This is point of inquiry for Monday, January 12th, 2015.
I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry in 2009, politics professor here to published a book called The Cartoons That Shook the World about the Danish cartoon controversy. But Yale University Press refused to print the cartoons themselves in the very book about those cartoons. Professor Closson teaches at Brandeis University. She’s a foremost thinker about liberalism, Islam, creative freedom and terrorism. She recently published articles in Time magazine and Foreign Policy magazine about the atrocities in Paris against Charlie Hebdo. She joins us to discuss what the attacks mean for secularism, for Islam, for blasphemy and freedom of speech. Professor Claassen, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thank you for inviting me. Your recent TIME magazine article was entitled Freedom of Speech is of No Use Unless We Exercise it. What does that mean to you right now?
Oh, I am so fearful that we will be faced with another ratcheting up of the risk averse managers of what we can do and what we can’t do. The only reason I have some hope that this will not happen is that this incident comes on the tail end of the episode with North Korea threatening Sony.
And obviously, if the CEOs and the publishers and the editors everywhere start to feel compelled to look over the horizon for threats coming from Yemen to threats coming from a serious stand or Pakistan or North Korea or China, it is clear it will end up in a very bad place.
And I think that there are probably a lot of debates going on in that boardrooms and editorial offices right now.
How did you feel Sony handled the episode?
Oh, I think they handled it very poorly. I think those people from the beginning wondered. All right.
So for liability reasons, there are certain cinemas that don’t want to show this movie because they are already engaged in lawsuits from victims of a mass shooting where they’re saying that they couldn’t have known that this mass shooting was coming and therefore they were not liable.
And so now, because in this case, they had advance warning, that reasoning was that they couldn’t show this movie because in case some crazy dude comes in and shoot anybody up. They didn’t have that excuse anymore. And I think President Obama handled that situation very, very well.
It was pretty obvious to me is that the North Koreans were using the playbook from the cartoon episode when they did what they did.
Take us back to that Danish cartoon episode and to your involvement in it.
Oh, it’s such a long and convoluted story. We’ve got time.
Well, it started back an early fall, 2005, when the Danish newspaper Unions Postern published their now well-known cartoons.
And, you know, this was in the infancy of the Internet is already 10 years ago, almost 10 years ago. And they were writing this for a Danish audience. It was done. And Danish it was Danish humor.
Where were you at the time? Incidentally, we were in Denmark or in the States.
I know I was in the States and.
But but I had just finished a book writing about Muslims and what Muslims, Muslim politicians and Muslim associations in Europe really want from governments.
And I had in that context, interviewed some of the actors on the Danish side who were immediately engaged in protesting against the newspaper.
And at the time, I had some sympathy for that complaint because I thought that the cartoons in many regards were really what can I say? Not all of them were very funny, somewhat very funny, but not all. And I thought some of them were fairly navel-gazing in a lot of people at the time. And then McCrone, because the newspaper had been fighting with Muslims for some time and people of people ground. Oh, here they are going at it again. And then, you know, not much happened for a while. There were immediate protests in Copenhagen from some people.
And then and I could feel really did insult many Muslims. Many Muslims were quite insulted.
And I thought that some of the cartoons were, you know, sort of had a hint of anti-Semitic sentiment in them, in the drawing, were insensitive to those sort of racialist aspects. And all that Prakoso sort of criticisms today seem completely irrelevant, just totally irrelevant. Of course, the first priority in these circumstances is that you can pop this thing so we can talk about that. And there weren’t really many Muslims in Denmark at that time who complained actually about publication, per say. There were not that whole question about infidels depicting the Muslim prophet wasn’t really raised at all. It was a complaint about Islamophobia and about how Muslims were being made to be responsible for things that they weren’t really responsible. And that’s a big debate that do Muslims on the sort of conservative Islamist side of things do enough to distance himself from the terrorists, et cetera, et cetera. But I’m just taking you back to what the debate was into in 2005.
Yeah. And then very little happened for a period of time. People went home. Everybody went on with business.
