Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: EXCLUSIVE: Interview With the Danish Cartoonist

Meotti phoned Kurt Westergaard, Europe’s symbol of the long war for the freedom of expression. He is the Danish cartoonist who penned the Muhammad caricature that Islamists will never forget. At 77, he needs protection equal to that of the king.
Published: Friday, February 08, 2013 2:05 PM


The American journalist Bruce Bawer has called it “the Danish Three Days of the Condor”. Others evoked the case of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician and professor killed for his ideas on immigration by a fanatic environmentalist.

On Tuesday evening, the most famous Danish critic of political Islam, the director of the International Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, miraculously survived after being ambushed by a man who approached him dressed as a postman and shot him, aiming at the head, but missed the target.

Welcome to Europe’s civil war, where intellectuals can be executed on the streets for their ideas and writings. According to the Wall Street Journal, “today in Europe, dozens of people live hidden or under police protection because of threats from Muslim extremists”.

This long-existing war started with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

In 1991, Islamists stabbed to death the Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses”, Hitoshi Igarashi, an indomitable intellectual who decided to translate the novel despite knowing the threats.

Then Iranian assassins executed a Belgian imam, Abdullah al Ahdel, and his assistant, in Brussels, just because they dared to criticize the fatwa.

Bookstore chains across Europe banned the book for fear of reprisal. The French publisher Christian Bourgois refused to publish it, and so did the German publisher Kiepenheuer.

Gianni Palma, Italian editor of the Japanese version of the book, received death threats. “Will you be next”, was left written on the door of his house in Tokyo.

The worst attack took place in Turkey in 1993. Thirty-seven guests in a hotel in Sivas were killed in the attempt to lynch Rushdie’s Turkish translator, Aziz Nesin. Literary critic and poet Asim Bezirci Nesimi Cimen died in the fire. 

The Norwegian publisher of Rushdie, William Nygaard, got three shots of gunfire near his home in Oslo.

Ettore Capriolo was the Italian translator of Le Carré and Hemingway. In 1989, he also translated “The Satanic Verses”. On July 3, 1991, Ettore received in his home in Milan an Iranian allegedly interested in a translation. The assassin stabbed him in the chest, neck, forearms and face.

The day after the attack on Lars Hedegaard in Copenaghen, I phoned Kurt Westergaard, Europe’s symbol of this long war for the freedom of expression. He is the Danish cartoonist who penned the Muhammad caricature that Islamists will never forget, the Prophet with a turban resembling a bomb. At seventy-seven years, Westergaard is forced to live in the shadow of the Danish secret service.

“I can not even go shopping or sit in a coffee outdoors”, Westergaard tells us. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new leader, said: “I urge every Muslim who can do it to hit Denmark in defense of the Prophet”.

Even in Pakistan, the Taliban has put a bounty on his head. Westergaard himself survived an assassination plot, when a Somali man tried to stab him to death inside his home in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city.

“I was sitting with my grandson in the living room when I saw a man breaking the glass of the door with an ax. I decided not to fight it, I would have been killed, I’m just an old man. My reaction was to lock myself in the ‘safe room’, sounding the alarm. From behind the door I could hear the man screaming violent words. Then the police came to neutralize him. In the following days we were taken to a ‘safe house’. Today I have protection that only the Prime Minister in Denmark needs”.

Westergaard:“The attack on Lars Hedergaard reminds us again the terrible situation we are living through in Europe, the terrorists target us even in front of our homes. My house is a fortress with cameras, day and night the police protect the building, every time I leave the house I am guarded by three policemen. They are my family.

"My most recent drawing was on Don Quixote, a man with high ideals who was ready to fight for them. I do not know what the future holds for us, but I hope that the Western democracies won’t surrender in the face of these horrible threats. Self-censorship is already taking place in my country, people are afraid to write and say what they think. Today my famous cartoon would not be published by any newspaper”.

Westergaard comes from the Left. “I come from the relativistic liberal culture",he says, "but today’s relativists do not accept the current battle, they are victims of an intellectual paranoia. The left is committed only to drinking coffee”. Democracy does not work without freedom of speech, explains Westergaard. “We have the freedom of expression because we fought for it. We already tried the path of appeasement in the Thirties, when we ceased to do cartoons about Hitler, when a Danish cartoonist named Hans Bendix made caricatures of Nazism, prophesying the destruction of the world. Denmark asked to stop these cartoons.

"It was the beginning of appeasement towards barbarism. Denmark was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. And for me the example of Bendix is still valid today. Freedom of speech is declining across Europe”.

I ask Westergaards if he regrets that cartoon. “I have no regrets, I do not regret anything, I just did my job. It was also my duty. Pablo Picasso once met a German officer in the south of France after the destruction of Guernica. The officer asked him, ‘Oh, so you’re the one who created Guernica?’. Picasso replied: ‘It was not me, but you’. In the same way, I reacted with this cartoon to what I saw after 9/11”.

To understand what happened to Europe I visited Linnaeusstraat, Amsterdam, a neighborhood populated mostly by Muslims.

It’s there that Mohammed Bouyeri slaughtered Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004. The filmaker, who dared to criticize Islam, stopped at a pedestrian crossing. The Islamist shot him with a Croatian gun. Theo fell off his bike and dragged himself across the street. Bouyeri followed him to a trash can of garbage, and shot him twice, while Van Gogh begged him “don’t do that”. He actually pulled out a knife to behead him, before leaving a letter on his chest with the knife, shaped like a curved machete. The letter proclaimed: “To the hypocrites: unless you want to die, keep your mouth shut”.

At the trial in The Hague, Bouyeri confessed of being ready to “do the same thing” if he had another chance. He wore an Arabic tunic and had a copy of the Koran. He spoke after an Islamic prayer.

He looked into the eyes of the mother of Van Gogh, Anneke, and said: “I did not hate your son, he was not a hypocrite and I did not feel offended by him. I do not feel your pain, you are an infidel”.

In Europe, people who use a laptop are hunted with guns and knifes. In my country, Italy, this already happened in the 80’s, when the Red Brigades executed dozens of journalists and professors with point blank shots in the head.

Yesteday the victims were called “enemies of the people”. Today they are labelled “Zionists” or "Islamaphobes".