“The Danish gunman didn’t target only Mr. Vilks. He targeted all participants in a debate on the relationship between free speech and Islam. This attack shifts the boundary of Islamist offense-taking beyond specific expressions to include critical public debate of Islam and free speech in general.
This cancerous “offense creep” of extremist demands is allowing shooters to set the limits of acceptable debate. Without a clear condemnation of those who use guns and a vocal defense of those who use pens, who will have the courage to stage the next public debate on Islam and free speech, and how many ordinary citizens would risk their lives attending?”, skriver direktør Jacob Mchangama i Wall Street Journal.
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Defending Denmark Against ‘Offense Creep’
It’s important to remember who’s to blame. Not everyone gets to play the victim here.
March 2, 2015 3:16 p.m. ET
Denmark united in the immediate aftermath of last month’s Islamist attack on a cafe and synagogue here, with citizens standing shoulder to shoulder, 30,000-strong, for a mass memorial days after the shootings, reaffirming their commitment to free speech and democracy. Whether those lofty sentiments will last is another matter.
Already the redistribution of blame has commenced. Two days after the attack, Birthe Rønn Hornbech, a member of Parliament and former minister for the center-right Liberal Party, wrote an op-ed asking, “Why do we have to fight so doggedly for [the cartoons], and why must we keep on publishing them, when . . . all they do is degrade people with religious feelings?” On Feb. 16, Danish journalist Jesper Strudsholm pointed out on Facebook that the attack had occurred after “somebody found it fitting—less than a month after [the shooting attack in Paris on the offices of]Charlie Hebdo—to invite a questionable Swedish artist, whose claim to fame is a miserable insult of Muhammad, drawn two years after Jyllands-Posten set the world on fire.”
Rather than standing up for the principle of free speech, the Danish government on Thursday decided not to repeal Denmark’s ban on blasphemy. Officials cited fears of public burnings of holy books, though recently the same government refused (rightly) to ban the burning of Danish flags for the sake of free speech.
Such statements are part of a long-running pattern of bending to Islamist “outrage” instead of defending free speech for all. In 2006, Denmark’s current prime minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt, demanded that then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his government “distance itself from those cartoons.”
Danish newspaper Politiken in 2010 entered into a settlement agreement with a Saudi lawyer claiming to represent 94,923 descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. In the settlement, Politiken said it “recognizes and deplores that our reprinting of the Cartoon Drawing of the Prophet Muhammad has offended Muslims in Denmark and in other countries around the world. We apologize to anyone who was offended by our decision to reprint the Cartoon Drawing.”
The same year, following another attack on Lars Vilks, the Swedish artist at the center of the Copenhagen attack last month, Denmark’s former minister of foreign affairs, Uffe Ellemann Jensen, said that Mr. Vilks “had asked and begged to be attacked” and that he “didn’t feel sorry for that Swede who has done all he can to provoke. I don’t have a dime of sympathy for him.”
Nor is the problem confined to cartoon controversies. The shooting at the cafe was followed by an attack on a synagogue, highlighting the extent to which intolerance of free speech goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism. And as has been the case with threats against free speech, some Danes seem to prefer self-censorship when it comes to threats against Jews.
In 2012, Copenhagen helped organize a “diversity festival” in Nørrebro, home to many immigrants and the area in which last month’s attacker was finally killed by Danish police. At the festival, representatives from various ethnic minorities opened stalls offering local food. When the Danish Zionist Federation announced their participation, they were initially asked by “TaskForce Inclusion,” an arm of the municipality, not to display the Israeli flag lest it “provoke.”
A conservative politician last summer organized a Kippah Walk on Nørrebro in solidarity with Jews and journalists who had been threatened or attacked for wearing kippahs in Copenhagen. The Kippah Walk was denounced as “provocative” and even “hateful” by some of the same voices that denounced the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. These voices include respectable newspaper editors, columnists and even Nørrebro’s local council, a taxpayer-funded body ostensibly representing the interests of all local residents.
Last month’s attacks are a further dangerous step in this process. The Danish gunman didn’t target only Mr. Vilks. He targeted all participants in a debate on the relationship between free speech and Islam, most of whom had nothing to do with Mr. Vilks’s drawings, and some of whom may have found them offensive and would have said so had they been given the chance. This attack shifts the boundary of Islamist offense-taking beyond specific expressions to include critical public debate of Islam and free speech in general.
This cancerous “offense creep” of extremist demands is allowing shooters to set the limits of acceptable debate. Without a clear condemnation of those who use guns and a vocal defense of those who use pens, who will have the courage to stage the next public debate on Islam and free speech, and how many ordinary citizens would risk their lives attending?
Democratic Europe can’t afford to delay a moment longer in pushing back. That will require more courage in defense of free speech than many Danish public figures have shown so far. Ordinary Muslims also have a role to play, in demonstrating the compatibility of their faith with secular democracy by using their freedom of expression to confront the extremists in their midst. Only the combination of these actions can prevent further Islamist threats to Western values.
Mr. Mchangama is director of Justitia, a think-tank in Copenhagen.