Aia Fog, chairman of the Danish Free Press Society, spoke to participants in a June 12 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about her organization's work to "defend free speech and those who are threatened or prevented from speaking freely" on matters concerning Islam and Muslims.
The Danish Free Press Society was founded in 2004 amid growing pressure for the curtailment of free speech about Islam that emerged following the 1989 fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. This pressure has intensified as a result of the massive immigration of Muslims into Denmark in recent years. Most Muslims in Denmark, estimated to comprise between 4 and 10 percent of Denmark's population (the exact number is unknown, as Danish authorities do not record the religious identity of citizens), have proven "impossible to assimilate" and "reject our Western democracy and the values that support it such as freedom of expression, gender equality, and gay rights," said Fog.
The seriousness of the issue spiked in September 2005 after Fleming Rose, a Danish journalist, published cartoons of Islam's prophet Mohammed in Denmark's largest paper, Jyllands-Posten. The "so-called cartoon crisis" triggered violent riots across the Islamic world over the Danish government's refusal to censor the cartoons or punish the newspaper. The small country with a population of some 5 million became a "test of strength between totalitarian Islam and our Judeo-Christian ideals of freedom."
Fleming Rose and Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew a famous cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, were the first recipients of the Danish Free Press Society's annual Sappho award, bestowed upon persons who have "shown uncompromising courage and tireless struggle for the free word." Other notable prize recipients include Mark Steyn, Douglas Murray, and Daniel Pipes.
An activist organization, the Danish Free Press Society holds public seminars, debates, and international conferences hosting local guests and those from abroad. Participating in political festivals and offering free lectures on free speech, the society also has cartoonists who draw cartoons on issues affecting freedom of expression, "the most fundamental prerequisite for free and open democracies both in Denmark and in other Western countries."
Fog highlighted two recent examples of the society's defense of freedom of expression. The first occurred in March 2019 after Iranian-born blogger and author Jaleh Tavakoli came under fire for posting on Facebook a video of two young female hikers, a Dane and Norwegian, being beheaded after their capture in Morocco by Islamists.
Tavakoli, who has an eight-year-old foster daughter in her care since birth, was contacted by Danish authorities after her posting with threats to remove her child from the family, accusing Tavakoli of being "a poor digital role model." Several politicians, including a former minister of justice, supported the proposed decision, but only the Danish Free Press Society supported the fundamental right to free speech of a foster parent who wants to participate in the public debate about Islamic extremism. The chilling effect on Tavakoli has been that she has withdrawn from public debate in order to keep her daughter.
The second example is the case of Tommy Robinson, a British free speech activist. Robinson was jailed, his family threatened, and "shamed and defamed" by politicians and the media for exposing the harmful consequences of "grooming gangs" that have proliferated in the U.K. The scandal involved a network of hundreds of Muslim men who for years "drugged, raped, and sold thousands of vulnerable British girls, down to the age of 12." Robinson has been blocked from virtually every social media platform for publicizing this outrage.
"Social media has gained state-like power over free speech."
The Danish Free Press Society followed Robinson's struggles and wrote about his travails. In the fall of 2019, Robinson was invited to come to Denmark to receive the society's Freedom of Speech Award, particularly because of Facebook's censorship. As a result of this invitation, "the Free Press Society's former chairman Lars Hedegaard and myself suddenly had our Facebook profiles deleted and the Free Press Society's Facebook page was blocked," said Fog. Both profiles were restored, without explanation, after representatives of the Danish People's Party raised the case in the Danish Parliament. The Robinson case shows that "social media has gained state-like power over free speech," and this censorship is "both arbitrary and politically motivated."
With their demands prohibiting criticism of Islam, resident Muslims in Denmark and in large parts of the West are a threat to freedom of expression. Politically controlled social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, censor and block Islam critics like Robinson, rendering them "non-persons." Jaleh Tavakoli, silenced for shining a light on Islamic terror by politicians and authorities with their threats to remove her foster child, would not have received the same reaction had she shared a video of George Floyd's death.
Freedom of speech is not legally protected in Denmark in the way that the U.S. constitution's First Amendment provides protections. The Danish constitution only has a ban on censorship, and there are ongoing public and private debates and arguments about free speech. If rights are to be preserved, they must be protected and defended. "If we do not stand firm on freedom of speech, despite the often-violent threats from Islam, we will ... lose that right. ... [I]f we lose freedom of speech, democracy will fall, and ultimately, our culture."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.