A decade after Prophet Muhammad cartoons, tension over free expression endures

Ten years ago deadly riots broke out across the Muslim world as word spread of several cartoons published in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Today the former editor and some of the artists still live in fear of attacks. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports that free expression is at the heart of a debate about the clash of Western values and a changing Europe.

Read the Full Transcript


    Ten years ago this week, a Danish newspaper set off a firestorm when it published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, sparking violent protests, which claimed the lives of hundreds of people.

    One decade later, those involved in the heart of the crisis now need lifelong protection.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has been out to see some of them, and, tonight, he explores the changing landscape of speech in Europe as it adjusts to an ever-changing population.

    And an editor's note: We will not air the cartoons. It is our policy not to show images of the Prophet Mohammed, because doing so is offensive to some viewers.


    Kurt Westergaard is one of the most despised people on the planet. His house in Central Denmark is now a fortress, after a man from Somalia broke in five years ago and tried to kill him.

  • KURT WESTERGAARD, Retired Cartoonist, Jyllands Posten:

    I have nothing to apologize for. So, I will never give an apology. I think it would be a loss of professional self-respect if I should give an apology.


    Westergaard is concerned that his concept of free expression is seriously under threat.


    Well, I think I still have a basic feeling of anger. I worked as a Danish cartoonist according to Danish traditions. I had done nothing wrong. I think it's a cartoonist's, a satirist's job to criticize those in power.


    Demonstrations and riots broke out across the Muslim world in 2006 as word of the cartoons spread. Turkey was at the forefront of protests in which more than 200 people were killed worldwide.

    In Afghanistan and elsewhere over the course of the past decade, there have been dire warnings about the consequences of insulting the most important figure in the Muslim religion. In Denmark, some members of the Muslim minority have occasionally taken to the streets. This demonstration was by the radical Hizb ut Tahrir Islamist group.

  • MAN:

    And we will never compromise for this issue. And, yes, they can then call us uncivilized because we have this stand. Because we can't accept their so-called freedom of speech, they call us uncivilized.


    A Copenhagen's most influential mosque, Imran Shah, spokesman for the Islamic Society, reiterates the red line that will not be crossed.

    IMRAN SHAH, Islamic Society of Denmark: The very notion of connecting bombs with the religion of Islam, with the very acknowledgment of Islam, where you propose that there is no God but God and the last messenger of God sent to this earth was the Prophet Mohammed, connect that with a bomb, that's a very immature and uncivilized way of starting a debate and discussion.


    Do you consider that Muslims have won because there are some people who say that newspapers and all other forms of media are now self-censoring, because they are too afraid to publish images like those Mohammed cartoons?


    There's no winners or losers in this. The simple thing is to respect each other and not to force people to accept to be dishonored, ridiculed and so on and so forth.


    But one of Denmark's most prominent free speech advocates, Jacob Mchangama, worries that the West is now abiding by Islamic blasphemy rules.

  • JACOB MCHANGAMA, Free Speech Activist:

    Basically, we have a situation where we have a jihadist veto which is being respected, however grudgingly, by journalists and editors, which I think is sad. But at least some have come around to admitting that they are acting out of fear, and not out of respect or tolerance.


    Another key figure in the cartoon story living life in the shadows is Flemming Rose, the culture editor who commissioned the 12 drawings. He will spend the rest of his life under guard. There were watchful eyes present when we met in Copenhagen's main park.

  • FLEMMING ROSE, Former Culture Editor, Jyllands Posten:

    I think free speech is in bad standing. I don't think that the key threat comes from Islamists. But I think the key challenge to free speech comes within our own culture, that too many people don't believe in the value of free speech.

    In order to save the social peace in a multireligious and multicultural and multiethnic society, Muslims need to work out, you know, a new concept of blasphemy and apostasy. For too many Muslims, it's OK to commit violence when nonbelievers or Muslims commit blasphemy.


    I took a train from Denmark to Sweden to meet artist Lars Vilks, who was the target of a terrorist attack in Copenhagen in February. He's been living in various safe houses after drawing the prophet as a dog.

    Protection officers drove me to a secret rendezvous in an armored car. A guard remained in the police interview room, as Vilks outlined his refusal to compromise.

  • LARS VILKS, Artist:

    The best medicine to settle the whole thing is actually to create an inflation, more — more prophet pictures. I mean, in the end, you should actually see that it's just pictures. And there is pictures everywhere, and then the end the whole thing would just fade away.


    The new works of art Vilks produces are a symbol of his defiance and unwavering sense of humor.


    Now I have been specialized in making personal copies of well-known masterpieces and adding the dog, but very small, and you can't really see it.

    Yes, this is a dog-free picture. I'm also — it's also possible to get such a thing. And anyone actually who wants to make an exhibition, I can also provide them with absolutely dog-free pictures, not even a small one.


    A stark contrast to Vilks' confrontational stance could be seen at Copenhagen's welcome refugees rally, which opposed the Danish government's anti-migrant policy; 30,000 people turned out to offer a warm embrace to those flocking to Europe, many of whom are Muslim.

    This great movement of refugees and migrants is perhaps one of the biggest historical events in Europe in the 21st century. And it looks like it's going to continue for some time to come. And one of the big questions that people are asking is whether or not the newcomers have to accept Western values and Western culture in return for sanctuary, or does Europe have to adapt its traditions in order to accommodate the newcomers? At the heart of this debate is free expression.

    Karolina Dam abhors extreme Islam. Her teenaged son, who had learning difficulties, was radicalized after becoming a Muslim. He joined Islamic State and was killed earlier this year on the Syrian Turkey border. But like Uzma Ahmed, an equality activist in one of Copenhagen's most diverse neighborhoods, she wants less confrontation.

    KAROLINA DAM, Mother of Slain ISIS Fighter: I think respect for another human being should be before anything else. We don't — we don't fight about paintings of Jesus, or Christ, or anything else, Buddha or anything else. But that's because it's not — it's not a problem.

    But, for Muslims, it's a problem. Why keep on pushing it? Why keep on poking them in the eye?

  • UZMA AHMED, Community Activist:

    We don't need to have a — talk about a huge cultural clash here, because it's about rights and it's about equality. But it's not given right now, because freedom of speech is for the very privileged.

    I see that we have given up our freedom of speech and solidarity in society to the few who want to use freedom of speech to mock and scorn minorities.


    Flemming Rose has also has been giving great thought to what changes he believes are necessary to deal with Europe's growing diversity.


    To me, somebody who is concerned with freedom, the question is, how are we going to be able to preserve fundamental liberties like freedom of expression and freedom of religion, which also implies the right to say no to religion, in a society that is going more and more — growing more and more diverse?

    So, these clashes are inevitable. Unfortunately, most European politicians believe that, in order to keep the social peace, we need to restrict freedom. I think it's the other way around.


    In the run-up to the anniversary, the overriding image of Islam in Denmark has been one of generosity, as young Muslims led efforts to help migrants seeking sanctuary in Scandinavia.

    At Copenhagen Central Station, they have been providing nourishment and fresh clothing to new arrivals.


    Everybody who comes to these countries, they have a duty to abide by the law and abide by the rules. To have the discussion about freedom of speech, we're not here to suspend freedom of speech, but we're here to discuss how to use it.

    Now, if you want to start a debate or dialogue or critical discussion about religion, then let's do that on a platform of respect and honor, instead of ridiculing or marginalizing an already marginalized minority within these societies.


    I hope that these people, they would respect the Danish democracy. If they do that, they would be well-accepted and integrated.


    Now 80 years old, Westergaard will end his days under guard. How will history regard him, as a principled fighter for traditional Western values, or a man out of synch with the new realities of a changing Europe?

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.

Listen to this Segment