Westergaard's Life Sentence Muhammad Cartoonist Defiant After Attack
Four years ago, Kurt Westergaard triggered a bitter clash of cultures with his cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. On New Year's Day, a young Muslim from Somalia tried to kill him with a knife and an ax. Despite having to live under constant protection, the Danish cartoonist refuses to give up.
He supports himself with a cane as he stands in the hallway, staring at the demolished bathroom door. A sheet of particleboard has been nailed to the door to hold it together, but the indentations from the ax are still visible in the frame, where some of the wood was chipped off. In a few days, workers will install a steel door and an alarm system, and a pavilion will be built in the garden for the police officers assigned to protect him. Kurt Westergaard's house has to be turned into a fortress.
Last Thursday was the first time Westergaard was back in his row house in the Danish city of Aarhus since the New Year's Day attack, when a young man from Somalia broke into the house. Westergaard saw the man in the hallway, fled into the bathroom, locked the door and pressed his panic button, while the man tried to break down the door with an ax. The police quickly arrived on the scene, and it took only two shots to incapacitate the intruder.
Westergaard has returned to his house to pick up a few things he needs, so that he can continue working in the secret location where he is currently being housed. Although the names Kurt and Birgitte Westergaard are still printed on the doorbell nameplate outside, Westergaard now feels like a stranger in his own home.
His wife is cooking lunch in the kitchen: baked fish with black bread and tartar sauce. The table in the living room is set for eight: three police officers, two workmen, the Westergaards and their visitor from Germany. Whenever the doorbell rings, one of the officers from Danish state security gets up to see who it is. The Westergaards plan to return to the house full-time once the renovations are complete and things have settled down. "I refuse to hide," says Westergaard. "And it wouldn't do any good," says his wife. "Denmark is too small for that. Anyone can find anyone else here."
The Muslim World in Uproar
Westergaard was one of 12 cartoonists who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. A few months later, the Muslim world, inflamed by Islamists from Denmark, was in an uproar. Ambassadors in Copenhagen submitted official complaints to the Danish government, an organization of Islamic countries called for a boycott of Danish products, Libya closed its embassy, activists in Gaza City stormed the grounds of the European Union office there, and Arab League foreign ministers demanded punishment for the cartoonists. Tens of thousands of women took to the streets in the Yemeni capital San'a, the Danish Embassy in Lebanon was set on fire, Iran severed trade relations, and there were widespread protests throughout the Muslim world, in Tehran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Nigeria. The protests claimed 150 lives, including six people who died in a suicide bombing attack on the Danish Embassy in Pakistan.
The Islamic world felt insulted and provoked by the Danish cartoons. Westergaard, an atheist, had turned in what was probably the most provocative drawing, with his Muhammad wearing a turban that contained a bomb with a fuse attached to it. He was also the only one of the cartoonists who appeared in public and defended his right to freedom of expression.
He has received dozens of threatening phone calls since then. In 2008, three people were arrested and charged with plotting to kill Westergaard. But everything changed on Jan. 1, when a threat turned into a question of survival. At this point, shouldn't Westergaard be asking himself whether this symbol, this cartoon, was worth having to now share his life with three police officers assigned to protect him and his wife around the clock?
Westergaard is 74. He comes from a town in North Jutland County in northern Denmark, where his father owned a small shop. He grew up among devout Christians and, like everyone else, attended Sunday school, where he learned about the existence of God and Satan. "But God," says Westergaard, "is far away and the devil is nearby. Both are tyrants that frighten people."
'Sent on Vacation'
After finishing high school, Westergaard wanted to study art, but his parents were opposed to the idea. Instead, he ended up working as a teacher of German, English and Art Education, first at an elementary school and, after gathering 10 years of experience, at a special school for the disabled. At 50, he decided to try his luck as a cartoonist. His first cartoons appeared in a left-leaning liberal newspaper called Demokraten, which soon went out of business. He then took a job with Jyllands-Posten, where he has worked as a cartoonist for the last 25 years, producing a cartoon almost every day, usually about a current event. Throughout the years, even after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, Westergaard had an office in the newspaper's editorial department.
Two months ago, however, Westergaard was "sent on vacation," as he says. It is unclear whether the paper was more concerned about his health or its own security. But now, says Westergaard, he doesn't want to stay at home anymore, preferring to return to his desk at Jyllands-Posten.
Jörn Mikkelsen, the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, has been working for the paper since 1994. He started out as a correspondent in Bonn, joined the senior editorial team in 2002 and has been editor-in-chief since 2008.
