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Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Free speech and self-loathing

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former secretary general of NATO and prime minister of Denmark, gave the opening address at IPE’s 2015 Conference. Speaking in the shadow of the terrorist attacks in Paris, his topic was A World in Flames: New Geopolitical Balances. Daniel Ben-Ami interviewed him about the domestic struggle against Islamist terrorism. This is an edited transcript  

Q: In 2005, you were the Danish prime minister when there was a controversy over cartoons of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten. Many people were killed in subsequent global protests. With the benefit of hindsight, what do you see as the significance of those events?

With hindsight, it is clear the violence that followed was in reality a fight against a free press. It was about freedom of expression. We sensed that a decade ago. Ultimately, the terrorist attack a year ago against Charlie Hebdo [the French satirical magazine] was evidence of that, and, shortly afterwards, it was followed by an attack in Copenhagen, targeting a free speech meeting.

Q: The Islamic State clearly wants to destroy freedom. But when you, as a leader, faced a terrorist threat, it must have been tempting to restrict freedom of speech and movement to deal with the terrorists. So how do you deal with that challenge?

It is a difficult question. It will always be a balance. Fundamentally, we will have to protect the basic principles on which our societies are based, including the protection of civil liberties, including privacy. Against that, you have to protect your population against all threats, not just terrorism, and that will necessitate some surveillance. It will entail more power to security and intelligence services.

Q: What do you make of the defensive reaction after the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks? For example, some people argued that maybe the magazine went too far and perhaps we need to restrict what people say on social media. 

I would never accept that kind of argument. If you do, you have undermined freedom of expression. So you have to stick to the principle you are free – to write, to draw, to not only think but also speak as you wish. It may be that you personally will disagree, but, in a free society, you should allow people with whom you don’t agree to express their views.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the IPE Conference

Q: Isn’t it striking that a lot of these terrorists don’t come from the Middle East? Their families might come from the region, but many were brought up in the West, and they are imbued with its culture. You spoke eloquently about the Middle East in your opening address, but doesn’t it say something about the crisis of values in the West?

I think first and foremost it puts the emphasis on integration policies. So far, we have focused on providing jobs and an education for these people. And this has been a criterion of success, to get people work and a good education. But, apparently, it isn’t enough. Some of these terrorists are well educated. So it puts an emphasis on value-based integration. While, of course, we should accept cultural diversity, we should insist on respect for the fundamental principles on which our societies are built.

I mean, they have chosen to live in our free societies, and these are based on certain principles including the right to speak freely, including about religious issues. We insist on equality between men and women. We insist on respecting minorities. All these principles should be respected. And I think we may have failed, we haven’t put sufficient emphasis on this value-based integration. 

Q: Isn’t it a problem that many Western countries lack clarity on what they stand for? There is a cultural vacuum. How do you deal with that?

That’s another aspect. I think there’s a lot in that statement because you are faced with people from other cultures who, because of their background, have firm beliefs. In contrast, it is an essential part of the Western mentality to ask critical questions about everything. Sometimes I even find the Western mentality has a degree of self-loathing. 

In the case of people coming from communities with strong cultural traditions, that might be misinterpreted as weakness. And it doesn’t seem attractive, because, if you’re questioning the value of your own principles, then how can you attract other people to believe this is the right basis for society? But, having said that, this desire to ask critical questions about established truths and dogmas is a strength.

The reason why certain Muslim countries are lagging behind is this reluctance to ask critical questions. I think this has been the driving force in the progress of our societies – the fact people don’t shy away from discussing established truths and seeking new ways of doing things.

Q: Isn’t there also an over-sensitivity to being offended that is not peculiarly Muslim? You see it among many students, for example.

I think we should try to get rid of this offence culture. If you insist you feel offended by certain statements, then it’s endless. It’s a slippery slope towards restrictions of free speech and a free press.

Q: That is why I’m trying to see if you will link it to the Islamic State phenomenon because, when people are easily offended – say, in relation to images of Islam – then doesn’t that encourage even more violence?

So that leads you to what?

Q: Well, it would lead me to the conclusion that you have to support free speech even more strongly.

I agree. I do believe we should make our values clearer so people coming to our countries from a different cultural or religious background understand that this is our firm belief. These are the principles on which we build our societies, and they must be respected

Q: But what I’m saying is that many countries lack confidence in those principles of self-criticism and opposition to the offence culture. So it seems to be a problem with mainstream Western culture not just Muslim members of those cultures.

We are back to what I call value-based integration. We have failed in that respect. More or less, we have taken free speech, free press, gender equality, for granted. For many years, we thought it was self-evident, that there was no need to discuss it.

But it’s not self-evident. We see it challenged now. So I think we should mobilise value-based integration, make our principles clearer and insist on full respect for these principles as a pre-condition of living in our societies. If you don’t accept these principles, then why did you choose to live here in the first place? 

Q: I suppose I’m asking whether you see this as a domestic front in the fight against the Islamic State? 

It is. But we shouldn’t forget that these so-called home-grown terrorists get inspiration from somewhere – from the Islamic State. So it’s still necessary to eradicate them.

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