And then in early 2006, there were suddenly big demonstrations all over the Muslim world. And then very gradually, it emerged that some key government actors in the Middle East, but principally the Egyptian government at this time. This was, of course, before the Arab Spring that the Egyptian government had used this episode for its own nefarious purposes to push back against a charter that the U.S. government wanted the Egyptian government to sign, to give civil society groups far more freedom and open up for the press in.
Egypt. And this is clearly the regime did not want to do. And and that really had been running throughout the fall as a dialog on the governmental level. And I had been letters written to that in his government that nobody knew about it that much, protesting these cartoons. And so that’s what I wrote a book about.
So this was a calculated attempt on the part of Mubarak to basically point out to the West, look, if it’s not me, then it’s gonna be these crazies. And to foment a kind of illusory opposition that would be that would frighten us away from strong arming him into into being more democratic.
Yes. That that became the narrative later.
But the initial objective really was to turn the human rights perspective around and hold up the mirror to the West, because from the viewpoint of certain organizations like an organization or an Islamic conference, which is an intergovernmental organization, I guess 56 STF, Damanhur, Adisa, more states since but fifty six states with most large Muslim populations. From their viewpoint, the Danish cartoons illustrated something very different, namely that Westerner’s also discriminate against Muslims, and that when we are talking about human rights and about religious toleration, that was a spot on our Western record. And that’s what they really wanted to show festival.
As the demonstrations spread against the cartoons and in golf more and more cities and became increasingly violent. What was your reaction?
Well, it was clear at that point in time that there was a correlation between these comments and they used the Muslim Brotherhood organizations for that purpose. When I did my work on it, I interviewed several members of the Muslim Brotherhood and they were very reluctant to get involved and did feel used. But it was the state run media and those countries like Saudi Arabia or so others, really ran with the issue in a big way. And the governments then gave permission for mosques and imams to bring this issue up as a complaint. And their Friday prayers. And that happened mid February 2006.
And then we had various governments getting involved, particularly the Syrian government, actually and fomenting what was really sort of fascist gangs, ransacking Danish representations in Damascus and in Beirut. And then at the tail end of all of that, sometime into late March and then again in April 2006, suddenly Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden had opinions about this.
So I’m trying to get a sense of you since that since you were one of the preeminent thinkers about this at the time, whether or not you were surprised. I mean, now in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I think most of our listeners and I can only speak for myself, I guess, while we were horrified by the attack. It’s not like we were terribly surprised about the existence of Islamist terrorists who would who would wish to do such a thing. And we would have been terribly surprised. I think prior, for example, to Salman Rushdie. But over the course of the past several decades, we’ve seen increasing instances of this. And given that you’ve written the book prior to the Danish cartoon controversy about Muslims in Denmark, was you. Were you sort of primed for it or did it still slap you across the face?
Oh, I. I felt that the script for the first phase and the government sponsored phase of the protest in early 2006 borrowed a lot of elements are fun.
The Rushdie affair, because there was also a state sponsor, Iran, and there was immediately a fatwa issued to kill Rushdie. And that came from the highest levels of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the ayatollahs. The Sunni protests did not include a fatwa to kill anybody. The tool for that was a trade boycott against Danish products and the whole element.
And the whole shift really only happened in March when the extremist fringe of the global Islamist movement took over the issue and they took over the issue not because they cared about infidel papers, pandering bad cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, because from their viewpoint and from their doctrinal position, of course, the infidels, what the infidels do is inherently wrong.
But for them, it was an issue that they could use to mobilize Muslims.
And it has from the beginning really been an issue that was primarily used to mobilize Western Muslim radicals. And it has had far less traction. Not that there haven’t been a lot of Algeria and Morocco wars. We’re in the business of sending death threats to the Danish newspaper.
There’s those I saw those threats.
But, you know, it’s very easy for somebody to email a death threat. And it wasn’t until that spring of 2006. That it became apparent that there was more than sort of the shift taking place in in Salman Rushdie’s autobiography.
