Flemming Rose and the absence of empathy
February 26, 2015 — Review
Written by Peter Hervik
An account of the Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis by one of its main instigators, the cultural editor of the paper which published them, Jyllands-Posten, is unsurprisingly lacking in self-awareness or understanding of his targets, says Danish anthropologist Peter Hervik.
To a great extent, many of the stories touched upon by Flemming Rose in The Tyranny of Silence as issues of free speech are uncomplicated, and it is easy to agree wholeheartedly with his concern. They go to the remote corners of the former Soviet Union in time and space, Hitler’s Nazism, 9/11 in New York and Washington and the Madrid bombings. Rose travels widely, conducts countless interviews and, by introducing his humble social background and family story, evokes sympathy for a man who wrestles with his own new importance and global reputation.
Rose’s book came out in late 2014, and has gained renewed interest in the early months of 2015 due to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and even more recently, the suspected terrorist attack in Copenhagen. The book is an abridged and translated version of a Danish-language book published in 2010 by Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten’s own publishing house, five years after the paper published twelve infamous cartoons on 30 September 2005 as an entirely media-instigated project. Since then, Rose has met many critics, carried on his work for the newspaper, authored a couple of books and invested an impressive amount of energy and time rehearsing his beliefs and arguments.
Rose is a key player in the Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis. The new book must be read as a primary source for the Muhammad cartoon affair, but does not constitute a systematic academic analysis of it. Rose is first and foremost a journalist, a radical rightwing activist, a cultural editor and a man with a leadership position, and his contribution must be seen in this light. Sometimes Rose forgets this himself, but his role as a fighter, combatant or soldier, which he says developed from engagement in youth elite soccer, is central to his approach to the cartoon crisis. Not least his enormous urge to gather any news coverage from around the world in order to show that ‘I was right and that others were wrong’. What he means by being right, however, is never clear. Few people denied his right to publish the cartoons. So what is he fighting for?
From my analytical perspective as a Danish researcher who looked at Jyllands-Posten’s radical coverage of Islam back in early 2001, Rose’s book is a mile wide, but only an inch deep and filled with alligators. Given hundreds of pages for providing depth, Rose ends up with a multiplication of the format of newspaper articles on which he draws almost exclusively, but without providing any real depth to his endeavour. Moreover, there is no structural analysis to his work and the self-scrutiny leaves out crucial dimensions and appears more like self-staging.
One of the first things the new government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen did in late 2001 was to decide to close the Danish Centre for Human Rights in Copenhagen, on the grounds that its leader had been criticising Rasmussen’s new parliamentary ally, the radical rightwing Danish People’s Party (DPP). This event can easily be seen as one of the most serious restrictions of free speech in Denmark for many years. Flemming Rose chose not to include it in his book. Perhaps because he is more a soldier fighting on the side of this government than a fighter for free speech per se. Or perhaps he prefers to make his arguments outside Denmark rather than within it.
The government’s agreement with the DPP to close the Human Rights Centre (in the end the Centre was spared but restructured) was a key element in the government’s ‘cultural war of values’, a strategy inspired by Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. The premise was that the one who wins the debate for cultural values decides Denmark’s future. Therefore a populist, anti-elitist platform, for ‘the people’ and against migrants, was pursued – and successfully so. Rose became part of Jyllands-Posten’s editorial leadership on 1 April 2004. His new job was to lead the newspaper’s copycat version of the government’s ‘cultural war of values’ strategy, which prioritised critical treatment of the public service station Denmark’s Radio (DR), communism and ex-communists, and Islam (Hervik 2014). A little more than a year later, he paid twelve cartoonists €100 each to draw the Prophet Muhammad ‘as they saw him’.
The Danish Muhammad cartoon conflict can best be seen as a predictable outcome of the government’s and mainstream media’s ‘cultural war of values’ strategy. This again reflects the core moral ideas of neo-conservatism, not least the two moral logics: ‘There can be no moral equivalency’ between our Western democracy and their different forms of governance and, secondly, there is no room for debate: one’s adversary is either friend or foe. According to this approach, the public sphere is not for dialogue, but an area for serious battling and confrontation. Free speech and freedom of expression, which we all support, became a weapon of the power holders in this battle, in which both the Danish government and Jyllands-Posten refused to engage in dialogue with concerned Muslim citizens and organisations. Rose does not tell us in The Tyranny of Silence that these two related democratic notions which we all support were historically created in Denmark in the 1840s mainly to protect the Jewish and Catholic minorities against power holders. In the Muhammad cartoon affair, Denmark’s biggest newspaper Jyllands-Posten, in which he held a central position, teamed up with the Danish government in an effort that turned freedom of speech into a tool of the power holders against the country’s vulnerable minority. The government refused, on the basic of neo-conservative, Schmittian politics, to meet with concerned Muslim and Christian leaders, which propelled Muslims towards the Middle East for support; Al-Jazeera had already covered the cartoons’ publication several times by the middle of October 2005, and a group of Danish imams travelled to several Middle Eastern countries following the refusal of dialogue in Denmark. Anders Fogh Rasmussen span his way out of severe criticism in a friendly interview in Jyllands-Posten on 30 October 2005, arguing that if a non-Western representative criticises freedom of speech, it is simply because he – as a non-Westerner – does not understand the notion. This spin was repeated again and again, together with blaming the imams’ travel to the Middle East, rather than the publication, for the controversy. This helped the government and newspaper to shape social memory in such a way that the issue was remembered as a free speech issue and not the outcome of increased Islamophobia.
