When — in early September 2005 — I got a brief request from my editor at the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten to draw my impression of the prophet Muhammad, I had little idea of what I was getting myself into. To me it was just another day at the office. So I tried to do the best job I could, and I drew up a picture of the prophet with a bomb in his turban. I further inserted the quotation: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."
On Sept. 30, the paper published 12 cartoons, including my own, that took Islam and Muhammad as their subject. The 'Danish cartoon affair' which ensued turned out to be perhaps the most important free speech case of our time. In the months after the cartoons' publication, protests against them morphed from peaceful objections to irrational violence which included serious threats on my life. The cartoons have become a watershed test for the ability of the press to comment and criticize all religions without fear of violent reprisal. All of us — and not least the students and faculty at an institution such as Princeton — will be on the center front of this debate for years to come.
It is important, therefore, that we all understand what is at stake. It is for this reason that I spoke at Princeton yesterday and why I write here. I would also hope to explain to you why I acted as I did, and especially why I have refused to apologize for my cartoon despite strong pressure that I do so.
The initial reaction to the cartoons' publication was fair. Many people — both Muslims and non-Muslims — were very angry at what they saw as an attempt to ridicule and offend a whole religion, and my contribution in particular was held out for criticism. Many of my fellow journalists joined with a number of politicians, intellectuals, artists and Danish ex-diplomats in condemning Jyllands-Posten's action, and three thousand Muslims marched through the streets of Copenhagen in a peaceful protest. Eleven diplomats from Muslim countries asked for a meeting with our prime minister in order to elicit a state apology for the cartoons. He refused to meet with them, stating that Denmark enjoys freedom of the press and that it was not his business to apologize for something a newspaper had done. All was as it should be in a democratic country with free speech. People certainly had a right to voice their opinion, just as I had the right to voice mine.
In December and January 2006, however, things turned ugly. A delegation of Danish imams toured the Middle East in an attempt to stir up anger against the cartoons, and they brought with them some disgusting pictures that had never been published by any Danish newspaper. The outcome was predictable. Soon the entire Muslim world erupted in violent demonstrations that claimed the lives of more than 130 people. Jyllands-Posten's cartoonists and editors received death threats. Danish embassies were burned down. Danish goods were boycotted. The entire Danish political class went into panic when it realized that this was the worst foreign policy crisis to have hit the country since World War II.
But Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has since become Secretary General of NATO, refused to back down and issue the apology demanded of him.
In February 2008, the Danish police uncovered a plot to assassinate me by two Tunisians living not far from my house on the outskirts of Aarhus. The would-be murderers planned to force their way into my house and strangle me with their bare hands. Since then I have been living under police protection and I expect to do so for the rest of my life.
In light of what has later been claimed about Jyllands-Posten's intentions to deliberately and gratuitously offend 1.2 billion Muslims, I should point out that the paper's rationale was a far different one. In the months leading up to the publication of the cartoons, Islamists had launched one attack on Danish free speech after another. A well-known author had been unable to find an artist who would dare to illustrate a children's book on Muhammad. A concert was stopped by radical Muslims who claimed that music is un-Islamic. The culmination came when a lecturer of Jewish descent at Copenhagen University was abducted in broad daylight by a gang of Arabs and severely beaten for having recited from the Koran as part of his course. Nothing similar had happened during the university's more than 525 years of history. Imagine what would happen if such a thing occurred at Princeton.
In this situation the paper felt that it was imperative to test whether we still enjoyed free speech — including 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.
Some have argued that the cartoons were unfair and should not be protected by freedom of speech. So I am often asked if do not accept that there must be limits to what one may say, write or draw. I certainly do. Free speech must have limits, but these limits should be determined by law and by precedents established by the courts. All civilized states have laws against the invasion of privacy, slander, divulging state secrets, inciting to violence and the like, and they should be respected. But my cartoon was well within the law, and nobody except for 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 censured. The case was thrown out 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. My picture 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.
As I noted at the beginning of my article and in my talk yesterday, the 'cartoon affair' is the central barometer of values in our time, particularly regarding free speech. The university is based on the idea of discourse and discussion free from fear of reprisal or terror. Princeton, and all academic institutions, therefore have a particularly large stake in this debate. If my cartoons could not be published, then the whole idea of a liberal university is a sham.
And so, finally, do I regret having made the cartoon? Not for a moment. Despite the price I have had to pay, I am sure that I did the right thing. I would draw it again given the chance.
Kurt Westergaard is a Danish cartoonist whose cartoon of Muhammad appeared in September 2005 among the 12 Jyllands-Posten cartoons. He is touring the United States for the first time and spoke at Princeton on Wednesday.