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.
On September 14, under pressure for having sent Westergaard out of the country, the PST passed the buck: Hugubakken said it was the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) that had made the decision to cancel Westergaard’s appearance and send him back to Denmark. However, in an interview (also posted on September 14) with the editors of Sappho, the website of the Danish Free Press Society, Westergaard seemed to confirm that the decision had indeed been made by the PST.
But that’s not all, folks. As it happened, on September 12 — the day Westergaard returned to Denmark from Oslo — a devout young Muslim activist named Mohyeldeen Mohammad arrived in Oslo from Saudi Arabia. This was the same fellow who, in February of last year, gave a speech at a huge Oslo rally protesting a cartoon of the prophet Muhammed (not Westergaard’s) that had appeared in Dagbladet. “When will Norwegian authorities and their media understand the seriousness of this?” Mohyeldeen Mohammed had thundered before a highly receptive audience of around 3000 Muslims in Oslo’s University Square. “Perhaps not before it is too late. Perhaps not before we get a September 11 on Norwegian soil.” He added, unpersuasively: “This is no threat, this is a warning.”
(After the cancellation of Westergaard’s appearance at Litteraturhuset, one could not help reflecting that the same PST which put the kibosh on it had allowed that rally in University Square to go on without a hitch.)
In the year and a half since his now-famous speech, Mohammed, who immigrated to Norway with his Iraqi parents at age three, had publicly praised Osama bin Laden, declared that gays and infidels deserve the death penalty, and celebrated the death of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan. Then, in early September, he flew to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran. He was arrested at the airport in Medina, and after being detained and questioned for several days, was sent by Saudi authorities back to Norway, arriving at Oslo Airport, as noted above, on September 12.
No reason was given for his detention and return. The natural conclusion, however, was that Mohammed, while not too extreme for Norway, is too extreme for Saudi Arabia.
This, then, is Europe in the year 2011. On the very day that Norwegian officials hustle a hero of free speech out of the country for fear that his exercise of that freedom will lead to violence, they welcome back home an outspoken champion of violence and a sworn enemy of liberty who has just been deported by one of the world’s most oppressive nations.
The PST’s cowardice and lack of moral responsibility are — to put it mildly — deeply dispiriting. And with this sad episode, the ever-darkening long-term prospects for the survival of freedom in Norway grow even dimmer.