Muhammad Caricature Fallout: A Danish Illustrator's Life in Hiding

By in Copenhagen

The Danish cartoon controversy has had a murderous epilogue. Since Kurt Westergaard acquired dubious fame because of his cartoon drawings depicting the Prophet Muhammad and began receiving death threats, he has been forced to live in hiding and under police protection.

Whenever something is rotten in the state of Denmark, its subjects like to remember the legendary Holger Danske, a man on whom the nation could pin its hopes. He has been in a deep sleep for centuries in the dark cellar of Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, the home of Hamlet and of able-bodied Nordic men who have guarded the entrance to the Øresund for eons. Only when the kingdom faces serious danger -- so goes the legend, at any rate -- will Holger Danske awaken and rise up for his people.

"All you have to do is think of me," Holger tells his fellow Danes in the eponymous fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, "and I will be there in your hour of need."

Many Danes have thought of Holger Danske in recent months, especially those who see their culture threatened. This has been the case since the question of whether religion can be depicted as the subject of satire and the Prophet Muhammad as a caricature has been answered with mass demonstrations and arson -- and since Jyllands-Posten, a Danish daily newspaper published in provincial Jutland region that is relatively insignificant internationally, has been making headlines in places like Pakistan, Kuwait and Syria.

In these difficult times, many believe, he has finally arisen, this "old Dane whose praises we all sing," as a reader of Jyllands-Posten wrote poetically in a letter to the editor. "We're finally waking up to reality."

Today's Holger is actually named Kurt -- Kurt Westergaard. He is 73 years old, a charming, elderly man with a gray beard and a penchant for eccentric clothes, like bright-red trousers, red socks, a colorful ascot, a floor-length leather coat and a cowboy hat.

Westergaard is a painter and draftsman. He and his colleagues in Scandinavia are known as bladettegner -- newspaper illustrators. He drew the cartoon depicting Muhammad with a bomb and a lit fuse in his turban. It is only one of 12 caricatures Westergaard calls the "dirty dozen" and that unleashed a powerful storm of protests in the Islamic world a little over two years ago.

But it's the most provocative one. Since it appeared in Jyllands-Posten, old Kurt, who never quite made it as a painter, is suddenly a household name from Cairo to Damascus and, more recently, among Islamic fanatics in his own country.

"I was just doing my job," says Westergaard. Unlike some of his colleagues, he still sees no reason to distance himself from his drawing and bow to the pressure of the street. When the newspaper asked him to draw the cartoon more than two years ago, he had no reservations. "Of course I had to do my job. And from a purely technical standpoint, it wasn't exactly a difficult task."

A Struggle for European Values

It wouldn't have occurred to Westergaard in his wildest dreams that the cartoon would turn into a symbol of the struggle over European values of tolerance and freedom of the press.

It's an irony of fate that this simple drawing isn't just his most famous but also his most valuable. Fully aware of its value, he keeps the drawing safely locked away in a bank safe deposit box. "It's a piece of Danish history," says Westergaard.

Because of that drawing, he has become a target for these religious fanatics, and some are supposedly even trying to kill him. The threats should be taken seriously, according to PET, the Danish intelligence service. Two Tunisian immigrants and a Danish citizen of Moroccan extraction were arrested on Feb. 12 on suspicion of plotting to kill Westergaard, although the Dane was subsequently released. Even Westergaard doesn't know much more than that, except that his life changed in a fundamental way after the arrests.

He was visiting his children in Florida in February 2006 when he saw the television images of the Danish embassy burning in Damascus. Slowly he realized that his drawing was at least partly responsible for having unleashed the fury. After that he was berated, there were bomb threats and the paper received a letter containing a white power that was reminiscent of the series of anthrax attacks in the United States.

Ironically, this easygoing man on the verge of retirement is anything but a provocateur, nor is he of much use for those seeking to demonize him. He has voted for left-leaning social democrats throughout his life. "You have the country to thank for so many things," he says, "including the welfare state, strong unions and the taming of capitalism." He has nothing in common, not even today, with populist right-wing groups like the xenophobic Danish People's Party.

'A Great Shock'

Most of the uproar over his drawing had in fact subsided long ago when the police took a death threat against him seriously for the first time. "It was a great shock," says Westergaard. It was on Nov. 8 of last year when he was told about the new situation at his paper's chaotic editorial offices.

