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Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but conviction is absurd.
It is a Sunday morning in 2009 and I am taking a shower in my hotel room in Lyon, France. Rain drums on the window and I can glimpse one of the town’s two rivers at the end of a narrow street. In about an hour, I am scheduled to participate in a debate about threats against the freedom of speech in Europe, held by the French paper Libération. It is a routine I have repeated often over the past few years. Yesterday, I was in Paris for an interview on the same subject, and earlier that week I had been in Berlin for a heated panel discussion on Islam in the European media. Not long into my presentation an audience member stood up, approached the table where I sat, and in a shaky voice began shouting at me, asking me who had given me the right to lecture Muslims like her on democracy? She then turned to the panel's organizers and asked them how they could even have thought of inviting me, before turning on her heels and leaving without waiting for them to answer.
It seems everywhere I go I provoke extreme controversy. At American universities I have been met by student protests before my speech even began. In Jerusalem, demonstrators rallied outside a debate demanding that I be removed from the event. Following a conference in Qatar where I expressed my views on freedom of speech, emails flooded into the local authorities complaining that the Amir of Qatar had even let me into the country. The Interior Department established a hotline for complaints against me and the local media branded me “the Danish devil.”
In the spring of 2006 the Oxford Union, a student society at the famous British college, invited me to join a debate on democracy, freedom of speech, and respect for religious sentiments. The Oxford Union has long been a battlefield for controversial topics. Since its founding in 1823 the Union has brought the most controversial topics of the day—war, racism, religion—to the table for open and free discussion. The conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once referred to the forum as “the freedom of speech’s last citadel in western civilization.” Nonetheless, my visit turned out to be the largest security operation since Michael Jackson had visited a few years earlier. The head of security met me at the airport and lodged me in a hotel under a false name. Prior to the panel, the campus was cordoned off by police, and visitors were subjected to full body searches and metal detectors before entering the hall.
That same year, Russia tried to prevent me from attending the forum of the World Association of Newspapers in Moscow. Local Muslim leaders were displeased by my involvement, and the authorities issued polite but firm hints to stay away. The Kremlin could not come out and say so directly—how would it look to deny a journalist entry to a conference on the freedom of the press? So I missed the warning signals and arrived in Moscow for the conference, but I have not been able to obtain a Russian visa since—despite the fact that I have a Russian-born wife and lived in the country for twelve years. I never experienced anything similar in the Soviet Union, even though I was avowedly anti-Communist and openly socializing with Russian dissidents.
The list of episodes goes on, and as I recall them this fall morning, my own dilemma becomes apparent. I have become a controversial figure: someone many people love to hate and some even want to kill. I am no provocateur; I do not run around looking for conflict or instigating arguments. I feel no particular satisfaction when my actions or words offend—in fact, in my younger days friends told me I was almost too eager to please. And yet, in the eyes of the world I have been branded a notorious troublemaker, a cavalier antagonist unconcerned about the consequences of my actions.
How did this happen? Who, in fact, am I? To the world, I am known as an editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In September 2005 I commissioned and published a series of cartoons about Islam in Europe, prompted by my perception of prevalent self-censorship prevalent among the Danish media. One of these cartoons, drawn by the artist Kurt Westergaard, depicted the Muslim prophet Mohamed with a bomb wrapped in his turban. The other cartoons we published mocked the media itself, but it was Westergaard's image that would change my life. The Cartoon Crisis, as it came to be known, spiraled into a violent international fiasco as Muslims around the world erupted in protest of the images. Danish embassies were attacked and more than one hundred deaths reportedly occurred as a result of the protests. That morning in Lyon, I realized that I as a public figure have come to symbolize a much greater set of issues confronting the world today. This book is an attempt to reconcile that public symbolism with my personal story.