Igniting More Than Debate

Back in September 2005, the liberal Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad--at least one as a terrorist--although any physical representation of the prophet is forbidden in Islam. There was no immediate backlash, but last week, after several other European newspapers reprinted the cartoons, the reaction went global. Muslims from Jakarta to Istanbul took to the streets in protest, while editors from France to Jordan were dismissed because of their decisions to run the drawings. NEWSWEEK's Charles Ferro spoke with Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who made the original decision to publish the cartoons, about his actions, the reaction and the bigger issues at stake--freedom of speech and religious sensitivity. Excerpts:

ROSE: I was concerned about a tendency toward self-censorship among people in artistic and cultural circles in Europe. That's why I commissioned these cartoons, to test this tendency and to start a debate about it.

It was not a media stunt. We just approached that story in a different way, by asking Danish cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they see him. I did not ask for caricatures. I did not ask to make the prophet a laughingstock or to mock him.

The cartoon with horns didn't arouse special criticism; it was the other two. The one with the bomb in his turban doesn't say, "All Muslims are terrorists," but says, "Some people have taken Islam hostage to permit terrorist and extremist acts." These cartoons do not treat Muslims in any other way than we treat other citizens in this country. By treating them as equals, we are saying, "You are equal."

I think you have to separate this story into two parts. One part [is the debate] inside Danish borders--that has been going on for four months. On the [one] hand, what does freedom of religion imply, what does respect for other people's feelings and religions imply? You have different points of view, and I think it's problematic if any religion--it doesn't matter if it's Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, any religion--tries to impose its own taboos on the public domain.

When I go to a mosque, I behave by the rules that exist in that holy house. I will not stand up and make a cartoon of the holy prophet in a mosque. But I think if any religion insists that I, as a non-Muslim, should submit to their taboos, then I don't think they're showing me respect. I think they're asking for my submission. This is a key issue in this debate.

You [also] have the international story, and I believe it has little to do with our cartoons. The people in Saudi Arabia and some other countries who have started the action have never seen the cartoons. They are acting on false rumors, misinformation and direct lies.

This is a clash of cultures and, in its essence, a debate about how much the receiving society should be willing to compromise its own standards in order to integrate foreigners. On the other hand, how much does the immigrant have to give up in order to be integrated?

This is the first time I've witnessed a story in a newspaper with a circulation of 150,000, in a country of just above 5 million people, becoming a global issue. This is a challenge. It means that what you do in a secular, modern democracy may offend people in some parts of the world, people not living in this type of society. I think it would be unfortunate if people in Saudi Arabia or some parts of the world influenced what we speak about in Denmark. [But] it's a fact of globalization, and we must consider it.

No, I'm not doing that. This story was about what was going on in Denmark and Northern Europe.

My newspaper has its limits. In a pluralistic society where you do have freedom of speech, my limits should not be the limits of others. We do have laws against racism and blasphemy.

Danish prosecutors determined around a month ago that the cartoons were not blasphemous.

For what?