The Southland Times

Cartoonist whose caricature of Islam’s prophet stirred debate and violence


Kurt Westergaar­d, who has died aged 86, was a Danish cartoonist whose caricature of the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban with a fuse-lit bomb incensed Muslims around the world, provoked a free-speech debate and sparked violent attacks and riots that left dozens dead.

His wife, Gitte, announced the death without specifying a cause or, for reasons of family security, where he died. Since the publicatio­n of his caricature was printed in 2005, the cartoonist had spent most of his life under police protection.

Westergaar­d received countless death threats and, in

2010, narrowly avoided an attack at his home in Aarhus

– Denmark’s second-largest city – by a Somali

Muslim migrant.

He escaped with his 5-year-old granddaugh­ter into a ‘‘panic room’’ while police shot the assailant, who was later jailed for nine years for attempted murder and terrorism.

Westergaar­d, who took up profession­al cartoon-drawing in middle age, was 70 and little known even nationally in Denmark when his editor at the regional conservati­ve daily Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) asked 12 Danish cartoonist­s each to provide a work relating to Islamic extremism.

Westergaar­d always insisted that his caption-less caricature of a bearded man with a bomb-like turban was not meant specifical­ly to portray the Muslim prophet. But the newspaper published the 12 cartoons under the heading ‘‘The Faces of Muhammad’’, and the images became an internet sensation.

His cartoon, and reaction to it, became a worldwide focal point for the right of free speech and freedom of the press. Many Muslims strongly believe their prophet should never be represente­d in images, only through their holy scripture, the Koran. In 2006, Danish embassies in Europe, Africa and the Middle East became the targets of extremist violence that left many casualties.

By 2015, religious tensions in Denmark itself had eased, though not subsided, but they were about to spread elsewhere.

On January 7 of that year, two Islamic extremists attacked the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had republishe­d Westergaar­d’s caricature along with new cartoons of Muhammad. The gunmen killed 12 magazine staffers, including four cartoonist­s and two police officers, and wounded a dozen more. They were killed two days later in a shootout with police.

Just before that, another Islamic extremist stormed a kosher supermarke­t on the outskirts of the French capital, killing four hostages before being shot dead by police. The killings plunged the French government into a domestic and foreign policy crisis.

‘‘If Kurt had lived 200 years earlier, his drawings would have been about the Catholic Church.’’

Westergaar­d was shocked by how his cartoon had taken on a life of its own – and caused so many deaths – but for the rest of his life, he stood by the right to publish it.

Friends said he had long satirised religious figures of all faiths. ‘‘He has drawn Ayatollah Khomeini [Iran’s former leader] in the same way,’’ visual artist Erik Petri told the Danish daily Politiken. ‘‘And if Kurt had lived 200 years earlier, his drawings would have been about the Catholic Church.’’

Westergaar­d remained defiant in his public appearance­s in Aarhus, always flamboyant­ly dressed in bright yellow or red jackets and pants, colourful scarves and usually with a Panama hat or French beret.

Kurt Vestergaar­d (he changed the V to a W later in life) was born in the village of Dostrup in southern Denmark, to a strict and conservati­ve Christian family belonging to the Inner Mission Lutheran group.

As a young man, he encountere­d the Cultural Radicalism movement that criticised fundamenta­list religion and traditiona­l sexual morality. Traditiona­lists saw the movement’s followers as something of a liberal intellectu­al elite, but as a young man, Westergaar­d said, he found ‘‘an epiphany, a liberation from religious subjugatio­n’’.

After attending a teacher training college, he studied psychology at the University of Copenhagen and eventually became principal of a school for disabled children.

Encouraged by friends who admired his drawings, he got a job with Jyllands-Posten in 1983. Under the influence of Cultural Radicalism, his cartoons and caricature­s often satirised what he saw as the quirks or inconsiste­ncies of every religion.

‘‘He was an easygoing, sociable . . . cartoonist,’’ Danish journalist David Trads, who worked with Westergaar­d in the 1990s, told Politiken. ‘‘He was open-minded, a searcher, and he tried to meet those who were really after him . . . He believed everyone should be allowed to say and draw what they want.’’

In addition to his second wife, Gitte, survivors include five children from their previous marriages; and 10 grandchild­ren.

In an editorial on July 19, Jyllands-Posten wrote that, after Westergaar­d’s death, ‘‘it is more important than ever to emphasise that the struggle for freedom of expression, which became his destiny, is the struggle of all of us for freedom’’. It was notable that neither his old newspaper nor any other had at that point republishe­d his most famous cartoon after his death. That fact, Politiken cartoonist Thomas Thorhauge told his newspaper, ‘‘shows that the conflict is still unresolved’’.

‘‘‘We’re all tired of it [the debate], but we can’t bury it. I have no relationsh­ip with Muhammad, but it is intolerabl­e for me as a human being, and doing drawings in the free world, that there is a motif I am not allowed to draw. It’s crazy.’’

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