one factor.
The second factor is digital technology. The fact that what is being published somewhere is being published everywhere and people can react to speech across cultures, but in a situation where speech loses context and can be manipulated and exploited and political, and so that’s what happened to me.
“Tolerance is not a demand that you put on the speaker. It’s not a demand that you put on somebody who publishes a cartoon or writes a novel or paints a painting. It’s on the one who watches a cartoon, watches a movie, reads a novel.”
In your case, a series of Danish imams took the cartoons and added cartoons that never appeared or were never commissioned by you to their list of grievances.
And deleted the context. I mean, even in some Western countries, the context got lost in the translation.
In the Honoré Daumier case, it was a Frenchman mocking the French king. It wasn’t somebody from Syria or Africa or America. Does that make a difference?
Yes. This has put a huge pressure on everybody to manage diversity. And it turns out that we in the West are not very equipped to deal with that. You are a little bit better at it in the United States, but in Europe, we have in the 20th century tried to build a sustainable peace through the creation of homogeneous nation-states after World War I.
Like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia—
The Baltic States, a dissolution of four empires, the creation of new states.
It was Wilson’s principle of the right to self-determination of a nation. There were still minorities living on different territories and after World War II, there were huge population swaps, basically in eastern Europe: Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians. They were moved across borders in order to create more homogeneous nations. That has been a kind of dirty secret of Europe because of fascism, because of Nazism. National identity has been a kind of suspicious thing.
In a European context this helps explain why after World War II, when Turks started moving into Germany to work, it was not even a question that they would be offered German citizenship.
They came to work and to make a living.
But they would never be German because Germany is for Germans.
Exactly. Diversity is difficult. Diversity is painful. Diversity of ethnicity, religion, and culture, and also of opinions. Because of our historical legacy in Western Europe, we have been told that we should celebrate diversity, and I think that’s great. I’m married to an immigrant myself. I’ve traveled around the world and I think diversity is a great thing. But it’s kind of becoming not OK to admit that it’s difficult. Because if you say that, you are racist, you are xenophobic, and so on and so forth, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It’s just very difficult.
How can you have an open conversation about diversity and immigration that doesn’t immediately escalate to the point where everybody is ready to pull a knife?
The United States has for decades been a melting pot, a composition of very different people coming from different cultures. Therefore, what it means to be an American is a quite narrow definition. You have to accept a few basic rules in order to get a sense that you belong when you get citizenship, and even though you speak the language with an accent, people will not look strange at you and think you are an outsider.
In Denmark, it’s very different. Denmark and most European nation-states were homogenous for centuries.
Diversity is something that you have to learn. It’s one thing to be proud that you provide 1 percent of [gross domestic product] to the U.N. Development Programs and, oh, we do everything for the third world. We support and fight poverty. It’s another thing to have a neighbor next door who belongs to a different culture and has a different religion and maybe speaks a different language from the outset.
From a U.S. perspective, it’s really a 20th century phenomenon. The term “the melting pot” comes from a play that was written in the 1890s. The Statue of Liberty, which is now seen as an icon of immigration and refugees coming to the U.S., was actually sent by France in 1876. It’s called Liberty Enlightening the World. It was about how France and the U.S. were built on enlightenment principles. It had nothing to do with immigration. And there was, of course, a very ugly period in the 1920s. We went through a period of very xenophobic immigration laws. Before that, Asians, Chinese, and Japanese were kept out by law. So it hasn’t been as easy in the United States.
That underlines my point that this is something that you have to learn. It’s not natural. I would say that most people have a natural instinct for freedom. You want to do your own thing and you don’t want other people to interfere and stop you.
“Most politicians in Europe believe that in order to save the social peace when we are getting more and more diverse, we need more and more bans. We need to speak more and more quietly.”
Where are we supposed to learn these values and what has happened that they’re harder to come by these days?
I think the concept of tolerance has been undermined. In the cartoon crisis, I was quite often criticized as being xenophobic, racist, intolerant, and so on. So I sat down and spent some time trying to understand what I was talking about. I found out that the concept of tolerance in the West has been turned on its head compared to the way it was understood when it came in the world after the wars of religion in the 17th century.
