COPENHAGEN—When Flemming Rose heard last month that Danish cartoonists were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children’s biography of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, he decided to put his nation’s famous tolerance to the test.
The cultural editor of Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, then recruited cartoonists to depict Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and published them in the paper.
Since then, thousands of Danish Muslims, whose religion strictly prohibits depictions of the prophet, have demonstrated in protest, though some have rallied in support of the paper, too. Ambassadors from 11 Islamic countries including Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey signed a letter demanding that the Danish prime minister “punish” the newspaper. In contrast, a young Iranian woman started a petition in favor of the move.
“This issue goes back to Salman Rushdie. It’s about freedom of speech and Islam,” says an unrepentant Rose, who feels a culture of fear and self-censorship has taken hold across Europe since Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for criticizing traditional Islam’s treatment of women.
As accusations of racism and discrimination fly amid the ongoing unrest in France, European countries are being pushed to pinpoint the causes of—and solution to—the social exclusion of their significant Muslim populations. A key ingredient to the dialogue, Rose says, is making room for a frank discussion of the compatibility of democratic principles such as free speech, and traditional Islam.
“Some Muslims are asking for an apology pointing to a lack of respect,” he says. “They’re not asking for respect; they’re asking for subordination—for us as non-Muslims to follow Muslim taboos in the public domain.”
But already Danish voters are flocking to the right-wing Danish People’s Party, which has pointed out that crime in general and the rape of Danish girls in particular are disproportionately committed by Muslim immigrants.
The party’s provocative slogan “Dit Land, Dit Valg” (One land, one people) for many people conjures up unwelcome reminders of Denmark’s ambiguous role in the Nazi occupation.
“A growing number of people see being a Dane and being a Muslim as incompatible,” says Moller, adding that the Danish Peoples’ Party, the country’s third largest, is behind controversial government attempts to stabilize Denmark’s growing Muslim community at no more than 10 percent of the total 5.5 million population. Right now, Muslims make up nearly 4 percent of the population.
“The emphasis is rapidly becoming to keep out as many people as possible, regardless of whether they’ve been tortured or persecuted,” says Moller.