From Rose’s self-understanding it makes perfect sense to present the global cartoon story as a single reified story that was ignited by a single cartoon. He prides himself on travelling widely and finding the same issue everywhere, but his lack of listening skills and empathy prevents him from seeing anything beyond himself. Regardless of how many times this ‘truth’ is recited it never becomes really true. Once we dig deeper than an inch, we need to separate the act of publishing twelve cartoons, from stories about the publication. Egyptians, Indonesians and Pakistanis are not hypocrites for protesting without having seen the actual publication. The stories about the publication travelled and told the story of a hegemonic Western world that once again did not respect Muslims, while denying dialogue with them. When news about the cartoons travelled, it was decontextualised from its original setting and recontextualised into a different locality, where the reactions of some foreign governments, local conditions of power and security played their part. In fact the lack of civil society mechanisms, inferior legislative protection, socio-economic marginality, draconian security surveillance and exposure to feared aggressive militant Islamists and terrorists are conditions many Muslims endure. The stories of the cartoons and the denial of respect and dialogue yield the experience of inferiority and, once again, of being bossed around. This is what Rose’s absent empathy could have told him – and it might have made him address regimes and power relations, instead of insulting Muslims for being Muslims.
Today, the bomb-in-the-turban cartoon has for many Muslims become such a hated object that it is comparable to the swastika. Insisting again and again on publishing such a loaded cartoon reveals a man who is blinded by his own predatory narcissism. Rose can justifiably claim his right to be Islamophobic, to publish cartoons that now have the symbolic value of the swastika, and maybe even the right to produce distorted information; however he is either too stubborn or neo-conservative to understand that if you want dialogue and you want to solve problems this is not so smart. And even less so to insult religious people’s belief, when often they have not much else.
Rose presents himself in the book as the (heroic) global fighter against the Soviet Union, Nazism and communism, and places Islam in the same group of -isms. But he forgets to tell that he is a neo-conservative, like the Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as you can see from the fact that most of his sources are neo-conservative hate-mongers or simply radical and extreme-right figures. Rose was a left-winger himself at first, but then as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, he got mugged by Soviet reality. His publisher, the Cato Institute, is financed partly by the US neo-conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Neo-conservativism is the new powerful -ism that Rose forgets to tell us is behind the fight against Islam and communism. This is such a simple fact that it seems ridiculous that reviewers of Rose still miss it. His associates include Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Pearle, and Billy Kristol, and the Danish Free Speech Society and the Danish People’s Party are two incubators for Islamophobia (although not the only ones).
At the end of the day, we are left with no clear idea of what Rose wishes to accomplish. Does he want to get rid of legislation on racism and blasphemy? If this protection is taken away, anything goes: the ones with the power make it, those without power are not only society’s losers, but find themselves ridiculed as well. An example is the Draw-Muhammad-Day activism, which Rose mentions but doesn’t understand, yet it represents the kind of society Rose envisions. For me, these images and the cartoons that come with the Draw-Muhammad-Day activism provide an image of the kind of inferno we risk ending up with, through people with the right to publish but no empathic or social skills.
A few days ago a Danish TV progamme featured a conversation with Flemming Rose about his new book. The footage gave a glimpse of how far Rose wants to take his ideology. Rose claimed that Jews form a race, while Muslims did not. Jews are born Jews, while Muslims have made a choice to become Muslims.
All of us race scholars know that when a white man comes up and uses genetics to separate two Abrahamic religions, both of Semitic peoples, without consulting practitioners or the literature on racism, there is reason to be worried. This is someone who uses free speech to make us dumber – which of course is his democratic right.
Peter Hervik is professor of media and migration at Aalborg university, Copenhagen. His books include The Annoying Difference: The emergence of Danish neonationalism, neoracism, and populism in the post-1989 world (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2011) and The Danish Muhammad Cartoon Conflict (Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM), Malmö University, 2012). He also wrote ‘Cultural War of Values: The proliferation of moral identities in the Danish public sphere’, in Becoming Minority: How discourses and policies produce minorities in Europe and India (pp. 154-173) (Tripathy, Jyotirmaya and Sudarsan Padmanabhan (eds.), New Delhi: Sage Publications, India, 2014).
References:  The Tyranny of Silence: how one cartoon ignited a global debate on the future of free speech, by Flemming Rose, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., 2014.  Rasmussen’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the Conservatives, won a landslide victory, and had a political agreement with the DPP which included the closure of the Human Rights Centre.  See Hervik, The Annoying Difference above.  Carl Schmitt was a legal scholar in post-World War I Germany who provided legal support for Nazism and advanced the idea of the ‘politics of negative dialogue’: that politics only became real when you treated your adversary as an enemy and were ready to die for your cause. With Leo Strauss, Schmitt is generally regarded as an academic father of American neo-conservativism.  See Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An essay on the geography of anger (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).  An association of opinion-makers and cultural personalities with a strong anti-Islamic agenda, whose 2004 founders included Danish People’s Party MPs as well as a historian and a couple of philosophers.  On 20 May 2010 the first Draw Muhammad Day took place as an initiative of a Seattle cartoonist, Molly Norris, following threats against two cartoonists who depicted Muhammad negatively in an episode of the American animated series South Park. The original idea was to hold a competition to draw Muhammad, which would generate so many drawings that the threat to free speech would be impossible to carry out and so lose their sting. The initiative has resulted in thousands of insulting cartoons on the net, originally aimed at a few radical Muslims who sent death threats, but also offending millions of peaceful Muslim believers.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.