It’s been fifteen months since the publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad, and the resulting furor in the Muslim world over what was considered a blasphemous violation of a central tenet of Sunni Islam—the prohibition of visual representations of the prophet. Though the riots have stopped and the flames coming from Danish flags and embassies have been extinguished, the controversy over where to draw the line between free speech and criticism of Islam persists. In September, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from a fourteenth-century text that referred to some of Mohammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman,” touching off more riots. Later that same month, the Deutsche Opera postponed a performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” because of a scene that depicts the severed heads of Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, and Neptune. Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, claimed he solicited the cartoons to assert freedom of speech and to resist the self-censorship crippling the West when it came to “accommodating Muslim sensitivities.” In January, CJR ’s Alia Malek interviewed Rose by telephone about the cartoons and their consequences.
How has this changed your view of journalism?
[Laughs] I have far more understanding for those complaining about the media every day that we are inaccurate and biased. It’s one thing to have a sense of this; it’s another to be the object of this kind of journalism yourself.
Has it improved or changed your own journalism?
I have become more conscious about what kind of authority you give to experts—so-called experts—in a news story. You give your readers the impression that someone speaks objectively about something because he has special knowledge. In this case, especially experts on Islam or religion, their opinions and statments are
informed by political standpoints. So you should explain from where this
person is speaking, if it’s an institution or university with a certain tradition or whatever.
Since these cartoons appeared, are the Danish media specifically, and the European media generally, in a better place regarding what you call “self-censorship” when it comes to Islam?
Over all, I would say there is more restraint. But you have the case of the canceled opera in Germany. Because there was uproar about it, the decision was reversed. Our cartoons did not create a new reality. They revealed a reality that was already there. We’ve had some strong reactions and discussions; now it’s time for reflection. So it remains to be seen what will happen.
How will you engage what you think needs to be scrutinized in Danish Muslim communities?
One of the positive outcomes of the publication of the cartoons has been that the more multifaceted face of the Muslim population has appeared. When we want a comment now, we will not go to the radical imams that used to speak in the name of all Muslims. We are very careful that we get different points of view from the Muslim community, because it is now recognized that the Muslim community is not one, and there are many different voices and the majority is moderate.
Were you surprised to find that?
I was not. But in some quarters of Danish society, Islam is the “Other” and there is a tendency to stereotype. Before the international story broke, but when it was big in Denmark, we ran three full pages with short interviews with forty-seven Muslims in Denmark with photos, and the headline was: “We say no to the imams.”
One of your stated goals was to challenge moderate Muslims to speak out. Do you think the cartoons strengthened or hurt that effort?
Definitely strengthened. Because of this the leader of the Danish People’s Party, an anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic party, wrote an internal e-mail to party members saying, “until now we have spoken about them as one. From now on I want you to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims.” The same day the embassies were burning in Beirut and Damascus, Democratic Muslims, which has become a very important voice in public debate, was founded in Copenhagen.
Do you have any Muslim writers on staff?
I don’t know, because I don’t ask people.
Any children of immigrants working at the paper?
Not many. If I should ask people it’s contradictory to everything the Enlightenment is standing for. Should I also ask people about their political views when I hire them to secure balanced and fair reporting?
Could they help with access to certain communities, to get better coverage?
No story comes to my mind in the Danish press as a whole in which the ethnic background of a reporter has been crucial to the coverage. If you speak the language, that’s another thing. If language ability gives you access, that is an important factor when you interview people.