In 1989, when Rushdie was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, intellectuals founded Rushdie-committee’s. Yet today, people are deafeningly silent about the threats against cartoonists that dare to lampoon Islam and journalists.
Flemming Rose is a gentle man. He speaks in a thoughtful manner. I talked to him a few years ago, but I recall little from our conversation back then.
Recently, I welcomed him, accompanied by heavily armed security personnel, at the door of his plane when he visited The Netherlands. Rose, who functions as editor of the foreign affairs section of Denmark’s largest newspaper Jyllands-Posten, is wanted by Al-Qaida for “crimes committed against Islam”. That Al-Qaida hit list is also popular with other terrorist organizations. Rose is not a politician neither a soldier. What is held against him?
Rose studied Russian language, history, and literature. In the 1990’s he was a correspondent in the Soviet-Union, where he witnessed the collapse of communism. There, he spoke with dissidents and human rights activists. Through those discussions Rose came to understand how totalitarian tyrannies operate. The framework of reference for his worldview was created by the stories of survivors of the gulag labor camps: a form of tyranny that destroyed the most simple forms of liberty.
In The Tyranny of Silence, Rose’s book on the Danish cartoons controversy, he elaborates on those Soviet detention camps. At least 300.000 prisoners were sent to those camps for telling a (inappropriate) joke about Soviet leadership.
Nazi-Germany, the Soviet-Union, the Iranian regime and many other totalitarian states don’t tolerate jokes or satire directed at the rulers and their ideology. A responsible intellectual cannot forget about this staggering number of 300.000 prisoners.
After serving for 14 years as a foreign affairs correspondent, Rose returned to Denmark in 2004 to become head of the cultural section of Jyllands-Posten. To increase the international appeal of the newspaper, its cultural section had to become more “worldly”.
At that time, the Danish comedian Frank Hvam stated in an interview that he was prepared to poke fun of all sorts of social phenomena, except for Islam and its holy symbols. His reason: fear. Rose must have thought about those 300.000 jokesters that once were locked up in labor camps when he heard about this.
At a Monday morning in 2005, Rose received a call from the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, Jørn Mikkelsen. It had become clear that a Danish cartoonist had given in to self-censorship on matters of Islam. Rose was asked by Mikkelsen to find out whether there were more cartoonists that acted this way out of fear for repercussions.
How does one find an answer to that question? That’s easy: you ask a number of cartoonists whether they would be willing to draw a picture of the prophet Muhammad. This is what Rose did. He never asked them to paint a negative picture of the prophet, no, he just asked the cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they saw him. This whole enterprise was merely about self-censorship and freedom of speech, nothing more, nothing less.
The now infamous ‘Danish cartoons’ appeared in the Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. Imams brought those cartoons – and some other cartoons that defamed Muhammad but were in fact never published by the Danish newspaper! – to the Middle East in order to excite jihadists and anger the crowds. Yet, Flemming Rose is being held responsible by Islamic terrorists for the publication of the twelve cartoons of Muhammad. Rose, Kurt Westergaard (who drew the cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban), and the newspaper as a whole are a target for jihadists.
Palestinian imam Ahmad Abu Laban played a crucial role in getting this ‘cartoon crisis’ started. According to Rose, nearly 200 people died in the demonstrations against free speech, in countries where such freedom doesn’t exist.
Contrary to the jihadists, Rose believes in the power of words: ‘That is the core issue. Words might offend or shock, but they can be countered in kind. Words are a democracy’s way of dealing with conflict.’
Flemming Rose has become a symbol of the core value of Western civilization: freedom. How should we interpret the title of his book, The Tyranny of Silence? Rose himself has become the type of person that he once admired. He has become a dissident. But, a dissident in a free society. He has also become a person in hiding. That fact should be unbearable for every righteous intellectual and politician. When the novelist Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by the supreme leader of Iran, intellectuals founded Rushdie-committee’s. Western intellectuals opposed the terrorist threat.
Yet today, there is silence. A deafening silence. This is the tyranny of silence, the self-imposed silence of intellectuals, journalists, and politicians. In his book, Rose shows in a convincing way what effect violence has on freedom of speech. He also reconstructs all the facts of the Danish cartoon crisis, and examines the arguments contra free speech in relation to Islam.
Western intellectuals must break the tyranny of silence and must establish a committee for the advancement of freedom of expression. We cannot leave our modern-day freethinkers in isolation.
At the same time, it is the government’s task to tackle those who abuse free speech by means of inciting violence.
Go to it, intellectuals and friends of the free mind! The tyranny of silence must be broken. Flemming Rose and Kurt Westergaard deserve our support. Read Flemming Rose and forward his message.