Did the cartoons really “provoke” this cataclysm of violence, spurring enraged Muslims to action, as so many commentators have suggested? Devoid of context, it certainly looks this way, but then devoid of context violence can pretty much look like anything you want it to look like.
The context, at least as Rose explained it in a Washington Post article published at the height of the controversy, was a climate of “self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” “The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously,” he wrote, but rather “to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.” Rose cited the case of a children’s-book author who had trouble finding an illustrator for a book on the Koran and the life of the prophet, such was the level of fear surrounding depictions of Muhammad.
The context also included the dissemination of the cartoons across the Middle East by a group of Danish imams, whose aim was to “internationalize” the issue, “so that,” as Ahmad Abu Laban, then the leader of the Islamic Society in Denmark, expressed it, “the Danish government would realize that the cartoons were not only insulting to Muslims in Denmark but also to Muslims worldwide.” The Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi soon called for “an international day of anger for God and his prophet.” “We must rage, and show our rage to the world,” he thundered in a sermon that aired on Qatar TV. This was on February 3, 2006. The very next day, protesters torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria.
Still, had Rose erred on the side of caution and not published the cartoons, the firestorm would not have happened. Does he regret it? “It happened in a very sudden way,” Rose recalled. “Nobody expected it. So we were not prepared for this fight as a paper.” He also admitted that the decision to commission the cartoons had been instinctive, and that it was only after the fallout from their publication that he began to fully think through his arguments: “As a journalist, as an editor, you do a lot of things based on instincts. … And when it all exploded I had to wind back the movie and find out why did I think this was the right thing to do.”
What about those who died in protests over the cartoons? “I regret that,” he told me. “And I don’t think that a cartoon is worth a single human life. But the dilemma for every one of us is what do you do when other people think that way? Do you bow down because they say, ‘This is so important to me that I want to kill because of a cartoon?’”
Rose left the question hanging. But given the choices he’s made since the publication of the cartoons, his answer is plainly evident: You do not bow down. On the contrary, you confront the bullies and terrorists who want to silence you. You do not give in to fear. As the crisis unfolded, and the threats against Jyllands-Posten and Rose mounted, he could have gone into hiding. But he refused. He could have apologized and sought absolution from his persecutors, but he didn’t. And he could have retreated from public life. Instead, he became a dogged and vocal free-speech advocate.