The Charlie Hebdo Tragedy Echoes the Danish Cartoon Crisis of 2005-06

The murder of a dozen Charlie Hebdo employees in France by Islamic extremists brings back memories of the unrest surrounding Muhammad cartoons published in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

In 2005-06, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's Danish government was under abundant pressure to take action during the Muhammad cartoon controversy. If your memory is a little hazy, the saga (which Rasmussen called Denmark's worst international relations event since World War II) began on September 30, 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a set of cartoons featuring depictions of the prophet Muhammad, a major taboo in most Islamic traditions. The cartoons spurred international strife that led to death threats against cartoonists, violent protests in Muslim countries, and the opening of a contentious dialogue on the limits of freedom of expression. Ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries sent Rasmussen a letter asking him to denounce the cartoons. Rasmussen responded by saying the Danish government would not step in to silence the press. Doing so would undermine Danish freedom and democracy.


Rasmussen spoke about his role during the cartoon crisis in a Big Think interview from last year, viewable below:

     

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

         

         

       

     

       

One of the most troubling aspects of events such as the recent Charlie Hebdo murders is their shuddering tendency to echo past crises. Once again, cartoonists are the target of violence, though this time blood has actually been spilled. Hate and discriminatory backlash are once again oozing from the rubble. Freedom of expression finds itself -- once again -- butted up against perceived protections from blasphemy.

We've all seen the lovely and inspirational cartoons published in response to the attack, which has been denounced by Muslim leaders worldwide. On the other side of the coin, we've also seen editorials that take a contrary view. We as a global society may not be as close to consensus as we'd like. Despite the palpable differences between 2005 and 2015, we find ourselves at a familiar crossroads.

Just as Rasmussen explains in the interview, the foundation of a free society is access to open and critical debate on all topics, including religion. To compromise that freedom would be far more tragic than hurt feelings and spilled blood. You can take the words below, spoken by Rasmussen months before the Charlie Hebdo murders, and apply them today:

"Whether you sympathize or not with those cartoons, it is a basic principle in any free society that you can express your views freely whether it is in a written form, through television and movies or even drawings and cartoons. And if you start to compromise on that basic principle then you will gradually undermine your free society and democracy."

Photo credit: conejota / Shutterstock

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