If you’ve seen the now-iconic image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban, then you’ve experienced the work of Kurt Westergaard, the most famous of the Danish cartoonists whose 2005 drawings of the Muslim prophet for the newspaper Jyllands-Posten led to worldwide mayhem.
That one drawing changed Westergaard’s life. After Danish police arrested three Muslims in 2008 for plotting to kill him in retaliation for the cartoon, he was put under surveillance and a panic room was installed in his house. That room saved his life on New Year’s Day 2010, when another Muslim broke into his home wielding an axe and screaming about revenge.
Fast forward to September 9, 2011. Westergaard and his wife traveled to Oslo, where four days later he was to take part in a press conference at a cultural center called Litteraturhuset. The occasion: the publication of a new children’s book for which Westergaard had done the illustrations. But on September 12, the day before the event, Westergaard flew home.
The reason given to Litteraturhuset — and to the press — was that Westergaard, 76, had taken ill. But almost immediately it was reported that he had left the country at the behest of the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST).
PST communications director Trond Hugubakken refused to address this report directly, saying only that “Westergaard lives with a death threat hanging over him and is a vulnerable person.”
As soon as Westergaard was back in Denmark, however, he confirmed in an interview with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) that he had indeed been told by Norwegian officials to go back to Denmark. The PST, he explained, had made the decision in concert with the Danish Security and Intelligence Service:
I was informed that we were to return home at once. … The official explanation is that I had heart problems. You must decide for yourself whether you believe that or not.
Curiously enough, Westergaard’s Danish publisher, John Lykkegaard, stuck to the cover story:
He didn’t feel well. That was why he went home.
Meanwhile, Westergaard’s collaborator on the children’s book, Geirr Lystrup, offered his own rather odd comment:
I think these are strange times we’re living in. I think that this can’t be serious. But then it is serious, and maybe I didn’t entirely understand that when I made contact with Kurt Westergaard to ask him to do the drawings for the book.
It goes without saying that Kurt Westergaard should not have to take part in an event at which he might take the risk of being killed. But that decision should have been his to make, not the PST’s. On the contrary, it is the job of the PST to make it possible for a man like Westergaard, whose work has antagonized a substantial, and vocal, portion of the population of Oslo, to continue to speak in public without putting his life at risk. By shipping Westergaard back to Denmark, the PST was taking the easy route, shirking its responsibility, and sending out a signal that it really does not care very much about protecting freedom of expression.
This is the same PST, by the way, that did absolutely nothing when it was informed by Interpol Norwegian Customs earlier this year that a young man named Breivik — who would later be arrested for the atrocities in Oslo and Utøya — had purchased suspicious chemicals abroad.