Dennis Meyhoff Brink thought he was going to die. On Feb. 14 he was attending a freedom-of-speech debate at a culture cafe in Copenhagen. The debate featured Francois Zimeray, the French ambassador to Denmark; Inna Shevchenko from the Ukrainian feminist group Femen; and Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, who attracted attention in 2007, when he drew the Prophet Muhammad as a dog. After Zimeray had spoken to the crowd, a gunman attacked the cafe in an attempt to kill Vilks. Instead, he ended up killing Finn Nørgaard, a Danish film director. Brink, a professor at the University of Copenhagen who researches religious satire cartoons, is now worried for their future and afraid to participate in other freedom-of-speech events. But he is determined to eliminate that fear because he wants to live in a society where free debate thrives. Following are excerpts from an edited conversation with Brink.
When during the event did you notice something was wrong?
Not until I heard the shots. At first I thought it sounded a little like fireworks. It took us a few seconds to realize what was happening. Then everyone panicked and people rushed toward the doors.
I walked toward the nearest door — the door that led directly to where the shooter was, but I did not know that at the time. For some reason I couldn’t open the door. Maybe it was because I was shaking so much. I totally panicked, and there were people behind me who were very impatient and wanted to get out. I thought I could hear shots from the other side of the door, so I was afraid to open it. Instead I hid behind the mixing console. I felt like I couldn’t escape. I thought I would run straight into his arms no matter what door I used.
What were you thinking at the time?
A billion thoughts go through your mind. Most of them are about fleeing. The worst thing was that I couldn’t see how I could get out of there. I had heard someone yell something in a non-European language that sounded like Arabic. I thought about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I was thinking, “In a minute he is going to come in here and shoot us.”
We were all defenseless. People were lying on the ground and were completely exposed.
Did you see police or security people?
I was looking toward the entrance door, hoping that it wouldn’t open because I thought an assassin would enter. Then the door opened, and I was in complete shock. A man with a gun entered. And for a split second I thought, “The next I will feel is bullets in my body.” But then it dawned on me that he was from the Danish Security and Intelligence Service because he was pointing the gun up so we could all see it. He was limping because he had been shot in the leg and was bleeding. He shouted something, and he ran out the back door, and then we heard some shots and shouts from there. I was just praying that he hadn’t been shot because he was on our side.
Everyone in the room was completely silent, almost as if they were dead. We were paralyzed. After maybe 10 minutes, I heard a lot of police sirens around the building. I thought, “Maybe we won’t die after all.”
After about 15 minutes, cops in uniforms entered the room. They said we should stay where we were because that was the safest place to be. They told us the whole area was cordoned off and there were police all over the neighborhood.
What consequences has the attack had for you?
The first days after the attack I was looking over my shoulder and feeling afraid all the time. I would scrutinize people and consider whether they could be a threat. Now that more time has passed, I’m starting to feel a little more like my old self. But I was supposed to participate in a debate about Charlie Hebdo that I canceled. I don’t dare participate. But I want to be able to participate in events like that again. I just think it’s best if one can unfold one’s life freely and without fear. I hope that’s how society will be. It’s a fight that we can’t ignore.
Why is it a fight that we can’t ignore?
Because I see what happened first of all as an attack on some people, but also as an attack on a certain way of life: Freedom of assembly, for example; meeting to debate freely without fearing for your life. I think that’s a way of life that is healthy and fruitful. I think satire cartoons are healthy for society. I think blasphemy is healthy and we have to distinguish between blasphemy and racism. Racism is morally reprehensible, but I don’t believe that it is racist to make satire over Muhammad, for example. In my eyes, Muhammad is an authority who even believes he has his authority directly from God. Authorities cannot be beyond criticism. If they are, it becomes unhealthy for society.
What consequences do you think the attack will have for religious satire?
There were already many who were afraid to practice religious satire, and now the fear has increased. Because a terrorist attack is not a theoretical possibility anymore. Now it is living reality. So I definitely think it will increase self-censorship. But if you look at how satire cartoonists responded to state censorship in Europe in the 1800s, they often found slightly different ways of saying things indirectly. I can also imagine that some people will see this as a chance for fame. If you draw Muhammad, you can be sure to get on the front page of all the newspapers.
But I mostly believe in the two other trends: many will not touch religious satire anymore because it’s too dangerous, and others will find new, creative ways to practice it.
What is the value of religious cartoons? What will we lose if many stop drawing them?
Religious cartoons pull authorities down to earth, down from their pedestal. Religion teaches us to look up to them, but satire teaches us to look down on them. Satire slams them to the ground and makes them more human and less divine. It depicts them as foolish, hot-tempered, hypocritical, hungry and horny, just like ordinary people. God is called “The Lord,” which means that we are minions who must obey, but satire refuses to obey. Satire is rebellious. I think that is actually healthy because it is releasing for people and creates a healthier relationship between people.
Can you give some examples of religious satire that works that way?
In the Age of Enlightenment, a strong anti-authoritarian religious satire arose. William Hogarth did a lot of satire in the mid 1700s that portrayed priests as fearmongers who tried to punish people with the idea of the devil. At that time, religious satire helped release people from the fear of the devil and the fear of going to hell because it portrayed the scary as ridiculous. When you can laugh about fear, it loses its power over you.
In the 1800s the cartoonist Honoré Daumier also had a showdown with the church, which he portrayed as the opposite of common sense, as reactionary and as a big moneymaker.
More contemporary examples are Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” which is a very fine literary work and a relevant religious satire. One of the best is Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” a very good and relevant film, which also caused a lot of uproar and debate when it came out. Lots of Christians were offended by it at the time. There were demonstrations on the streets in the U.S. and it was banned in Norway, so there were lots of protests then.