Kurt Westergaard, my colleague and good friend, has been on the run for the last three months. This is because Danish police received information about a plot to kill the 73-year-old cartoonist, who drew the now-infamous cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban for Jyllands-Posten in 2005.
I have known about the difficult situation of Kurt and his wife Gitte for some time, and I have to say that I am amazed by the way he has handled himself. While it has been a depressing time for Kurt and his family, he insists that he will not be intimidated.
“The toughest part of it has been to watch the anxiety of my children and other close relatives,” Kurt told me last week before the story broke. “I haven’t been able to help them out, and that bothers me.”
He added that anger has overtaken the sense of shock, though he understands that he will have to live with death threats for the rest of his life.
“I am old and it’s too late to threaten me into silence. I do not fear for my life, but I am really angry that people are going after me just because I have done my work as a cartoonist.”
For the past three months Kurt and his wife have been moving from house to house. In early November, they had a few hours to collect their most necessary belongings before they were driven to a safe location. They had to leave their car at home because the police wanted to create the impression that Kurt and Gitte were still living in the house. The mail was collected, garbage was removed, and an agent who physically resembled Kurt was installed in the house. This was done in case the plotters were to execute their plans to kill Kurt.
In the middle of December Kurt and Gitte returned to their house for just one day to celebrate Christmas with their family.
Early Tuesday morning Danish police broke into several apartments in the suburbs of Aarhus, the second largest city of Denmark with 250,000 inhabitants. Of the three men who were arrested, two are citizens of Tunisia and one is a Danish citizen of Moroccan descent. The police want to deport the two foreigners, which is possible according to an anti-terror law.
I asked Kurt about September 2005, when I wrote to him and other members of Denmark’s Cartoonist Association asking them to draw the prophet Mohammed as they see him.
“I did the cartoon quickly. It was just another day at the office. I finished with a sense of satisfaction. I felt that I was able to express myself in a simple and clear way, and that’s what every cartoon is about.”
What did you want to say?
“My intention was that some Muslims are using their religion as spiritual ammunition to commit terrorist acts. It was not directed at Muslims in general, but exclusively at those who are willing to commit violence in the name of their religion.”
What do you think about the reactions to the arrests and disclosure of the plot to kill you?
“It has been nice to see that so many Danish newspapers published my cartoon as a reaction to the murder plot. I was especially thrilled that the left leaning Politiken did so. They have been very critical of the publication of the cartoons. I felt solidarity across the board, and that was very encouraging.”