Mr. Cartoon: Surprised by Arab Journos’ “Irrational Relationship with Mohammed”

On Monday night, Willa Paskin sat down for a three-hour session with the man who instigated a firestorm in Europe and the Middle East with the simple commissioning of cartoons.

“Those of you who have followed this story closely might know I was sent on vacation by my bosses,” said Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Mr. Rose was the editor who commissioned that paper’s infamous cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

Mr. Rose’s American vacation hasn’t been particularly relaxing. Hoping to create “some other point of reference to me for the readers, so I would not be Mr. Cartoon for the rest of my career,” his editors have sent him on a sojourn across the U.S. to speak with public figures and intellectuals about the global political landscape. Mr. Rose has already conducted interviews with Newt Gingrich, Christopher Hitchens, Francis Fukuyama, and Richard Perle.

On Monday, April 17, in order to speak with author and intellectual Paul Berman, Mr. Rose found himself in a stuffy classroom on Washington Place—before Mr. Berman’s class at New York University’s journalism school.

Mr. Rose, 48, who has closely clipped graying hair and fashionable, black wire-framed glasses, first conducted a taped interview with Prof. Berman—he began with the manageable, “How would you characterize your world view?” and followed up with the equally bite-sized, “What does it mean to you to be liberal?” Then, tape recorder off, he spoke about the cartoons for just under two hours, fielding questions from the class.

Mr. Rose was resolutely unapologetic about their publication. “The cartoons were not stereotyping, they were not demonizing,” he said. “Journalism is about putting your finger on the issue that causes debate. All the things we’re debating in Western Europe and Denmark,” he said, meaning immigration, assimilation, the place of Islam in liberal democracies and social welfare states, “converged in the cartoons. As a journalist, that’s what you dream of.”

The cartoons were published because “There was a story we had to cover” Rose said. “I was provoked by the idea that some in Denmark and Western Europe were submitting themselves to self-censorship when dealing with Islam.” The children’s book writer who could not find an illustrator to draw the Prophet was just one example of this tendency, according to Mr. Rose. Other incidents—the unbidden removal of two art exhibits related to the Koran in England and Germany, a Danish comedian saying he feared being offensive to Muslims, and a meeting between the Danish prime minister and Imams who asked for better coverage of Islam in the press—motivated Jyllands-Posten to run the images.

“I will say a cartoon is not worth a single human life, but the cartoons were not the direct cause of this, there were lots of factors” he said. Mr. Rose believes that the protests, which began months after his newspaper had initially published the cartoons, and even months after they had been reprinted in an Egyptian paper, were “initiated at the top.”

What did he mean by “the top”? He cited the Egyptian government, which was facing a tight election at the time of the protests. “It was convenient during that election to look like defenders of poor oppressed Muslims in Denmark,” he said.

Mr. Rose also dismissed the idea that Muslims in Denmark were in need of any such protectors. Those disseminating the cartoons “present a picture as if the Muslim community were on the verge of going to a concentration camp.” He countered that “Denmark has 50 to 100 different religions. They said Muslims were not allowed to build mosques—there are more than 100 of them. We even have Muslim schools and Muslim graveyards.” Greater than 4/5ths of Denmark’s population are Lutherans, members of the state-supported church, Church of Denmark—many are non-practicing members, however.

Late into the session, he theorized a bit. “In a way these cartoons are an act of inclusion and integration because the cartoonists are integrating the Muslim minority into a Danish tradition of satire. They are saying, you are just like everyone else.”

Mr. Rose was also critical of the European intelligentsia, who he felt were “intellectually unprepared” to grapple with the cartoons. Members of the Western European left in particular, he said, “are too hesitant to stand up and speak out for their rights. There’s fear of insisting that if you live here, there are certain values and that is part of what makes this society open and free and prosperous.”

Mr. Rose became most passionate when discussing religious freedom. “What is freedom of religion? First, it is the right to say no to religion. I believe strongly in freedom of religion. When I go to a mosque, I will not bring cartoons, I will take of my shoes, I will make my daughter dress properly. But if people expect me to respect their own taboos and rules outside their holy houses, I don’t think that’s respect, I think that’s submission.”

He elaborated later. “Religion is most profoundly respected in secular society. Places where religion is in power are the exact places you don’t have freedom of religion. In Saudi Arabia you can’t wear a cross, you can’t have a bible. You’re not allowed to have a Christmas tree.”

Despite this self-proclaimed passion for religious freedom, Mr. Rose seemed surprised by the religious fervor the cartoons had tapped. During the throes of the crisis, when Mr. Rose was frequently being interviewed, he noticed when speaking with Arab journalists that they had, he said, “this irrational relationship with Mohammed—like he was their father or their brother.”

In a way, Mr. Rose took an optimistic view of the long term. He argued that the cartoons had brought previously “latent” issues, such as free speech and immigration, into the daily conversation. He said that text book companies had approached the paper; they hoped to include the drawings in their products. “Then,” he said, “second, third, and fourth generation Muslims will be confronted early on.”
—Willa Paskin