Free-Speech Hypocrisy in Europe
Tablet Magazine 15 August 2012
By James Kirchick
There are few people in the world who have sacrificed more for the principle of free speech than the staff of Jyllands Posten, the most popular newspaper in Denmark. Since the paper published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Sept. 30, 2005—sparking riots in Muslim countries, violent attacks on Danish embassies around the globe, and a worldwide debate about the extent of the West’s commitment to free speech—the Copenhagen bureau has been under constant threat. The downtown office is protected by a giant steel security gate strong enough to block an oncoming truck—a strange sight in a city where nobody seems to lock their doors.
Meantime, Kurt Westergaard, the Danish artist who drew the most famous of the cartoons (Muhammad with a bomb in his turban), lives under constant police protection. In 2008, three men were arrested for plotting to kill him, and two years later, an ax-wielding Somali man actually made it into Westergaard’s heavily fortified house before his guards came to the rescue. In June, a Danish court delivered a guilty verdict in the 2010 case of four Muslim men accused of plotting to storm the Jyllands Posten offices during an award ceremony with the intention to "kill as many as possible.”
While much of the world condemned the newspaper’s decision to run the cartoons, the vast majority of Danes did not think their government should have apologized. "In Denmark we do not apologize for having freedom of speech,” then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the time, a principled stand that came back to haunt him four years later when the government of Turkey protested his selection as NATO secretary general.
Yet one of the most important organs of the Danish cultural elite, the state-funded Danish Arts Council, has taken the opposite view of the citizens who subsidize it. A major art exhibit located just steps away from the heavily fortified Jyllands Posten offices at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg, among the most prominent contemporary art museums in Europe, makes the case that it is the cartoonist Westergaard, his newspaper colleagues, the former prime minister, and other Western leaders who are the enemies of free expression—not those who continue to call for the murder of cartoonists and publishers.
Pavilion for Revolutionary Free Speech, created by the German artist Thomas Kilpper, premiered at last year’s Venice Biennale as part of the Danish pavilion. A recent Artforum review of the Copenhagen exhibit lauded it for "countering the asserted patriotism of the speakers depicted.” Though the Charlottenborg show just closed, a giant banner displaying some of the faces caricatured by Kilpper underscored with the words "GET RID OF ‘EM” is being displayed at Villa Romana in Florence, a residence and exhibition space for German artists, through Sept. 2.