Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 35 issue 3
The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, by Flemming Rose, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2014, ISBN 978-939709-42-4) 237 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.
Published before the Islamic attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, this book takes on even greater relevance in the massacre’s wake. Author Flemming Rose is an editor of the Danish tabloid Jyllands-Posten (the Jutlands Post); famously, it was Rose who commissioned a dozen cartoons, some depicting the prophet Muhammad, that appeared in the paper in 2005. Months later, these cartoons triggered a surge of Muslim rage and violence whose echoes are still resounding. (Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons as a gesture of solidarity at the height of the cartoon crisis and published its own Muhammad cartoons from time to time thereafter.)
Though there were a dozen Jyllands-Posten cartoons, one of them—an arresting image by cartoonist Kurt Westergaard showing an Arab male who might or might not have been Muhammad with a round black bomb in his turban—rose to iconic status; it is the “one cartoon” of the book’s subtitle. It was this cartoon that Free Inquiry columnist Nat Hentoff (author of the book’s foreword) published in his column in The Village Voice. It and three other Jyllands-Posten cartoons were published in the April/May 2006 Free Inquiry, the first time any of the cartoons appeared in a U.S. periodical with national circulation. Various U.S. and Canadian booksellers strove to censor the magazine, with consequences worthy of a Laurel and Hardy sketch.
But for Rose, Westergaard, and others outside the United States, the cartoon incident brought grave consequences. Westergaard barely escaped assassination when a Muslim fanatic broke into his home; Rose remains on al-Qaeda’s “most wanted” list, a distinction he shared with Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo. Across the world, about two hundred people died in violence related to the cartoons.
The Tyranny of Silence is Rose’s insider account of the cartoon crisis, and it is gripping. He deftly presents the tangled chain of events and summarizes the principal arguments for and against publishing the cartoons. (Spoiler alert: if he had it to do again, he would.) Perhaps most valuable are Rose’s meditations about a misguided culture of grievance that is deeply established in Europe and gaining influence in the United States and which threatens free speech as generations of Westerners have known it.
“Doubt is the germ of curiosity and critical questioning,” Rose writes, “and its prerequisite is a strong sense of self, a courage that leaves room for debate.” Under freedom of speech, every belief and every group is equally subject to discussion, criticism, and even satire or ridicule. No one is exempt, whether on grounds of privilege or because of the lack of it. “In a democracy, no one can claim the exclusive right to tell certain stories,” Rose writes. “That means, to me, that Muslims have the right to tell jokes and critical stories about Jews, while nonbelievers can skewer Islam in any way they wish.” It was because he had seen Danish institutions censoring themselves so as not to offend Muslims that Rose invited twelve cartoonists to defend by demonstration this vivid principle of free expression.
Today we hear it argued that “only minorities may tell jokes about themselves,” which seems compassionate enough until we recognize what follows from it: a denial that universal human rights are universal. Instead, they are seen as “a Western invention with no bearing on and without validity in other cultures.” Behold the ideological core of the long-running campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to have “defamation of religion” declared a crime under international law. (Free Inquiry’s copublisher, the Center for Inquiry, has been deeply involved in resisting initiatives of this character at the United Nations.) Down this path lies a tyranny of silence indeed.
In Rose’s telling, the West lost its way when the fatwa came down against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Too many Western intellectuals sided with the Ayatollah Khomeini instead of standing foursquare for Rushdie and freedom of expression. Conflicted Western responses to the cartoon crisis showed more of this same dangerous confusion—did free speech entail genuine freedom to offend, or could that right be trumped by some groups’ newly imagined rights not to be offended? Rose wrote in a guest editorial in Die Welt, quoted in the book, “What kind of civilization do we have in Europe if we are to do without humor and the right to ridicule terrorists?” Europe seems on the verge of finding out, and America may not be far behind.
In The Tyranny of Silence, Flemming Rose poses a question that looms more urgent than ever after the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Can a society that willingly defines away one of its most elementary freedoms long preserve the freedoms that remain?
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.