Kurt Westergaard: ‘The most hated man in Mecca’

From The National Post.

The most hated man in Mecca

Meet the Danish cartoonist who set the world on fire

Adrian Humphreys, National Post Published: Saturday, October 03, 2009

In Pakistan, tens of thousands of protestors torched cinemas, music stores, fast food outlets and other perceived symbols of Western influence in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in Denmark. Arif Ali, AFP, Getty Images In Pakistan, tens of thousands of protestors torched cinemas, music stores, fast food outlets and other perceived symbols of Western influence in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the …

Despite a grey beard and heavy cane making him look every bit his 74 years, Kurt Westergaard dresses like a teenager: bright red cargo pants strapped up by a studded black belt and red suspenders over a black top, capped by a flowing red scarf and black Stetson.

His duo-chromatic clothing is perhaps the least shocking part of his appearance, however.

As the Danish man who drew the notorious cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammad with a lit bomb wrapped in his turban — considered the most inflammatory of 12 cartoons published four years ago this week that ignited a deadly furor — it is the absence of security and the carefree way he stands outside smoking that is most striking.

Beside him, a friend casually carries a large framed reproduction of the cartoon, as if to dispel any mystery about who the flamboyantly dressed man might be. “It is very relaxing,” Mr. Westergaard says about being in Canada for the first time as a spattering of raindrops, rather than concerns over security, drives him indoors. “At home I live under police surveillance, protected by the Danish secret service. We lived in 10 different safe houses and drove 10 different cars.

“I live in a house now which is really a fortress, with steel doors, a panic room, reinforced glass in the windows, surveillance cameras and so on.”

That is the life of a man under threat, with a lucrative bounty on his head. With his fear now transformed into anger, Mr. Westergaard has emerged from his protective cocoon.

Rather than work to mitigate the offence he and fellow Danish artists caused to some fundamentalist Muslims, however, he remains unrepentant and unabashed.

“I don’t regret anything,” he says.

“I would do it again,” he says, even knowing now what would happen. Freedom of expression is too important, he says, although he remains humble about facing the danger from his stance.

“I have one advantage — I am an old man. There is not so much at stake for me anymore. I have lived most of my life, so I have not so much at risk.”

Despite the safety he feels in Canada during his lightning visit yesterday, he sheepishly admits he would like to see the RCMP, not for protection but because of fond childhood memories of a comic book, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, about a brash Mountie and his dog Yukon King.

Mr. Westergaard is, after all, a professional cartoonist, even if it was a single picture that brought him his international fame and notoriety and now makes him a campaigner for freedom of expression.

Stroking his wiry beard and speaking softly, his English coming accurately but not rapidly, Mr. Westergaard says his plight still astounds him.

“I just did my job. For me it was just another day at the office,” he says.

“I attempted to show that terrorists get their spiritual ammunition from parts of Islam and with this spiritual ammunition, and with dynamite and other explosives, they kill people. I showed this in a cartoon and what happened? They want to kill me, so I think I was right.

“But normally a cartoon in a newspaper lives only 24 hours and then we’ve got to make a new one.”


This cartoon had more lasting– ongoing–impact.

Wednesday was the fourth anniversary of the publication of the 12 cartoons by various artists in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the country’s largest.

Most depicted Muhammad because they illustrated a commentary about self-censorship after a Danish writer revealed that artists were declining to illustrate his children’s book about the life of Muhammad out of fear.

The cartoons were considered blasphemous by many Danish Muslims but, months later, vitriol exploded abroad after the pictures –along with others, particularly offensive images that had not been part of the collection — were circulated in Islamic countries.

In Pakistan, tens of thousands of protestors torched cinemas, music stores, fast food outlets and other perceived symbols of Western influence. Around the world, an estimated 139 people died, including children.

Danish embassies were attacked. Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark. There were boycotts of Danish products, cutting exports to the Middle East by half. The newspaper received bomb threats.

In Canada, magazines and newspapers that republished the cartoons faced accusations of racism and complaints to human rights tribunals that were only recently settled.

And Mr. Westergaard was thrown into a furtive life of fear.

“Every morning when I asked my wife to pronounce ‘May the secret service be with you,’ she didn’t think it was so funny,” he says, chuckling.

Last year, Danish police arrested three men accused of plotting to kill him. The violent response was unexpected, he says.

“We were aware there could be very strong reactions to the cartoons but nothing on the scale that happened. We did not imagine they could have such big consequences.

“I was sorry to hear there were casualties, of course, but we cannot take responsibility for that; I cannot and my newspaper cannot.

“Those responsible are the regimes that haven’t been able to fulfill its population’s needs. A situation like this gives the regimes an opportunity to divert the people’s attention from their daily problems, to take away their frustrations and aggressions. I think the riots were staged by the regimes.

“I don’t feel guilty because it wasn’t me who staged these things. We had no influence on them.

“I had lost every kind of control over the image. It is roaming around in the world and it is used and abused in many places and I cannot control this anymore.”

He has twice reprised the cartoon, parodying his own drawing.

Once, in protest over the unauthorized use of his cartoon in a film, he drew the filmmaker with a bomb in his head. Last year, as his torment continued, he drew a cartoon with a lit bomb implanted in his own skull.

“My situation was somewhat explosive. My head was about to explode with anger,” he says.

“I was angry because I was threatened for only doing my job. When you are threatened and you are angry you feel like striking back.”

Part of striking back means speaking out.

This week, his presence at events at Yale and Princeton universities in the United States drew protests.

His two Canadian appearances yesterday were low-key, visiting the CTS television studios in Burlington, Ont., for a conversation with Michael Coren to be broadcast Tuesday evening, and at the National Post’s Toronto office.

At each appearance he wears what has become his trademark attire, always black and red.

“Red and black are the col-ours of anarchism and I think it is appropriate clothing for a cartoonist,” he says, adding he is not a political anarchist but a cultural one.

“It expresses the nature of the work of a cartoonist, which is that you are a free person who attacks where and when you feel like it.

“Perhaps it also shows that you don’t have very much respect for those people who are not acting after our democratic traditions.”

With that he tips his hat, waves with his cane and slowly ambles off.

4 Replies to “Kurt Westergaard: ‘The most hated man in Mecca’”

  1. Sad and pathetic at once. We have to draw a line in the sand for our freedoms. It disgusts me that in a rage over the pope’s referring to Islam as a violent religion they killed an old nun who was doing charity work in Pakistan. Some people function at the cultural level of apes.

  2. you guys are pathetic, ofcourse we are going to get angry if someone offends our faith and the Messenger of God(Peace be upon him).
    if we didn’t, we would be hyporites, who have nothing of value or holy.

    the reason Islam & Muslims safeguard their religion, holy books, and the honour of their Messenger(Peace be upon him) is because it’s the truth from God, the last and final message from the lord of all mankind.

    you will never see any muslim country allowing the printing of cartoons disrespecting other religions like christianity, judaism, budhist or hindus.
    our religion even forbids us to mock or make fun of other nations religions or believes.
    therefore since we don’t practice such childish and immature ways. others should respect our faith, and not make fun of a believers that number 2 Billion world wide.

    simple! it’s not freedom to verbally or graphically insult my values, or do anyting that causes me hurt, and vice versa.

    it’s not freedom to poke fun of other people’s religions, who hasn’t done such mocking at you in the first place.

    freedom to do whatever you will with your life, but not to poke fun at me, or degrade my faith, God and Messenger.

    That is like trying to pick a fight.

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