He he relates how dumbfounded he was by what he regards as the lack of support after the fatwa was issued. The lack of support from the British government. The equivocations from his peers, the sort of British sense that, well, one doesn’t want shouldn’t have done that sort of thing. What did you expect? Of course, they’re going to respond this way. Do you think that the world could have responded differently back then and that had we showed some higher level of instant solidarity, instant defiance in saying, look, this is a book. Books don’t have feelings. The Koran is a book. It doesn’t have feelings. Freedom of speech is paramount that we might have been able to avert the increasing evolution that led to the Danish cartoons and now to Paris. Or is that pie in the sky fantasy?
It’s very hard to roll a history book back like that I of have done it in a experience in many time and I have always felt that I’ve made a huge mistake in 2009 and 2011, particularly when there was a sort of once again about law. Mochis, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula really picked up this issue and issued several commands to Muslims to pick up weapons and and kill those who offend the prophet. I felt that was a terrible response on the part of the media at that time.
But you will recall that back in 2006, when the demonstrations first came up, all of the Western media reprinted the Danish cartoons.
When you when you say all is that true? I was under the impression that almost no American publications reprinted the Danish cartoons.
Almost no Americans did it. I remember at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I did it, but there were.
But I believe our organization did. I did not have to fact check that.
But I think it’s true. And there was some student newspapers that did. But there was a sense certainly I remember The New York Times writing a justification for themself for why they didn’t want to do it. And that was that they felt that the cartoons were written in a type of pictorial language that was far too uncomfortable, similar to racist cartoonist or to anti-Semitic cartoon as men show to cartoons to my students who without the text. And my students did feel that the cartoons at the time were anti-Semitic.
So at the time. But, you know, if you go back to the a rule, lipstick or Paris, it was published down decide accomplished, though, in the British papers.
And the BBC sort of inadvertently went around and published them, but did the wrong thing because they ended up publishing something that was a non cartoon that was actually a very offending image that a delegation of Danish imams on their own initiative had included in a folder that they had used to rile up anger in the Middle East.
Yeah, that just explained that. That’s an interesting quirk to this, that a lot of people aren’t aware of that. Actually, there were there were Muslim clerics who put in even more offensive cartoons in the original simply in order to foment unrest, right?
Yes, that’s correct. And those were indeed horrifically unpleasant cartoons.
One of them showed a dog raping a praying Muslim. And what I thought was just queer and it turned out to be a complete fraud. There was a picture of a man dressed up in a pig mask, which somehow ended up it turned out to be something that these Danish activists had copied from a French side, from a pig calling contest. It’s just your imagination can barely contain what went on there. And I traveled around the Middle East with that phone because I knew one of the inmates who had been involved in producing it. He’s now dead, but he was actually not particularly happy with the way the whole thing unfolded.
And he had given me this folder. So I traveled around with it and went to see the authorities in Cairo. That in my back and I went to Turkey and I went to ask about John Kerry in this folder and I pulled it out. When I interviewed people because I wanted to see how many had actually seen the cartoons, the real cartoons were also in the folder. It was written up in Arabic describing very, very in accurate terms exactly how Muslims were treated. And then and then it included these additional cartoons that they had added for good measure.
Now, it did say in the folder that these were examples of the sort of things that Danes write about Muslims, but they have just download it from the Internet. But I found out my track around these various authorities that nobody knew. That those have not been published in newspapers. Everybody presumed that they had been published by the newspaper because, of course, the Danes would do anything right. We all know that.
What does it tell you about the religious sincerity of those imams if they think that the cartoons that actually were published are beyond the pale and then they’re willing to actually fabricate even worse cartoons themselves?
I mean, the sheer hypocrisy is staggering.
It is absolutely staggering. But one of my friends in London who is is a Salafi said if there were good Muslims, they would turn their gaze away and stop handing around bad image.
So how do you think we’re responding to Charlie Hebdo now? The media, you know, CNN has pixellated and fogged out the cartoons so that they’re not showing them on the air. ABC News is not showing them. I believe that Associated Press is not showing them. The New York Times is not showing them. NBC News is not showing them. CBS is has a kind of equivocating stance. Is this not a time to make sure that we’re all defending free speech?
Unfortunately, there are also a large number of magazine and editorial offices that have.