Everything changed after that. PET urged him to cancel a weekend trip to Paris with his wife Brigitte, a gift from the editor-in-chief to commemorate his 25th year of service with the paper. Instead of strolling along the Seine the next day, he found himself hidden by the police in a remote summerhouse. Everything seemed gray, including the general mood.

Since then he has changed his secret locations at irregular intervals, following PET's instructions. He and his wife have spent time abroad, visited some of their other children and repeatedly stayed in various vacation homes. The one place Westergaard rarely sees anymore is his own apartment.

The last time he was there was to celebrate Christmas with his family. Like many Danish families, his family traditionally gets together on the Sunday before Christmas Eve. This time it also happened to be his wife's birthday. He was allowed to spend the holiday at home, but it was a heavily guarded event. A police officer helped serve food to the 50 guests, while other officers kept watch in the shed behind the house and in a van in the parking lot.

A Risk for other Guests

His ordeal was reasonably pleasant for a while, when the Westergaards were put up at the luxurious Hotel SAS Radisson in Aarhus, the city's best hotel. They were given a comfortable business class suite next to the hotel's presidential suite, with a magnificent view of the city and with breakfast served in the hotel restaurant. But after they had been there for almost three weeks, it suddenly dawned on the management that Westergaard's presence could pose a risk for the other guests.

The management has declined to comment on its speedy decision to eject Westergaard and his wife from the hotel. "I do hope that I haven't become too much of a risk for the vacation house areas," Westergaard says bitterly. He hasn't quite lost his sense of irony.

But the situation is taking its toll, even if he doesn't show it. At the hotel, no one was willing to speak with him and at least try to explain the management's sensitive decision. Denmark is proud of its hero, and yet it has left him out in the cold. "It's like a slap in the face," says the illustrator, "and it gets my imagination churning right away. Will the same thing happen again? Can I even go to the theater or visit a restaurant anymore?"

He seemed lonely on the day the hotel asked him to leave as well as the next day, as he packed his clothes and visited Jyllands-Posten's editorial offices. His wife is spending a few days abroad to get some distance and just to get away from the situation. Westergaard is alone, aside from the bodyguards who sit with him when he eats breakfast or spends time in the hotel lobby in the evenings.

He also gets his share of support, in the form of telephone calls and letters, or daily mentions in the papers. Drivers spontaneously roll down their windows to encourage him to keep a stiff upper lip. But then they quickly drive away. His colleagues appear en masse at the National Press Club of Denmark in Copenhagen to hear him speak, and they applaud his courage. But they hurry home after the event.

Westergaard insists that his friends and acquaintances have behaved "impeccably." He chooses not to complain about them, knowing that the situation is difficult enough as it is -- especially for the neighbors, innocent bystanders who now live in fear, and his children, who are deeply concerned about their father's safety. He is especially upset about the impact on his wife. "I can set aside all fears," says Westergaard. "All I feel is rage," and he wants to express it.

'The Public Risk Doesn't Matter Anymore'

But for his wife this situation, this constant moving around and never being able to go home, this running away from an invisible enemy, "is nerve-wracking," says Westergaard. "I notice it quite clearly." But even worse is the feeling that he can do nothing to help her. The one thing his wife probably wants him to do is something he refuses to do: to bend, to hold back, to cave in.

"I am not a brave man, but I have to react. I can't keep still," says Westergaard, "even if my wife is against it. Perhaps it's a sort of therapy for me."

"I am an old man. My life is nearing its end, and the public risk doesn't matter anymore," he says. It's the sort of remark that makes his wife even more afraid.

Westergaard has entrusted others with his fate. He feels the way he felt during triple-bypass heart surgery a few years ago. "There was nothing I could do. I simply had to trust the doctors," says Westergaard, "and now PET is the ultimate authority."

For a moment Kurt Westergaard seems pensive and even a little distraught, perhaps even a little hesitant. But then his biting humor returns, the same humor he expresses in his cartoons. "We'd probably be the safest in a prison cell," he says. Then he says goodnight and goes to bed, like Holger Danske. But first he invites his visitor to come to his vacation house on the Baltic Sea. It's where Westergaard wants to go next summer -- but voluntarily.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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