Western Europe

 “The only security of all is in a free press.” 
-Thomas Jefferson


Kurt Westergaard (one of the famous 12 Danish Cartoonists) - living under police protection, repeatedly threatened with death, attacked in his home by a would-be assassin, 2006 - present

Summary of incident:                                                Photograph by Claus Sjödin

On January 1, 2010, a Somali man with ties to the terrorist group al-Shabab broke into cartoonist Kurt Westergaard's home armed with a knife and an axe.  The assailant was apprehended by the Danish police before he could harm the cartoonist. 

The 2010 attack and a 2008 conspiracy to kill Kurt by three other would-be assassins, were both in reponse to a collection of cartoons by Kurt and eleven other illustrators and cartoonists.  On Spetember 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoon images.  Most of the images depicted each cartoonist's conception of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.  Kurt is the author of the most controversial image, that of the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, which is featured below. 

Many people in the Islamic world took great offense to these images.  Demonstrations and riots continued all over the Islamic world for weeks. Over 100 people died in the demonstrations.  Al Qeada's former leader Osama bin Laden and other terrorists issued fatwas, or death sentences, on Kurt and the other artists.  Kurt and his wife Gitte initially fled from their home to a series of safe houses.   To this day Kurt lives in great danger requiring constant police protection. 

Details of incident:

On the evening of January 1, 2010, Mohammed Geele, a 28-year -old Somali man with ties to the terrorist group al-Shabab broke into cartoonist Kurt Westergaard's home in Aarhus, Denmark, armed with a knife and an axe yelling, "You must die!  You are going to hell!  The 75-year-old cartoonist survived the attack by fleeing to a panic room, built for just such an invasion.  At the time of the home invasion, only Kurt and his 5-year-old granddaughter were home.  As Mohammed Geele broke a window with the axe and entered his home, Kurt was faced with a horrible decision - retrieve his granddaughter from another room and risk being murdered in front of her, or, flee to the panic room without her.  The PET, Denmark's security and intelligence service, had previously reassured him that the danger to his family members is not nearly as high as the danger to him because it is uncommon for Muslim extremists to harm family members and very uncommon when that family member is a child.  While Kurt contacted the police, the assailant shouted his intent to get revenge, all the while battering at the door to the panic room with the axe.  Police arrived within a few minutes and shot the assailant in the hand and knee when he turned to attack one of the police officers.  Mohammed Geele was eventually convicted of attempted terrorism and attempted murder after pleading guilty to breaking and entering, and, unlawful possession of a weapon.     

The 2010 attack was not the first plan to assassinate Kurt Westergaard.  On February 12, 2008, the PET arrested a Dane originally from Morocco and two Tunisians for plotting an assassination attempt.  Charges against all three were dropped.  But the two Tunisians were expelled to Tunisia.  Read more about this plot by clicking on the following IFEX link titled Arrests Foil Plot to Assassinate Creator of Controverial Cartoon and the following Committee to Protect Journalists link titled Three Arrested in Plot to Assassinate Prophet Cartoonist.    

The 2010 attack and a 2008 conspiracy to kill Kurt, were both in reponse to a collection of cartoons by Kurt and eleven other illustrators and cartoonists that appared in  the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005.  The Jyllands-Posten newspaper had asked over 30 local cartoonists to meet the challenge of drawing what they thought the prophet Mohammad might have looked like.  It was a response to what the editors saw as a growing reluctance, in Europe and in Denmark in particular, of writers and cartoonists to in any way challenge the Islamic custom of not creating any image of the Prophet Mohammed.  A growing fear of violence from fundamentalist Islam was seen as driving the growth of self-censorship. 

When the images hit the newsstands there was practically no notice of them.  One local Danish cleric, unhappy with the Danish Government's unwillingness to censor the cartoons, composed a booklet with the cartoons and other images he resented as outrageous insults to Islam.  He traveled all over the Middle East talking with gatherings of other influential clerics, generating a grass roots response to the cartoons that turned violent in early 2006.  Demonstrations and riots continued all over the Islamic world for weeks.  Over 100 people, mostly demonstrators, were killed in the demonstrations as the police struggled to control the violent demonstrations.  In February 2006, Danish embassies in Beiurut, Damascus and Teheran were attacked by protesters and set ablaze and European businesses were looted throughout the Muslim world.  Al Qeada's former leader Osama bin Laden and other terrorists issued fatwas, or death sentences, on Kurt and the other artists.  One man even offered a free car to the first person who would kill any one of the cartoonists.    

On November 8, 2007, the PET informed the couple for the first time of a serious and credible plot to kill Kurt and then convinced the couple to go into hiding.  They spent months fleeing from one safe house to another until the PET concluded that the threat had subsided.  Soon after the couple returned home, Gitte was fired from her job at a kindergarten school - that is until the press learned of the firing and the mayor demanded that she be reinstated.    

The violent reaction to the 12 Danish cartoons became a seminal moment in European/Islamic relations and a turning point in the free speech movement all over the world.  Western institutions from private corporations, journalism, to UN and EU agencies began to back down from challenges from Islamic sensibilities about free speech.  In the west, free speech is guaranteed by secular law, allowing for no special consideration for religious feelings or interests.  Under Islam, free speech is limited by religious law.

Actions taken by CRNI:

CRNI met at a press conference with a Muslim public relations organization at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. We contacted the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and the editor Fleming Rose who initiated "The Face of Mohammed" article containing the 12 Danish Cartoons.  He placed us in direct communication with the individual cartoonists. We posted regular "Alert" postings at IFEX on their situation.  We continued to talk with them, and the cartoonist who emerged as the symbol of them all and whose cartoon, seen here above, was targeted as the most controversial of the 12.

We were assured that the Danish Special Police were closely guarding all the cartoonists.  CRNI's Board of Directors struggled over the decision about an annual award winner that year. The two most obvious and endangered cartoonists were Kurt Westergaard and Ali Dilem, an Algerian cartoonist with jail time hanging over him.  The Board made an unprecedented decision to award them both.  In Denver, Colorado, on June 9, 2006, the CRNI awarded the Courage in Editorial Cartooning to Ali Dilem and the 12 Danish Cartoonists.  CRNI invited Fleming Rose to the event.  The Jyllands-Posten editor spoke about free speech and then Ali Dilem accepted the award in person for himself as well as on behalf of the 12 Danish Cartoonists.  The 12 Danish Cartoonists expressed their wish that their share of the award be given to Ali Dilem.