Tonight on my daily television program, The Michael Coren Show, my guest will be a wanted man. Indeed three people were arrested last year for plotting to murder him and he is under constant police protection because his life is under permanent threat. Yet 74-year-old Kurt Westergaard resembles a kindly uncle more than a danger to the state. And truth is, he’s only seen as a danger if it’s an Islamic state. Because this bearded, gentle and disarmingly unassuming man set off an international crisis in 2005 when his cartoon of the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban was published in Denmark’s leading newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. The subsequent protests and violence led to more than 100 deaths, attacks on embassies and the storming and burning of Danish and Western buildings throughout the Islamic world.
This was the only television interview he gave in Canada. I’d like to think it’s because I have a known commitment to freedom of speech but, frankly, it’s also because some journalists are frightened of giving him any exposure — we were obliged to record the interview early so as not to publicise his movements because of security concerns. “I’m an old man, I haven’t so much to lose,” he says with a smile when I ask him if he’s ever scared.
The great Dane is angry more than frightened. He grimaces as he recalls the December evening in 2005 when the Danish secret service contacted him and said he had to leave his home. He asked when. Now! For the next nine months he lived in 10 different safe houses and was driven in a dozen different cars. “Did I know that the cartoon would put my life in danger and cause so much trouble? No. But if you want to know if I’m sorry or if I will apologize for what I did, absolutely not.” A pause. “No, absolutely not.”
The story has context. Proudly tolerant Denmark had been shaken by a wave of extremism from elements of the Islamic community. First a noted author could not find anyone sufficiently courageous to illustrate his book about Islam. Then leading Danish comedian Frank Hvam openly stated that he would “urinate” on the Bible on television but wouldn’t dare criticize the Koran. Finally a professor of Moroccan Jewish descent was abducted and badly beaten up by an Arab gang for merely reading passages of the Koran to a class of non-Muslims.
The Jyllands-Posten decided to test the genuine state of free expression by inviting cartoonists to depict the prophet. Westergaard’s became the most notorious cartoon but in truth it is far from shocking and nowhere near as severe as the habitual drawings of Jews and Christians in much of the Arab press. “At first there were peaceful demonstrations in Denmark from Muslims. Entirely acceptable. Then the cartoons were taken to the Middle East in a direct attempt to cause trouble and attack the West and Western freedoms,” he explains. “They added other pictures that had never been printed in Denmark.”
One of the illustrations was a photograph of a man dressed as a pig. It was taken from a French squealing contest. Bizarre and, well, French, but nothing to do with Islam. “There was never any serious attempt at dialogue. I was cursed, abused, threatened,” says Westergaard. “I remember a television debate I had with one of Denmark’s leading Imams. Here was an educated, intelligent man. He suddenly told me that he knew what was going on. My newspaper, he explained, was owned by American Jews — ‘dark forces’ as he called them — and unless I attacked Islam I’d be fired and the paper closed down. I didn’t know how to react. The paper is owned by Danes — mainly Lutherans and secular, no Jewish people anywhere. Yet this man is convinced that we are controlled by these dark forces of foreign Jews. There is no possibility of compromise with lunacy.”
What particularly disappointed him was the lack of support from other artists and intellectuals. When he had previously drawn cartoons mocking of Christianity, for example, there had been a consensus of approval from what he calls “the creative establishment.” Not this time. “Relativism. Islam is the adopted pet minority of these people and I was offending it. Never mind freedom of speech and the right of speaking my mind. A different response, however, from what you might call the man on the street. Ordinary Danes supported me. It’s interesting that the same journalists who thought I’d gone too far said not a word recently when a Muslim leader in Denmark stated that Jews were causing AIDS and that the country should live under shariah law where apostates would be killed and women who committed adultery stoned to death.”
Now Kurt Westergaard, part-anarchist, part-curmudgeon, mostly hero, will return home, where the Danish police will take care of him. “But who,” he asks as he leaves, “is going to take care of freedom?”
The Michael Coren Show airs at 6 pm on the CTS network.