Reproduced. Charlie Aptos pages and front pages, including Time magazine. But for sure, it’s also the logic behind it is very, very bad. Because there is not a team of trained assassins roaming around in the parking lots of, say, The New York Times building or in studios. ABC and all that. It’s just ridiculous to think that we are all now under attack. That is the logic that people take home. That is what I call the fallacy of the MTA, a handicapped parking spot. You know how we have parking spots that are reserved for handicapped people and they are often empty. And at any one moment in a field mall parking lot, you’ll have maybe 10, 20 cars circling around this particular parking spot and say, oh, if it’s wasn’t set aside for a handicapped parking, I could have parked there. So the distribution effect of looking at this is this fallacious logic that said everybody could have parked there. But in fact, only one car. What about that? And the French authorities are actually right when they say that this was a totally unique attack. It’s not as if they’re capable of replicating that on a grand scale. So we are all drawing the wrong conclusions from what has happened in Paris.
But isn’t there a problem? It’s almost a game, a theory or a prisoner’s dilemma? Problem, in a sense. If every publication published the cartoons, there would be no problem because, as you say, al-Qaida wouldn’t be able to take out all of the publications. But if there is a disincentive for any particular individual publication on its own to make that decision, some still have, as you said, mostly new digital media. BuzzFeed has Business Insider. Well, that’s not new. Huffington Post, my employer has. Gawker did. The Daily Beast did. But could there not be some way for all media organizations to get together and actually institute a policy moving forward where we sort of have almost a cartel, you know, an OPEC of freedom, where we say when this stuff happens, we’re all just gonna jump together?
I love that phrase, OK, of freedom. Absolutely. Let’s let’s get a good acronym for it and start a movement for that here.
We don’t need that. Tell me about about your response when Yale refused to publish the cartoons in a book about the cartoons.
Well, there, too, there’s some misunderstanding because it wasn’t just the cartoons themselves that they removed. They also redacted reprint of an Ottoman print depicting Mohammed and removed another image that was a reprint of an old illustration made by French printer Gustaf Turei from in the 19th century that actually circulated widely. I found this particular image, which was an illustration from Dante’s Inferno, meant to illustrate the pain of outsiders. It shows Mohammed experiencing the pain of being excluded from the Christian at that time. And I mean, Denton was himself excluded. So actually, Mohammed is presented in this particular picture and in a sympathetic voice, much as Danta could at the time. And then it was reprinted by Qu’est after Ray in the 19th century and hung in British homes. And I found it in a high street lot under an antiquarian bookstore. So that, too, was removed from the book. So it was all illustrations in my book to support my argument in the book about the long history of depiction of Mohammed in Islamic art and then Western art.
That is very ambiguous. It’s both infused in some cases with crusader’s sentiments. But in other cases, so the one I just described is particularly seen from Danta has been reproduced also by Dali and others as an example of the sort of pain, existential pain, and has moved into secular art.
And I wanted to talk about how Muslims have we presented their prophet as a hero and a statesman. And have these pictures. And it’s available both in Persian and in Ottoman art. And those pictures were removed as well. I was I was just flabbergasted because, you know, the there was no threats. There was no threats against me. There was no threats against the book, against the press. It was purely anticipatory risk aversion.
In the wake of the Sony hacking scandal. I heard people who I know in Hollywood saying, look, Sony is a business. They have to look after their bottom line. They have to think about the safety of their employees. They didn’t get into this to be paragons of art. They got into this to to make a buck. We have to cut them a bit of slack. Of all of the organizations that you can think of, you might be able to say that have a movie studio. I disagree personally disagree. But I can imagine people making that case. It’s harder to make it of a news organization which has is supposed to defend freedom of speech, but it’s harder still to make it as a university. I mean, a university is supposed to be of all the institutions in the world, the one that is willing to stand up for for the free exchange of ideas. Surely we have. Were you outraged when Yale refused?
I was, yes. But I went ahead and negotiated and agree with them that they would still publish my book. And then the censorship would be marked in a book with a. Yes, which it is. What happened subsequently was that everywhere I went up to talk, I was attacked vehemently by people who said that I had what was time people used that I had besmirched the First Amendment by going ahead and allow my book to be published. But I had no choice. Nobody else was going to yell. Didn’t want to publish it. They wanted me to take it back. And I had a contract with them. It was my only opportunity to get the book that otherwise nobody would. Even today.
