"This is the first time we've ever held a master's tea that required such extensive security," said Branford College master Steven Smith before introducing his Thursday afternoon guest. The standing-room-only audience of more than a hundred had had to abandon their backpacks, purses, and cellphones at Smith's house. They had needed IDs and preapproved tickets to get on the Yale buses, guarded by several police officers, that would take them direct to the Greenberg Center on Prospect Street. Once in the buses they had to sit still, holding their IDs and tickets up for inspection, while a small black dog led by a plainclothes officer walked the length of the aisle and then back, sniffing eagerly at the floor.
Smith's guest at the heavily guarded tea was Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the most controversial of the group of cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005 under the headline "The Face of Muhammad." In an editorial, the newspaper said the cartoons were its response to a "sickly oversensitivity" among Danish Muslim leaders. (There had been a series of complaints by Christian Danes that Muslims were unwilling to take criticisms or jokes. Much more seriously, in 2004 a non-Muslim university lecturer had been beaten by a group of Muslim men for reciting from the Koran in a class.) The cartoons later became the focus of violent demonstrations by Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, in which, according to one estimate, some 250 people died.
Westergaard has received numerous death threats and has been living under police protection since 2008, when the Danish police uncovered a plan by radical Islamists to assassinate him. His speaking tour in the United States takes place two months after Yale University Press decided not to reprint the cartoons in an academic book about the controversy. The tour is sponsored by the International Free Press Society, a nonprofit with a focus on "free speech relating to Islam, including analysis and criticism of its laws and ideology," according to its website.
Westergaard's cartoon shows a sinister man with a fanatical stare, wearing a black turban with a bomb inside, fuse lit. But in his opening remarks (and in most of his answers to questions), Westergaard talked much less about his cartoon and the message he intended than about his belief in the free exchange of ideas. An elderly man in a black shirt and jacket, bright red slacks, and a bright red-and-yellow scarf, he spoke softly, with a heavy accent, and was often hard to understand despite his lapel mic.
"I'm so old that I have experienced Nazism, Fascism, Communism, and now Islamism," he said, adding that their adherents have "rejected one of the most constructive but difficult feelings—namely, doubt." Westergaard decried Western efforts to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities—"a mixture of cultural relativism and appeasement"—and recalled that in the early Nazi era, Danish cartoonists critical of Germany were told, "'Don't you cartoonists ever try to run Denmark's foreign policy.'"
Westergaard also talked about his life under police protection, living in "a house that has been transformed into an electronic fortress." He said that he has encountered "Muslims on the street saying that I would burn in hell." His response is "Let's talk about it." Since he gets no answer, he added lightly, his next comment is: "OK, we'll talk about it in hell."
He concluded: "My democratic credo is, 'I criticize you. That means I take you seriously. That means also that I respect you.'"
His audience appeared unconvinced. Westergaard was peppered with questions, which took on an increasingly frustrated tone as the hour went on. The students, and a few faculty, asked about a variety of subjects—the message of his cartoon, his views on the value of civil conversation, whether he meant the cartoon to provoke. A few questioners mentioned their own Muslim faith.
Westergaard, for the most part, answered with variations on two themes. One was the Danish welfare state and its values: "We are decent people, we treat our new fellow citizens very well. We only want respect for our democratic traditions." The other was his anger over 9/11: "I never make a cartoon without being provoked. And in this case I was really provoked—I was provoked by terrorism."
Throughout, the cartoonist lived up to the biography circulated at the tea, which said he had "steadfastly refused to apologize for availing himself of free speech." At one point he remarked, "I feel that I have drawn something for a just cause." But although several questioners pressed him as to the meaning and content of the cartoon and the cause, he seemed reluctant to discuss them in any depth.
In his most extensive comments on the cartoon, Westergaard said: "This is a symbol of terrorism. Terrorism has taken hostage the prophet Muhammad. I have never said that this is Muhammad—there are other forces who have said that this is Muhammad. I would say that you can take it as a cartoon that shows that some terrorists have taken your prophet as a hostage."
The statement appeared to contradict Westergaard's own op-ed, printed the same day in the Daily Princetonian, in which he wrote that his Danish editor had asked him "to draw my impression of the prophet Muhammad. . . . 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.'"
One undergraduate told Westergaard that although he said he did not intend to insult all Muslims—only terrorists—"with all due respect, you failed." Westergaard replied, "It is convenient for some forces to give a different interpretation."