It grew out of the religious wars, when Catholics and Protestants were killing one another for decades. At some point, people decided, OK, this has been going on for long enough. We have to work out a way to be able to live together even though we hate one another and we believe that the other faith is blasphemous.
So edicts of tolerance were adopted in different parts of Europe. In the beginning, Catholics and Protestants were living in the same country but in different towns. Later, they could live in the same town but in different parts of the town. Finally they lived in the same quarter, and today they live in the same building without paying notice. But basically, that kind of religious tolerance implied that, “Yes, I hate the Protestant religion. I believe it’s a threat to my way of life, to what I believe, and to the political, social, and cultural order of a Catholic society. But nevertheless, I’m not trying to ban it and I’m not going to use violence, intimidation, and threats to shut them up.”
Tolerance is not a demand that you put on the speaker. It’s not a demand that you put on somebody who publishes a cartoon or writes a novel or paints a painting. It’s on the one who watches a cartoon, watches a movie, reads a novel, that they don’t tear it apart or want to ban it or use violence against a cartoonist. Today, it means quite the opposite—that you may have a right to say what you say, but if you’re tolerant, you shut up.
On the one hand, people will say, “As much as Catholics and Protestants disagreed with each other, at least they worship the same God, whereas Muslims are against this completely.” But then David Irving, the Holocaust denier, was put in an Austrian jail not because he was offending Muslims. So where is this all coming from?
I think these are different issues. If we take Islam first, I do think that Islam finds itself in a state of crisis. I think it is paramount for Muslims in Europe, where I live, to work out a religious doctrine that is compatible with the secular, multi-religious, multicultural society. Because the people who are in favor of killing blasphemers or apostates, they find quotations in the Koran. That’s why the jihadists are quite strong ideologically, because they do make references based on earlier interpretations of the holy text.
And they’re not going to listen to a secular Westerner explain to them why their interpretation of the holy book is wrong. It really is going to have to come from within the Islamic community.
Yes. In fact, about a year ago I had a conversation with Steve Bannon, who’s now part of the White House, and that was one of our disagreements. Because Bannon believes that we are at war with Islam, while I’m saying no. We are at war with violent Islamists in a hot war, and we are in a cold war with nonviolent Islamists that do not believe in liberal enlightenment values. But we need the leading Muslims on our side who stand up for secular democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and we cannot win this battle without having them on our side to talk to their fellow Muslims.
Does Bannon believe in Western enlightenment values? He seems to be very much a nationalist who wants to define America in much more narrow terms than historically we have been.
He believes that the crisis of the West is due to the loss of a Christian identity, that this is the Judeo-Christian civilization not being able to defend itself. So he believes in re-establishing the church. I mean, Christianity is still powerful in the United States, but in Europe, it’s on the wane.
What’s going on with the rise of speech codes to get rid of hate speech, to ban certain types of words, certain types of expression? It’s not like Islamic people are calling the shots in Vienna, right?
No, that’s true. And this goes back to my point about our lacking the ability to manage diversity. I believe that if you celebrate diversity of culture, ethnicity, and religion, you will also have to welcome a growing diversity of speech and more diverse ways of expressing yourself. But quite to the contrary, most European politicians believe that celebrating diversity of culture means that we need less diversity of speech.
I’m not willing to sacrifice freedom of expression on the altar of cultural diversity. I think it’s absurd. But that drives the push for new laws, because most politicians in Europe believe that in order to save the social peace when we are getting more and more diverse, we need more and more bans. We need to speak more and more quietly. We need to be reluctant to express what we really believe or think about people who live their lives in a different way. That is the trend.
For the past 10 years, there’s been a push for expanding hate speech laws. There’s been a push from the European Union to impose on every member state laws criminalizing denial of the Holocaust. It has led to reaction in Eastern Europe. Yes, they passed these laws, but they also passed laws criminalizing denial of the crimes of Communism, and you have a law in Switzerland criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide. You have Ukraine passing laws criminalizing criticism or mocking of Ukrainian freedom fighters in the 20th century. The most far-reaching example is in Russia, where they criminalized criticism of the behavior of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. But it all goes back to the European memory laws criminalizing denial of the Holocaust.
This belief that you protect memory through legislation about history is a very authoritarian idea. And it’s been copied in Bangladesh. It’s been copied in Rwanda. Most European countries have also criminalized what they call “glorification of terror,” which is a way of criminalizing opinion.
