Ten years on Danish daily stands by Muhammad caricatures

Debate continues as ‘Jyllands-Posten’ newspaper and cartoonist unrepentant

Children in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2005 with a mock coffin wrapped with a Danish flag that reads, in Arabic, “Death to Denmark”. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Children in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2005 with a mock coffin wrapped with a Danish flag that reads, in Arabic, “Death to Denmark”. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


On this day a decade ago, few outside Denmark noticed when the right-wing Jyllands-Posten daily published a dozen cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

The newspaper’s then culture editor, Flemming Rose, commissioned the cartoons as an experiment after hearing of a Danish author’s difficulty in finding anyone to illustrate a book about the life of Muhammad, given Islam’s ban on images of the prophet.

A few weeks later the Cartoon Crisis, as it came to be known, sparked violent protests in the Muslim world where angry demonstrators burned Danish flags and torched diplomatic offices.

A decade on, everything has changed for the Jyllands-Posten and its staff. Rose, now foreign editor, is flanked by bodyguards wherever he goes. In public appearances, angry verbal attacks or boycott calls are common. In Doha, he was dubbed a “Danish Satan”.

Jyllands-Posten journalists recount tales from the trenches tinged with black Danish humour, like that of the time their Copenhagen editorial office moved into a building shared with the daily newspaper Politiken.

Unwanted visitors

Politiken “Jyllands-PostenPolitiken.

A decade on Kurt Westergaard, whose caricature of the prophet showed a man with a bomb in his turban, remains unrepentant.

This despite – or because of – numerous death threats, a life under police guard and, in 2010, a narrow escape in his home from an axe-wielding intruder.

“My basic feeling has been and still is anger,” said Westergaard, now 80, to AFP.

After a career skewering politicians, he viewed the Muhammad caricature as a “routine job . . . just another day at the office”. While his views are unchanged, Westergaard sees a greater fear in Denmark of terrorist attacks or of offending Muslims.

“The fact is that it is fear, and that is . . . deplorable,” he said.

Despite the worldwide protest, attacks on Danish embassies, boycotts of Danish products and companies and more than 200 deaths linked to the affair, Rose says he doesn’t regret commissioning the caricatures at Jyllands-Posten . “But I don’t think that a caricature is worth a human life,” he said.

This morning, Jyllands-Posten will mark the 10th anniversary of the controversy with no caricatures.

But the newspaper insists on its right to print caricatures again, even though it did not join other newspapers in reprinting Charlie Hebdo cartoons after January’s deadly attack on its Paris office.

Only weeks after Charlie Hebdo, in Copenhagen a Danish-born gunman, Omar El-Hussein, shot dead a filmmaker outside a free speech event and, later the same evening, he killed a Jewish guard outside a city synagogue.

Secular Danes

Jyllands-Posten Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Rose puts himself in this final category but says his readiness to debate the issues should not be mistaken for regret. Even today Rose insists that “there is no right not to be offended”.

That, he says, is the beginning of what he calls the “Tyranny of Silence”. In a book of that name, he warns that measures designed to protect religion and prevent discrimination can eventually curtail freedom of speech.

“That is one of the main reasons I continue to defend our right to publish the Muhammad cartoons,” he writes.

“If I relinquish that right, I also indirectly accept the right of authoritarian regimes and totalitarian movements to limit free speech on grounds of violation of religion and religious sentiments. I find that unacceptable.”