In September 2005, the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten” published several cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Visual depictions of the prophet are considered extremely blasphemous in most Islamic traditions. The cartoons drew criticism from Muslim communities in Europe and spurred violent protests in several Muslim countries. The Danish government was asked to step in and do something, or at the very least apologize.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was at the time Prime Minister of Denmark, calls the event “Denmark’s worst international relations incident since the Second World War.” In this Big Think interview, conducted prior to the tragic events at French newspaper “Charlie Hebdo,” Rasmussen explains why he and his government elected not to cave to outside pressure. As he says, compromising on the freedom of the press would undermine Denmark’s free society and democracy.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: The cartoon crisis in Denmark was really about freedom of expression and free press. It was quite a challenge for the Danish government to strike the right balance but because obviously we also had to calm the waters. But I learned from that crisis that you have to be firm on certain basic principles and not compromise. And we didn’t. We were requested to apologize on behalf of a newspaper that had published some cartoons. But I think that would be a slippery slope. 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. Of course in any democracy you should also pay full – you should also respect freedom of religion obviously. But it is a basic feature of any democracy that you are allowed to have a free and also critical debate about all issues including religion. So that’s the lesson I took from that crisis. And I think people broadly accept that we have to stand up for these basic principles. And the Danish government did at that time though it was a very challenging time.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton