Muhammad cartoonist defies death threats

Feb 9th, 2010 | By | Category: Signs of the Times (click on article name)

Muhammad cartoonist defies death threats

09/02/2010 10:20

Jerusalem Post

Afraid in Denmark – Westergaard’s kindergarten-teacher wife was fired, an auction house feared to sell his work, and he was assaulted at home.

COPENHAGEN – Kurt Westergaard, who has been facing death threats for four years over his cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, is trying to settle back into his home – a month after an ax attack in his living room.

The Danish cartoonist, 74, surveys the broken glass, damage to one of his artworks and ax marks on the door of his Aarhus house. He doesn’t see himself as brave, and says he’s all the more determined to campaign for freedom.

“It doesn’t fit my temper to hide under a rock somewhere,” says Westergaard, pouring coffee in the small room where the New Year’s Day incident took place. “I have defended some core Danish values which stipulate that everyone should be able to practice their religion, but it must not be at the expense of free speech. I just won’t stand for that.”

Westergaard’s 2005 cartoon of Muhammad wearing a turban that looked like a bomb produced Muslim anger around the world. He has become a symbol of the cultural clash between fundamentalist Islam and secular Denmark, whose media ranked first in press freedom among 175 countries in the 2009 Press Freedom Index by the Parisbased Reporters Without Borders.

The cartoon was meant as a satirical note of caution that religion shouldn’t be used to promote violence, he says. He urges tolerance; Muslim groups accuse him of insulting their religion.

An informal man with gray hair and trimmed beard, Westergaard is waiting to hear if he can visit Muhudiin Mohamed Geele, 28, who is now in custody.

Geele, a Somali man living in Denmark, pleaded not guilty to two charges of attempted murder of the cartoonist and a policeman who was called to the scene on January 1. The artist says he wants to understand the motivation of those who are reduced to “a state of total rage” by his actions.

Westergaard finds himself at the center of a debate over the cost of defending free speech. His hairdresser said she wouldn’t cut his hair because her immigrant family would disown her. Such acts show that Denmark is struggling to adjust to its role as a champion of press freedom, he says.

“The worst thing about being stigmatized is that I can’t do anything about it,” Westergaard says. “The more I speak out, the worse it becomes.”

His defiance has had a price beyond becoming a social pariah. In 2007, he and his wife, Gitte, lived in hiding for eight months as the police investigated two Tunisians and a Dane over allegations of a plot against his life. On January 14, two Chicago men and two Pakistanis were indicted in the United States for planning an attack on Morgenavisen Jyllandsthe paper Westergaard works for.

Gitte worked as a substitute teacher at a local kindergarten in February 2008, he says. She was fired because other staff feared that her presence would endanger children. When this emerged in local newspapers the next day, an alderman forced the kindergarten to reinstate her and the mayor invited her for tea at the city hall.

Online auction house last month refused to sell one of his paintings of fabled characters as part of a national effort to raise money for earthquake victims in Haiti, fearing for its employees, the company said on its Web site.

He turned to his gallery, Galleri Draupner, for help. Soon the painting garnered three competing bids of $18,881, according to owner Erik Guldager. A similar painting sold for $467 at a show in August, Guldager says. Visitors to the gallery’s Web site soared from an average of 220 a day to 48,600, he says.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Guldager says. “People love him. He’s not an overnight phenomenon – he has durability.”

A couple of months ago, Westergaard – who has tried to carry on as normal – was working out at a local gym. As he left, he was approached by two young Middle-Eastern-looking men. They asked him: “Are you Kurt Westergaard?”

His heart pounding, replied: “Yes.”

He smiles as he recalls that they asked whether they could have their picture taken with him.

“They stood beside me and put their arms over my shoulder,” he says. “I was very happy when I returned home.”

Acts of support like these encourage Westergaard to continue his advocacy of free speech. He was accused of hate mongering by a group of Muslim students before speaking at Yale and Princeton in September and October. He has offered to debate with Islamic clerics in public while refusing to speak at a conservative lobby group in Washington last year, he says.

At home in his modest brick row house, after three weeks in hiding, Westergaard serves his wife’s sweet beer cake, which he says is a hit with the two bodyguards chatting in the next room. The man who was  denounced by angry crowds across the world wears his trademark leather waistcoat, dark shirt and a handkerchief around his neck. His fragile sixfoot frame looks no match for an ax-wielding fanatic.

Half of the 654 Danish writers, artists and museum managers who took part in a January 14 survey said that freedom of speech is under threat in Denmark, according to the Copenhagen-based A4 weekly magazine. One in eight has refused to do projects out of concern they’ll offend religious groups, the survey showed.

Every time he surfaces in the media, people become more afraid of being with him, Westergaard says.

“I want to warn against the form of self-censorship and stigmatization we’re beginning to see signs of,” Lars Loekke Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, told reporters in Copenhagen on January 19. “If we start isolating those who need our support and protection, then we give in and give up.”

The artist is happy to be back in his house, where he plans to have his 75th birthday this summer. He has told friends and family to prepare a speech about him or their favorite topic instead of bringing a present. He has made a “fiveyear plan” that will allow him to see most of his nine grandchildren graduate from high school.

As a boy, Westergaard was sent to a religious Sunday school by his father, a shop owner in a northern Danish village, so the family wouldn’t rile the local fundamentalist Christian congregation. In high school he stumbled upon the works of Danish writer Kjeld Abell, who challenged religious and middle class conventions. Westergaard became an atheist.

“It was a revelation,” he says. “I was so happy to escape the clutches of religion. No religion or so-called truth should be held above reproach. There’s no double standard in free speech.”

During last month’s ax attack, a collage of Westergaard’s old cartoons hanging on the wall was damaged. The artist examines a hole in a cartoon of an Orthodox Jew wrapped in barbed wire and holding a gun. The cartoon was a comment on Israel’s policies in the West Bank.

In the 1990s, Westergaard riled the Danish fundamentalist Christian community by drawing Jesus wearing an Armani suit and clutching a briefcase as he left the cross to attend to business. He left a sign saying “visiting hours from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sundays.”

A couple of years later, he sketched the cartoon again and added an imam watching Jesus from the side, wondering how he could get the same deal.

His house is having extra security fitted, and a pavilion is being built in an area behind the garden where police bodyguards can stay. Looking into the small yard he has paved so he and Gitte can move about even if their legs deteriorate with age, Westergaard notices shards of glass left when his door was smashed down. “When you have to leave everyday life behind and everything becomes uncertain,” he says, “then the banalities of life all of a sudden look very attractiv

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