The Copenhagen attacks have brought the free speech fight full circle

Denmark is still reeling.
Denmark is still reeling.
Image: AP Photo/Polfoto/Jens Dresling
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Two attacks in Copenhagen—one at a free-speech debate and another at the city’s biggest synagogue—have left one dead and three injured. The gunman behind both was later killed by police.

The event, attended by the French ambassador to Denmark, was hosted by Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who became infamous after a cartoon portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a dog in 2007 attracted death threats. Vilks, who was unscathed, was the apparent target.

The attacks immediately brings to mind the events in Paris and beyond that began with the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last month. But in fact, it was Denmark that began this whole cycle of debates and attacks on free speech and these latest attacks bring the whole grisly thing to a full and vicious circle.

A prologue of sorts began in 2004, when Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered after making a controversial film about a woman who is abused following an Muslim arranged marriage. This seemed a one-off, but turned out to be anything but.

In 2005, a Danish writer named Kare Bluitgen complained that he was unable to find an illustrator for his children’s book about the Prophet. In response, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten printed some cartoons showing Mohammed in “a variety of humorous or satirical situations“—including the most famous image, of the Muslim prophet with a bomb as  a turban. Several newspapers around Europe reprinted the images.

The protests were vicious. The embassies of Denmark and other countries were set on fire in parts of the Islamic world. Kurt Westergaard, the 79-year-old cartoonist behind the bomb image, has been facing death threats since 2005 and lives under constant police protection. A Somali man once tried to kill him in his home, forcing Westergaard to hide in his panic room.

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo republished some of the Danish cartoons in solidarity with its Danish brethren—further inflaming Muslim anger in France. The magazine was taken to court over incitement to racial hatred over the cartoons and was cleared. Francois Hollande, now the president of France, testified in favor of Charlie Hebdo at that trial.

The attacks escalated in 2011, when it printed a cover of “Charia Hebdo” guest-edited by Mohammed, saying “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.” The offices of the magazine were firebombed and destroyed. The editor-in-chief, Stephane Charbonnier, said at the time:

If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying.

Charbonnier, better known as Charb, was killed along with 11 other people in January when its offices were attacks by two jihadist brothers. Almost a decade after those first Danish cartoons were published, people are still dying over this.

The debate over the limits of free speech, both for and against, shows no signs of ending anytime soon.