It’s a Sunday morning in 2009, and I’m standing under the shower in a hotel room in Lyon. Rain drums against the window; at the end of a narrow street, I can just see one of the two rivers that flow through the city.
In an hour, I’m due at city hall to participate in a panel discussion organized by the French newspaper Libération on challenges to free speech in Europe. I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of thing in the past several years. Yesterday, I was in Paris. Earlier in the week, I was involved in a heated exchange at a conference in Berlin about Muslims and Islam in the European media.
As I began speaking, a member of the audience stood up, approached the panel, and in a voice trembling with fury demanded to know who had given me the right to tell Muslims like her about democracy. She then turned toward the organizers, angrily asked how they could even consider inviting someone like me, and then stormed out of the room.
Everywhere I go, I seem to provoke controversy. At American universities, I’ve been met by placards and students protesting against my speaking. When I was scheduled to lecture at a university in Jerusalem, a demonstration called for my removal.
When I talked about freedom of speech at a UNESCO conference in Doha in the spring of 2009, local media branded me the “the Danish Satan,”1 the authorities were inundated with angry emails and the Ministry of Internal Affairs set up a hotline for citizens who complained about my having even been allowed into the country.
In the spring of 2006, I was invited by the Oxford Union to take part in a discussion on freedom of speech, democracy, and respect for religious sentiment. That body is accustomed to controversy. Nevertheless, my visit turned into what local media alleged was the biggest security operation the city had seen since Michael Jackson’s visit in 2001.
When I was invited to the World Association of Newspapers’ forum in Moscow a few years ago, Russian authorities politely yet firmly implied that they would like me to stay away. I didn’t fully comprehend their hints, so I went to Moscow oblivious. Since then, I have been unable to secure a visa, although I am married to a Russian and lived in Moscow under Soviet rule as a foreign correspondent for 12 years. During that time, though I was clearly anti-communist and openly socialized with dissidents, visas were never a problem.
I could go on citing similar incidents, but what would be the point? On this autumn morning, the picture seems clear. I have become a figure many love to hate. Some would like to see me dead. I have wracked my brain trying to figure out why. I am not by nature a provocative person. I do not seek conflict for its own sake, and it gives me no pleasure when people take offense at things I have said or done. Nevertheless, I have been branded by many as a careless troublemaker who pays no heed to the consequences of his actions.
How did that happen? To the world, I am known as an editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In September 2005, I commissioned and published a number of cartoons about Islam, prompted by my perception of self-censorship by the European media. One of those cartoons, drawn by the artist Kurt Westergaard, depicted the Muslim prophet Muhammad with a bomb wrapped in his turban. Among the other cartoons we published was another that mocked the newspaper and even myself for commissioning them, but it was Westergaard’s image that would change my life.
The debate touches on freedom of speech and of religion, tolerance and intolerance, immigration and integration, Islam and Europe, majorities and minorities and globalization, to name but a few.
The Cartoon Crisis, as it became known, spiraled into a violent international uproar, as Muslims around the world erupted in protest. Danish embassies were attacked, and more than 200 deaths were attributed to the protests. I came to symbolize one of the defining issues of our era: the tension between respect for cultural diversity and the protection of democratic freedoms. My book is an attempt to reconcile that public symbolism with my personal story.
How did the publication of a few cartoons prompt an upheaval so extreme that, five years on, I was still grappling with it? As with most monumental events, there seems to be no simple explanation. Some believe that my newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, carries the main responsibility for the uproar, while others point to Danish imams who traveled around the Middle East inflaming Muslim opinion.
Some believe Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the main villain because he did not criticize the cartoons and refused to discuss them with ambassadors from Muslim countries. Still others feel the Organization of the Islamic Conference played a decisive part in orchestrating a conflict to promote that body’s rather specific take on human rights, involving an effort to criminalize criticism of Islam under the somewhat ambiguous label “Islamophobia.”
Many say countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan took advantage of the cartoons to divert attention from domestic problems. Yet others view the clash as part of a broader struggle between Islam and the West, exploited by radical Islamists to spur followers toward a holy war. Finally, there are those who blame the secular unbelief of most Danes for their failure to understand the religious sensitivities of Muslims.
Even though the drawings were conceived in a Danish and European context, the debate is global. It touches on issues fundamental to any kind of society: freedom of speech and of religion, tolerance and intolerance, immigration and integration, Islam and Europe, majorities and minorities and globalization, to name but a few.
What do you do when suddenly the entire world is on your back? When one misunderstanding leads to another? When what you have said and done has the world seething with anger and indignation? What do you say to people who ask how you can sleep at night when hundreds of people have died because of what you have done?
What do you say when you are accused of being a racist or a fascist, and of wanting to start the next world war?
In the past five years, I have spent most of my energy trying to address and to understand the criticism that has been leveled at my newspaper and at me. Physically and mentally, it has been an arduous journey: educational, but on occasion overwhelming.
I have engaged with people on all sides of the political spectrum, with friends and enemies, believers and nonbelievers of every stripe. Oddly enough, the dividing lines between us don’t coincide with the kinds of political, religious, cultural, or geographic categories one might expect. I don’t claim that most Muslims have been on my side, but some have supported publication of the cartoons, while some Christians and atheists have strongly condemned them.
I have compiled an enormous archive of comments and analyses on the Cartoon Crisis from all over the world. At first, I wanted to document that I was right and that others were wrong. But along the way, I found that I needed to look inward, to reflect on my own history and background. Why was this debate so important for me? Why was I from the outset, almost instinctively, able to identify the core issue?
Why did the abstract principle of freedom of speech speak to me more than it apparently did to other people?
I do have strong opinions when it comes to certain things. But I am not a person who takes an instant stand on just anything. I am a natural skeptic. I ponder at length and lose myself in layers of meaning and the many sides of an issue.
I don’t see that trait as a flaw: it is the condition of modern man and indeed the core strength of secular democracies, which are founded on the idea that there is no monopoly on truth.