In early October, Mr. Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew a picture of the Islamic prophet with a bomb in his turban four years ago, visited Princeton and Yale, two of America’s top universities, to speak to students, who are supposed to be tomorrow’s elite. The students did not feel any sympathy - indeed, were almost hostile - towards Mr. Westergaard, an artist who has been living under constant police protection since he drew a cartoon of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, four years ago.
“My cartoon,” Mr. Westergaard said, “was an attempt to expose those fanatics who have justified a great number of bombings, murders and other atrocities with reference to the sayings of their prophet. If many Muslims thought that their religion did not condone such acts, they might have stood up and declared that the men of violence had misrepresented the true meaning of Islam. Very few of them did so.”
On the contrary, as if to prove that Mr. Westergaard had hit the raw nerve of Islam, he had to go into hiding when Muslim radicals threatened to kill him for “insulting” their prophet. He and his wife lived in more than ten different government-provided safe houses before the Danish authorities turned his own house into a bunker, with electronic surveillance cameras, bullet-proof windows, steel doors and a panic room.
Mr. Westergaard arrived at both Princeton and Yale, heavily guarded by policemen. Ten officers kept watch inside the room - with more on guard outside - when he addressed his audience in Princeton. Such is life for Mr. Westergaard these days. “When, early in September 2005, I got a brief request from my editor to draw my impression of the prophet Muhammad, I had little idea of what I was getting myself into,” he told the students.
The Danish cartoon affair led to riots and attacks on Danish embassies and properties in Islamic countries, resulting in the death of over 130 people. The threats against Mr. Westergaard are still as imminent as they were four years ago. Last year, the Danish police arrested two Tunisians who were planning to force their way into the Westergaard home and assassinate the cartoonist. “I have been living under police protection and I expect to do so for the rest of my life,” Mr. Westergaard told his audience at Princeton and Yale.
The Danish cartoon affair has become the most important free speech cause of our time. As the right to free speech is indivisible, it includes, as Mr. Westergaard said at Princeton and Yale, “the right to treat Islam, Muhammad and Muslims exactly as you would any other religion, prophet or group of believers. If we no longer had that right, one could only conclude that the country had succumbed to de facto sharia law.”
Despite their displeasure with the cartoon Mr. Westergaard had drawn, Danish politicians have stood by him, refusing to criticize him -- let alone apologize for his drawing -- and providing him constant protection against his would-be assassins.
How would the American establishment react, however, if confronted with a similar case? American newspapers have refused to reprint his cartoons, even as illustrations to articles about the case. Yale University Press has published a whole book about the affair, without showing the cartoon. While an image of the cartoon was projected on a screen during Kurt Westergaard’s talk at Princeton, the university authorities at Yale refused to do so when Mr. Westergaard was giving his talk there. They told Mr. Westergaard that they would only allow the cartoon to be shown in a separate room, “so that students who do not want to see it, do not have to see it,” thereby treating the drawing as they would treat a vile piece of pornography. As it turned out, however, the cartoon was not even shown in a separate room.
Despite the price he and his wife have had to pay, the 74-year old artist does not regret that he drew the cartoon. He has also consistently refused to apologize to those whose feelings he might have hurt. To him, it is a matter of principle. “Free speech must have limits, but these limits should be determined by law and by precedents established by the courts. [ ] My cartoon was well within the law, and nobody except some fanatical Muslims said otherwise. As a matter of fact, 22 Muslim organizations in Denmark went to court in an attempt to get the cartoons censored. The case was dismissed as groundless. Then there is the matter of taste and good manners. Here, I must also plead my innocence. My cartoon was construed as an attempt to hurt the feelings of every Muslim in the world. That was never my intention.”
Despite the Danish cartoon affair being a watershed test for the freedom of the Western media to criticize religions and ideologies without fear of violent reprisal, only a small number of students turned up at both Princeton and Yale to hear Mr. Westergaard plead his case. At Princeton, there was a turnout of about sixty people, at Yale of about eighty. Both at Princeton and at Yale, half the audience was Muslim, while the other half either agreed with them or was intimidated into appearing to do so. Perhaps the non-Muslims among America’s Ivy League students are simply unaware of the Danish cartoon affair or do not care about it.
At both Princeton and Yale, the university authorities had ensured that the Muslim voice critical of Mr. Westergaard would be heard. Yale even had reserved a fifth of the auditorium seats specifically for Muslims, although more showed up.
At Princeton, the official Muslim campus chaplain was sitting on the panel. He was very critical of Westergaard, but was prepared to debate him. He also made no objection to the cartoon being shown.
At Yale, however, the Muslim chaplain, one Omer Bajwa, claimed that Mr. Westergaard’s visit to Yale was part of a plot by Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, and Daniel Pipes, an American scholar, both of whom are critical of Islamism. Lars Hedegaard, the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, which had organized Mr. Westergaard’s visit to America, denied this, pointing out that “Mr. Wilders and Mr. Pipes are not even aware that Mr. Westergaard is here.”
Mr. Bajwa also wanted to know from Mr. Westergaard “what your son, who has converted to Islam, thinks about your cartoon and your refusal to apologize?” As it happens, Mr. Westergaard’s son has not converted to Islam, nor have any of his other children.
The Yale audience - all of them students whose parents pay up to $50,000 per year to send them there - was even more hostile to Mr. Westergaard than the students at Princeton. One of them told Mr. Westergaard, “You feel unsafe today, which is unfortunate, but you should realize that your presence here today has made thousands of other people feel unsafe.” This type of statement makes a moral equation between attempting to assassinate someone and drawing a cartoon.
Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, who attended the event at Yale as a guest of the International Free Speech Society, was shocked: “I was disappointed at the inability of those in attendance among the Yale community to place responsibility for the violence on those who bear responsibility. [ ] Every questioner seemed to want to misplace blame.”
“Further,” he said, “it is clear that the university suffers from relativist truth and the multicultural ethic. There are no universal truths any longer. When I was in college, it seemed that the point of education at the university level was to use the subject matter under study to encourage independent, critical thinking. Today, all truths are equal. I reject this notion. In the final analysis, I believe that the university is lost.”
The cartoon which Mr. Westergaard drew has become an icon of our time. It is the only drawing in recent history over which people have been killed and whose maker has to live under a permanent threat of assassination. Mr. Westergaard, invariably dressed in black and red, “the colors,” he says “of anarchism,” shrugs when asked about his fears. “When you are old, there is not so much to lose,” he says.
Moreover, he explains, he sees no reason why Muslims should be treated differently from other people. He has also drawn things which Christians and Jews found to be offensive, including a “pro-Palestinian” cartoon of Nazi camp prisoners with the Nazi guards substituted by Israelis and the prisoners by Palestinians with the word ‘Arab’ on their Star of David instead of ‘Jude.’ “It was a pro-Palestinian article which I had to illustrate,” he explains. “That is my job. My illustrations have to be in line with the message of the article.” Though Danish Jews were insulted, and told Mr. Westergaard so, they never threatened to kill him, nor did they demand apologies.
The American columnist Diana West, an alumna of Yale, speaks of her former university as a “wreck.” Mr. Westergaard will not need to draw a cartoon of Yale University upon his return home. It has made a caricature of itself.
After his visit to Yale, Mr. Westergaard flew to Toronto where he was interviewed by the National Post, one of Canada’s major national newspapers. The next day, the paper published an interview with the Danish cartoonist on its first page, including the controversial cartoon. No major US paper, including its liberal flagships, has so far dared to do this.