In Denmark even most Muslims think it is quite allright to publish images of Mohammed, but in the Middle East there are political forces who want to decide what we can and cannot print – those can be referred to as Islamo-fascists.
The Islamo-democrats and fascists
Interview with Anne Knudsen, Editor-in-Chief of the Danish weekly “Weekendavisen”
It’s very easy to notice the negative things after the “Mohammed cartoons” were published, but do you also see any positive results of this scandal?
Yes, as a matter of fact it has turned out in a positive way in Denmark since many Muslims who earlier said nothing have come out and said that they are really against the flag burning and extreme talk that is going on in the Middle East and Pakistan. We have been waiting for decades for what is now happening – the Muslim community, which is quite large in Denmark, and which is not a [solid] community as they come from different countries, they now split not along religious or ethnic lines, but along the lines pertaining to democracy.
There are not so many Muslims who are not outraged by the cartoons, which were meant as a provocation, but there are people who say – it’s their right to publish it, we endorse the democratic law, and there are others, of course, who are threatening the cartoonists.
It has divided the Muslim community in those who really belong to democracy and the others who are luckily in the minority.
When the cartoons were first published in October, three thousand Muslims marched in a peaceful demonstration in Copenhagen, then they went home and that was it! They wanted to make their point, but nothing happened after that. And then an Egyptian newspaper published the cartoons and nothing happened in Egypt.
There are ten imams in Denmark who are extreme Islamists and some of them even have been convicted in the Middle East for terrorist activities, most notably their leader. They were upset that the Danish Muslims didn’t react, so they went to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia. Now this is an internal political question in these countries, especially in Pakistan, where extremists want to get at the top of the government.
Now that the Danes have seen that Muslims are so different in reaction towards these cartoons, has it also changed the perception of Muslims in Denmark? I want to give you an example – I visited Denmark last October and almost the first thing a taxi driver told me was that we Danes are very friendly, but we don’t’ like Muslims.
Well, taxi drivers come in two groups in most of Europe – either they are Muslim immigrants or they are racists.
I think that most Danes had known that Muslims are different – there are the people whom you know, with whom you work or who are your friends, and then there are the others, who you think may be extremists or old fashioned. So few of them have spoken up for democratic Muslim community, so it is nice to see them! Most Danes presumed they must be there, but you only heard the imams and the leaders who were always talking about how bad things are.
It illustrated very well that Muslims are not all the same and there are a lot of them coming out and saying – we are here because we believe in democracy, so that’s a huge advantage. Incidentally the leaders of Moderate Muslim organizations cannot go anyplace without four policemen, because they, too, have been threatened.
Do you think this incident can influence the debate about the future of Europe, namely the accession of Turkey to the EU? I want to remind the point you made at this conference that nowadays people tend to perceive EU as a community of friends and talk about sharing common culture instead of referring to the real driving force of the EU, which should be security, and that also influences the debate over Turkey.
These questions will be put to the referendum, which means that it is not very likely that hopes of Turkey becoming more democratic will be enough to win over the fear of the contrary – that Turkey is a Muslim country and you do not know what will happen there. I am sorry to say that I am quite pessimistic about Turkey’s accession to EU.
On the other hand, I think that Bosnia would not be a problem. In Denmark there are twenty thousand Bosnian Muslims who came as refugees and they create no problems at all because they are perceived as Europeans and they behave as Europeans, whereas the Turkish and Kurdish communities have become more and more traditional while in Denmark – they were more modern when they came then they are now. And that really gives Turkey a bad name.
So, I don’t think that reason will prevail, unless we can push decision about Turkey far enough into the future in order for Turkey to actually demonstrate that they acknowledge the genocide against Armenians and that they won’t put their writers in jail for mentioning it.
Are the Danes themselves united in their support for freedom of speech, since some have to pay for the others exercise of that right?
Yes, there are enormous controversies. It always goes along these lines: “I am for free speech, but...”. And the ‘buts’ are bigger and smaller according to how it harms you. Money is the first ‘but’, but also that you should not offend people - which I tend to think myself.
When the cartoons were first published, I thought it was a pointless provocation, I called it an arranged happening – it was making of news instead of just reporting it. But after the embassies and flags started burning I thought, well, they had a point, because the reason why the cartoons were published was that a Danish author Kåre Bluitgen could not get illustrators for a children’s book about Mohammed.
He is a rather well known Danish author who decided that many people and especially children do not know enough about the Muslims, so he wrote a book in Danish about Mohammed, about his life and doings. Since it was a book for children he wanted to get it illustrated, but Danish illustrators refused, because they were afraid.
He went to a newspaper and said, do we have a Sharia here and censorship, or can I publish what I want? They said they would find out. What they found is that in Denmark it is quite allright to publish images of Mohammed, even according to most Muslims, but in the Middle East there are political forces that want to decide what we can print.
The newspaper wanted to find out what happened if you did it, so now all the cartoonists are in the hiding, the police has to protect them and it turned out to be more serious, but the point is – not in Denmark and not for many months. It was a political project in the Middle East by some of these extreme Islamists what you might call Islamo-fascists.
Do you also have some discussions of free speech vis-à-vis offence? It was quite a debate in Latvia, initiated by the politicians. Our Criminal Code states that you should not offend one’s religious or atheistic feelings.
We also have that in the Criminal Code, only it is very hard to get a conviction – it was last done in 1938. Nowadays we make a fun of the Pope, the Chirst, whomever, and protests by religious people are just laughed at, except for the Muslims.
Of course, we have voices claiming that we should expand the laws against offending individuals, but people ask – where do we stop, what is the next group we cannot offend, what is the next thing we cannot print, so a vast majority tend to believe that everybody can sue privately in a court if they feel offended and this is a good state of affairs.
Have the Muslims done it?
Not yet. They have threatened to do it, but nothing has come of it. A Danish citizen has actually given notice to the police according to the blasphemy paragraph and maybe they will pursue that.
I personally think that it would be very useful to have the case brought to the court because as an editor I want to know what I can and cannot publish, and now I really do not know. I published one of these cartoons to illustrate an analytical article comparing what is happening in the daily newspapers in the Middle East concerning Jews. But I find that these kinds of illustrations are distasteful anyway whether they are anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic.
The upshot probably will be that the xenophobic Danish Folk party will get more popular – if there were elections today they would probably be able to form the government, because people see the Danish flag burning in the streets and they make association with the Muslim minorities in Denmark. The positive fact is that many Muslims have come out to say they feel offended to have their flag burned, meaning the Danish flag.
One conclusion is that the experiment with testing the limits of freedom of speech has resulted in limiting it because of increased self- censorship by the media. Do you agree?
I had an editorial where I wrote that self-censorship is as common as bad press. This is actually a question of culture. Just because you are allowed to say things doesn’t mean that you say things. If you would like people to think nicely of you, you do not call them names.
So, self-censorship is present all over the place, but there is a huge difference between censoring yourself because you’d like to appear as a nice person or because you are afraid that somebody is going to kill you.
The interview took place on 25 February 2006, during a conference “Transeuropaexpress” in Rome, Italy.
 Since her newspaper published the cartoons, a reward has been issued also for Anne Knudsen’s head by extremists in Pakistan.