As Mikkelsen recalls, at some point in December 2005 the Associated Press published a four-line report from the city of Srinagar in Kashmir, where merchants in the local bazaar had staged a protest against cartoons in a Danish newspaper after Friday prayers. "We laughed about it in the editorial department, but later, as I was going home, I started having a queasy feeling. I asked myself: How did they find out about this? Who reads Jyllands-Posten in Kashmir?"
'We Have Not Regretted It'
Before the cartoons were published, the editors had a long and very serious discussion about the matter, says Mikkelsen, but no one anticipated such dramatic consequences. The incident occurred more than four years ago, and yet it seems that the matter will never be brought to an end.
"Nevertheless, we have not regretted it, because the dispute is too important. It would never even have started if the cartoons hadn't been published. We didn't hatch any terrorist plans, and we didn't attack anyone with an axe. All we did was to do our job as a media outlet. Others exploited the printing (of the cartoons) for their own ends."
Mikkelsen pauses, and then says: "On the other hand, many people lost their lives at the time."
The newspaper has reprinted the cartoons on occasion. The last time it did so was a little over a year ago, after the murder plot against Westergaard had been uncovered and the suicide bombing had been committed against the Danish Embassy in Islamabad.
"We've all become smarter," says Mikkelsen. "There is a new, heightened security situation that we cannot ignore." In an interview in his own paper, he explained the new policy to his readers, saying that Denmark is now on the terrorists' list of hot spots and that extremists in Pakistan are watching the country carefully. "It isn't just about Jyllands-Posten anymore, it's about the entire Danish nation. As a responsible newspaper, we cannot ignore this."
We have seen enough of the cartoons, says Mikkelsen, and it is time to begin a debate over Islamism and a new totalitarianism. "As a newspaper, we have now reached our limits. We want to keep the debate going, but we cannot constantly return to its point or origin."
Westergaard, for his part, feels abandoned. Since the recent attack, his anger has returned, he says, and he talks about his disappointment with the Danish intellectuals who have taken sides against him. Neither the Danish Association of Visual Artists nor the Danish PEN Center has supported him, says Westergaard, who notes that the "intellectual class" spends its time "drinking coffee and cultivating its cultural relativism."
On the other hand, he says, he has received hundreds of e-mails from "normal people." One of them even offered him a house on the Faroe Islands, noting that it would be a safe place to hide.
"It is simply absurd that you have to fear for your life in your own house and your own country, because, as a cartoonist, you have an opinion that others don't like." He says that he has also poked fun at Christianity, and once drew a cartoon of Jesus stepping down from the cross in an Armani suit. "People were upset about that, too, but it was all over after a week."
Fundamentalists Have a Long Memory
Westergaard says that he sleeps well, doesn't have bad dreams and doesn't need to take any pills. Although he now feels like a stranger in his own house, he still wants to return home. He tries to laugh about things that actually make him angry. He believes in a future, even though he cannot shake the past. He has decided to drive to the Jyllands-Posten editorial offices every day again, go to the gym every other day and sit in a café whenever he pleases. The police officers will always be with him, "for as long as I live," he says. Westergaard tries to keep his spirits up, even though he has few good reasons to be in a good mood.
Was the whole thing worth it?
He smiles. "I don't think about that. Even the Danish prime minister is guarded around the clock." He calls it a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but with positive aspects.
Then he tells the story of Danish illustrator Hans Bendix, who made fun of the Nazis in the 1930s, until the Danish Foreign Ministry asked him to stop provoking the Germans. Bendix obeyed, but that didn't prevent the Germans from occupying Denmark. He survived the occupation and became an illustrator again after the war.
Westergaard's life will never return to the way it was before Sept. 30, 2005. Fundamentalists have a long memory.
In the evening, he has his bodyguards drive him to Skanderborg to see his gallery owner, Erik Guldager, who once worked for BASF in Denmark and opened an art gallery a few years ago.
After having dinner at Guldager's house, Westergaard gets to work. He signs watercolors and prints that Guldager sends to Westergaard collectors around the world, even in Saudi Arabia. The best-selling item is the cartoon of Muhammad with the bomb in his turban, with a signed print now going for upwards of 500 ($715). The printing of 1,000 copies is already exhausted, with the exception of a few copies Guldager has bought back.
A collector recently offered a six-figure dollar amount for the original. It is kept in a bank vault in Copenhagen.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan