Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Denmark’s Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (AFR) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (AHA) who was invited to Denmark by Jyllands-Posten. Among other things, we spoke about free speech in Europe being under pressure and the outcome of the cartoon crisis. Here are some excerpts. The conversation took place in the Prime minister’s office in Copenhagen.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you have said that free speech is threatened in Europe. What do you mean by that?
AHA: ”When I came to the Netherlands in the nineties Prime minister Wim Kok and his ministers were driving their bicycle to work and to meetings. Today they are driving in armored cars. In Europe it isn’t obvious anymore that a polician can express his opinions and then go home by bike.
The Dutch movie-maker Theo van Gogh was killed because he made a movie somebody didn’t like. A French school teacher (Robert Redeker) has been forced into hiding after having published an op-ed critical of Islam. We have seen similar cases in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, where cartoonists have been threatened because they made cartoons of Mohammed. In all these cases people have been put under police protection by just because they have exercised their right to speak.
And this is only the most prominent cases that have caught the attention of the media, but a lot of incidents never reach the media. In the Netherlands teachers are dropping certain subjects due to fear for their own safety.
Finally you have my own case. I have expressed certain opinions with which one can agree or disagree, but because of these opinions my life is danger.
This means that Europe is confronted with a new challenge when it comes to secure the right to free speech, the core of the European rights to liberty. We need a brain storm. Do we have to change excisting laws or pass news laws? The most important task of the liberal state is to protect the security of its citizens, but the welfare state instead asks them: Are you happy?
Today it is perceived as right wing to be in favor of law and order, but it ought to be political neutral. We have the necessary laws on the books, but the authorities are not always willing to enforce them. They prefer to send criminals to therapy instead of prison. Enforcing the law, going after criminals and punishing them will improve the situation of free speech.”
”I agree that free speech is under pressure. We had the Rushdie-affair, we have seen so called cartoon crises in Denmark and Sweden. We have witnessed a whole lot of cases, among others the examples given by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and they show that free speech is under pressure. In March 2007 a number of Islamic countries tabled a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council aiming at limiting free speech in order to protect religion. Unfortunately it was adopted. Fortunately, it is not legally binding and we will certainly not abide, but this resolution demonstrates how the cartoon crisis and other cases are being used as an excuse to limit free speech.
This is the reason why the government of Denmark is putting special focus on defending the right to free speech. At the European level and in the UN we will strengthen our efforts to protect human rights and among them the right to free speech. We plan to introduce a new grant, a freedom price, to courageous fighters for free speech and we have a program granting a safe haven in Denmark to writers who are being persecuted in their countries. By doing this we intend to focus on the most precious of rights we enjoy, the right to free speech, because it is under pressure, and we learned from the cartoon crisis that we cannot take it for granted anymore.
A few years back I would not devote so much time and space to the issue of free speech as I am doing now, and I do it for a reason. The freedom to question everything is a precondition for a true democracy, the right to challenge religious or political power, question established truths and dogmas. That’s the recipe for progress, innovation and development.”
Two years have passed since the cartoon crisis. What are the lessons, was it good or bad?
”I see the cartoon crisis as a very positive and important event that has a domestic and international dimension. Here in Denmark the crisis resulted in a growing awareness about fundamental principles in a liberal democracy, free speech not the least, and we learned that we can’t take it for granted. It is under pressure.
Secondly, it was very encouraging to see a great majority of Danes with Muslim background supporting fundamental democratic principles, and they founded an organization of Democratic Muslims to stress the point that they don’t see any contradiction between being a Dane, democrat and Muslim.
I also hold the view that the cartoon crisis was an important step towards a better value-based integration. Integration is not just about jobs and education. It is also about newcomers accepting fundamental principles of our democracy. Equality between man and woman, free speech, separation of church and state – just to name a few. In all these areas we learned a lot from the cartoon crisis, and it turned out to be a valuable contribution to better integration in Denmark.
Internationally we experienced some problems in the Muslim world in the short term, but they have been solved, and what is left: not long ago the World Bank named Denmark World Champion of democracy referring to our fight for free speech and defense of a free press, so all together I think we have gained a lot. In the free world the reputation of Denmark has grown significantly due to the so called cartoon crisis.”