I know that this that happened in your study of Muslims in in Europe. What do you think of the nexus between Islam as a faith and the actions of the people who attacked Charlie Hebdo? Is there a is there a line that can be drawn between the dogma and that level of extreme violence?
I think we need to recognize two things at the same time. One is that there is a stream in the history of Islam of such extremism, and it is not a new one. And it’s primarily a stream that has had its roots in certain particular areas of Arabic Peninsula. There was pushback against a Mongol empire, which was considered not properly observant. So there is this history and that is the history that the jihadists cite in their own justification. At the same time, a far, far broader history exists of far more toleration depiction. As I described the Persians, the Ottomans art production, the Indians have done it to a completely different way of thinking about the faith and what religious law means. And certainly in the Western European context, in any American context, religious Muslims really do support freedom of speech because it allows and protects their rights as well to exercise their faith. You have all these translation projects of the Koran to put the Koran into colloquial languages and all types of experimentation, like using female prayer leaders and all of that. None of that could happen except in the West, because you have all you have these freedoms to experiment with the meaning of the faith. And you have women taking, you know, sitting there and deciding, I need to read the Koran because I need to figure out what it means for me. And you have the criticisms. You have the people who say, no, we need to rethink what Islam means. None of that could have happened. So if you go and look at what has been going on in Paris in these last few days, there is very little evidence that people feel that the sort of outside the National Front Line segment does very little evidence that people feel that Islam as such is responsible for this. So my answer to the question is, these extremists do build on a strain within Islam. They’re not separate from the faith ever.
They have always been the fringe.
Are you concerned about you just mentioned the National Front in France. We’ve also seen in recent weeks demonstrations in Dresden by the group against the Islamist ization, as they call it, of Europe. Are you worried that this is going to be a reaction to this? That does lump all Muslims in together and does. In fact, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about it. I feel like there are two things that are worth unpacking to potential objections to Islam, especially in Europe. One is the fallacy that all Muslims are potential terrorists.
The other is slightly less fallacious, which is that Muslim communities in Europe tend to be less liberal, less supportive of gay rights, less supportive of women’s rights, less committed to and dedicated to the project of a secular, tolerant society. The non-Muslim communities in Europe. Is it possible to unpack those?
Yeah, I think there are different issues. For sure. There are also pockets.
It is true that we know for sure that religiously observant Muslims have find homosexuality very objectionable also in a private life. But so too many of angelical groups which are also growing fast in Europe and particularly in Eastern Europe and in Russia, these evangelical groups are the fastest moving faith groups.
This is something that the extremists certainly capitalizing on. There is a sense that if one group grows and the other groups must decline. But that’s not true. You can have these sort of things going on at the same time. You can have moderates settling in. And actually, this new story out of Europe about Muslim integration has been pretty good in the last decade. Far more Muslim professionals. I mean, just look at France. You had one police officer who was killed, executed in the most horrific fashion by one of the perpetrators outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a French Muslim. And the policewoman who was shops Thursday morning was a black woman from Martinique.
There has been a tremendous amount of progress on integration in Europe. And yet you have at the same time also this. He’s growing French movements, both of the far right and the people calling for the Stop Islam, Islamization misses, by the way, onto a trans-European movement.
Mm hmm. And then you have the extremists and they all build on each other because they take they grow from one country to another.
On the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went on television and said that the attackers aren’t Muslim. They’re no more Muslim than I am. He said Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times wrote a similar piece this week. A lot of my liberal friends on Facebook keep repeating the mantra, these are not Muslims. This has nothing to do with religion. I get concerned that a low information voter, a farmer in Liohn or some other place in France is not going to fail to notice that these are Islamists and that they have something to do with religion. And if the left continues to obfuscate about the nature of the link between religion and extremists, that we sort of cede ground to the fascists and that the National Front and the sort of neo-Nazi movements in Europe end up being the only ones who are actually pointing out something that seems obvious to most voters in Europe, which is that there’s a problem at the extreme fringe of Islam.