Just to give you one example of how absurd it is: After 9/11, a Basque newspaper published on its front page a cartoon of the plane crashing into the twin towers. It read, “We all dreamt about it, but Hamas did it.” It was a factual error because it wasn’t Hamas. And it’s outrageous. It’s offensive to me and to you, I suppose.
“Enlightenment values like reason, tolerance, and free and independent individuals have been undermined for a very long time. It didn’t start with Trump.”
To Hamas, even.
Yeah, to Hamas, yes. And he was convicted for glorification of terror. It was in fact confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights that it was OK to convict this cartoonist. So this is spreading. The most recent thing is the push within the European Union for criminalizing fake news. Leading German politicians, Italians, even Danes are talking about equating fake news with hate speech.
And how did they go about defining fake news? Ultimately that means licensing journalists or having some kind of verification process that puts the government in control.
Basically it leads to a ministry of truth, if you want to take it to its end. It also undermines the mainstream media, the old media, because if they can publish, if they are not prosecuted for publishing fake news, they are in a way on the side of the government. It reminds me a little bit of the times in the Soviet Union where you had Pravda and Izvestia, government-sanctioned news that in the end nobody believed because they were lying about everything, and the samizdat, the unofficial underground press. No matter whether they fact-checked or not, they were more reliable in the eyes of the public.
They want to defend themselves against Russian hackers and Russian trolls and so on. I understand that, but I just think it’s the wrong way to go about it. The other thing that they fear is the rising populist parties, and they don’t hide that this is the enemy that they are going after when they are going after “fake news.”
You would expect, in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, that people would be more comfortable with differences—with racial difference, ethnic difference, religious difference, gender difference. But we’re seeing this resurgence of nationalism.
Well, I think it has to do with the fact that enlightenment values like reason, tolerance, and free and independent individuals have been undermined for a very long time. It didn’t start with Trump. In fact, the whole concept of postmodernism, that anything goes, Islamic values are as good as the enlightenment values, and so on, has led to this relativism. I think it has a lot to do with the value we provide to emotions, that if you feel something, if you can identify some kind of emotional attachment to whatever it is, then logical arguments, arguments of reason, they don’t count in the same way.
I think in a way it’s in reaction to globalization, that people feel sometimes disenfranchised, sometimes alienated. They don’t know who they are. They have lost a sense of community, and that is also important to individuals. For a very long time, a healthy sense of national belonging was suspicious.
There are different kinds of nationalism. You can love your country without being xenophobic, but for a lot of people, I think, in Western Europe, it was kind of suspicious.
So you see a reaction that is spilling over to the other end of the spectrum, and then at the same time you have this mass migration into Europe that makes people feel uncomfortable, and we haven’t been able for a long time to have an honest conversation about that. And that has been exploited by these populist forces.
I would have preferred that the mainstream parties wouldn’t have shied away from talking about this in a frank and clear manner instead of trying to suppress the issue, because people were having these feelings and experiences.
Will the European Union be a place where the West can get out of a defensive crouch and into a more confident and forward-looking embrace of this original understanding of enlightenment universal tolerance? Or are institutions like the E.U. part of the problem?
They are part of the problem and part of the solution. For many years the European Union was a force of sound integration and collaboration, but I think more and more people feel alienated by Brussels. A lot of decisions that didn’t have to be taken down there have been taken down there. And it’s far away. It’s not close to your own community.
The European Union is also a very comfortable scapegoat for national politicians. They don’t have to blame themselves if they can blame Brussels. But it’s just a fact of life now that the European Union is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy and we have to pay notice.
I think one of the starting challenges with the European integration project is that the end goal was not identified. It was identified as a never-ending process of integration. Usually, when you have organization, you have to solve a problem or manage a situation, but this was kind of a postmodern project that goes on and on and on and we never see some final point.
Another thing is that the European Union for many years didn’t have real growth.
And I suspect that’s huge. People will acknowledge it in the U.S. The difference between averaging 2 percent economic growth of GDP each year vs. 3 percent is massive.
Well, 2 percent is a problem for you, but in Europe that would be great.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style. For a video version, go to reason.com.