On the fourth anniversary of the publication of his highly controversial cartoon featuring the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard stressed the importance of free speech Wednesday to an audience of roughly 80 people as part of a panel in Whig Hall.
At the epicenter of one of the most heated free speech debates of recent years, Westergaard became an internationally known figure in 2005 with his portrayal of Muhammad as a fiery-eyed guerilla wearing a bomb as a turban. Westergaard's cartoon appeared with 11 other cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, though most Muslim scholars strongly condemn visual depictions of Muhammad. Though the reaction to the cartoons in Denmark was nonviolent, the images sparked a wave of unrest across Europe and the rest of the world. Danish embassies were set on fire, Westergaard and others received death threats, and more than 100 people were killed in protests across the Muslim world.
"You have the right to speak; you have the right to vote. You have the right to demonstrate," Westergaard told the audience. "But there is one right you do not have, and this is the right not to be offended."
Though the cartoons were published four years ago, Westergaard said his home is still an "electronic fortress" and that he is still escorted to work by police. The Mercer County sheriff's office, Public Safety and the Princeton Township police department were all involved in providing security at Wednesday's panel.
Westergaard, 74, said the cartoons "have been the catalyst in a necessary process," forcing people around the world to confront the issue of free speech. He also compared Islamic extremism to other ideologies such as fascism and communism, which he said are all forms of fanaticism.
"Like communism had its commissars, Islam has its imams," he said.
Initially, Westergaard said he did not foresee the international crisis that his cartoon would spark.
"It took about two hours [to draw]," he said. "For me, it was nothing very special. It was just another day at the office."
Lars Hedegaard, president of the International Free Press Society, spoke before Westergaard and emphasized the importance of free speech both in Denmark and in the rest of the world, calling the right to criticize religion "fundamental."
Hedegaard praised the refusal of Westergaard and then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to apologize for the cartoons, saying that doing so "would be tantamount to accepting that Islam is a sort of uber-religion, something that holds sway over everything else in our society."
Coordinator for Muslim Life Sohaib Sultan followed Westergaard's remarks. Sultan criticized Westergaard's depiction of Muhammad as an abuse of free speech akin to Holocaust denial.
"[Westergaard] said that he is angry because, one, he felt threatened, and two, he was wrongly depicted," he said. "But the irony of this is that this is what he has done to the Muslim community with his cartoons."
Audience reaction to the lecture was generally positive.
"I think it was very accurate," said Adam Jackson GS, adding that he was "very interested" to hear Westergaard's perspective on the controversy.
"I think it went really well," said Dan May '11, editor-in-chief of American Foreign Policy magazine. "It was nice to have the back and forth. I think people's conversations were perceptive and thoughtful, and I thought it was a lot more substantive than most Princeton lectures with a high-profile speaker."
The lecture was co-sponsored by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and American Foreign Policy.