Do you have a sense of how progressive liberals should talk about this without sounding Islamophobic?
Well, I agree with your sentiment that this sort of Cartesian formalism saying just declaring people fear, declaring them outside of the of the Muslim RAAM is not going to go anywhere.
Mechanic way of exercising evil, that just doesn’t work because obviously these people are pretending to be the defenders of the faith and they are recruiting people on the notion that they are the vanguard of the Muslim Omar. And the young people believe it. They embrace this universalist utopian. And I am now increasingly started using the term fascist to describe the jihadist movement.
And we have to confront that. I don’t think that that’s any way around having a real debate about what exactly their cultural the call to come, as I call it, what their cultural objective is, and that is to show us up as weak in our own liberal values. One of the key doctrines of the jihadist philosophy is that a Western is so weak they don’t have the courage of their own opinions and they take heart every time do to we do things that seem to support that contention. Such as listening to them when they tell us not to print something.
The atheist community sometimes often gets criticized by so-called moderate religious people for being too strident. You know, there’s a critique of the new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins that they’re basically just secular fundamentalists. But from what I hear you saying, it almost sounds like one does have to be strong in standing up for the right to print these cartoons and standing up for the rights of minorities and gays and women, and that maybe we could do a better job at being a bit more forceful about that, even if it does risk courting the so-called clash of civilizations.
Well, I don’t think they have to be standing up for all of those things and who doesn’t?
But I also think we should be standing up for the right of Muslims to practice their faith without constantly being defamed as responsible for terrorists. And that’s where I depart from people like Sam Harris.
So looking towards the future, this is a week in which it’s easy to be incredibly pessimistic. And it’s just a heartbreaking thing to have seen happen. And I’m anxious that the future will be one in which the dialog in the public square is somewhat curtailed because people self censor and don’t say things. And the exchange of ideas is more subdued because of our reaction to things like Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons and the Sony movie The Interview and most recently, Charlie Hebdo. What would your prescription be looking forward over the long term about how to ensure that doesn’t happen?
There’s a lot of pushback already, but I think you identified the problem earlier in this conversation because it is produced as a content like yourself and other illustrators and cartoonists and talking heads and were willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and say no, publish, publish, publish. But in the absence of we don’t actually decide what does get published.
So in the absence of some coordinated effort, responding to President Obama’s warnings about the implications of that type of anticipatory risk aversion, we are going to be just terribly, terribly hurt on one of our core values.
I do want to point out that Congress passed the insurance program related to terrorist incidents as the first act when it met here this week, responding to the insurance argument on the part of the corporations that, no, we can’t do it because our insurance won’t cover the risk. So therefore we can potentially be ruined if something does happen. They don’t have that argument anymore.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic, lastly, about the 21st century? It didn’t start well on 9/11. How do you feel that we’re gonna be able to navigate this now?
I don’t know. I do think that we are faced with a threat.
We don’t have a good sense of and 20 years into it, we still don’t have a strategic doctrine for figure out how to deal with it. One key issue that has come up in different contexts was that, in fact, the police didn’t know what the security agencies knew with respect to the perpetrators, international travel.
So one of the things that will be part of the discussion going forward will be how do we find the proper balance between protecting the speakers, protecting our core freedoms and have mining security interest. And here my argument is that we should police the threat and protect a speech and not leave it to the individuals to decide, look over their shoulders, put pressure on them to refrain from publishing and printing and making pictures. But we should trust our governments. We should give the governments the power that they need to suppress threat. A lot of people will not feel good about this recommendation because particularly after the Snowden. Revelations? Certainly. Google and Apple and other corporations have, for commercial reasons, been very fast to embrace this fear that all of the government’s snooping too much on us to promise that we’re not going to give you these tools so you can block out the government, but we can still see what you do, actually. But we just don’t want a telecom act. But we will tell commercial interests that you might be buying shoes tomorrow. So I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy there. And we need to have a far more realistic discussion about the balance between protecting because then given protecting our freedoms and suppressing the threat to.
Klaassen is the author of the cartoons that Shook the World, which does not contain the cartoons that it’s about too great to talk to you in this tragic week. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you for having me on your program.