AARHUS, Denmark—Kurt Westergaard is in hiding from Islamic militants who want him dead. Now, the Danish cartoonist says he’s ready to part with the source of his travails, a small ink sketch of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.
But first there is the ticklish question of price.
“I would like to think that it has some value,” says Mr. Westergaard, the 72-year-old creator of one of the world’s most famous cartoons and one that inflamed Muslims world-wide. “It is a symbol of democracy and freedom of expression. I think I should have a little money for this,” he says.
The drawing is locked in a bank vault while the cartoonist shuttles between temporary havens the Danish secret police have found for him around this blustery port city. His is by far the best known of 12 Muhammad-related cartoons published in September 2005 by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. But how do you fix the value of something that auction houses won’t touch, that museums won’t hang on their walls and that still inspires murderous passions?
Two weeks ago, Danish authorities said they had foiled a plot to kill Mr. Westergaard in his home. Seventeen Danish newspapers, outraged and eager to show solidarity, reprinted his drawing. Muslims again took to the streets. Iran and others demanded an apology. “I always had a feeling this cartoon crisis would not end,” says Mr. Westergaard. “Now I know.”
Yet the new round of trouble may only increase the cartoon’s worth eventually. “Things gain value from public interest and history,” notes Sebastian Lerche, a director of Denmark’s biggest auction house, Bruun Rasmussen. He is quick to add he has no interest in testing the market: “We see no point in offending millions of people,” he says.
Some Muslims here want the bomb-in-a-turban drawing destroyed. Salah Suleiman, an activist in a mosque that helped whip up the fury over it in early 2006, delights in the artist’s troubles and says no amount of money can save him from God’s wrath: “He is living like a rat…. He is living in hell already.”
This story from today’s Wall Street Journal is headlined “Price of Notoriety,” and doesn’t Westergaard know it. Coincidentally, The Jewish Journal had an op-ed today from the culture editor of Westergaard’s paper.
Sadly, the plot to kill Westergaard is not an isolated story, but part of a broader trend that risks undermining free speech in Europe and around the world. Consider the following recent events: In Oslo, a gallery has censored three small watercolor paintings showing the head of the prophet Muhammad on a dog’s body, by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has been under police protection since the fall of 2007. In Holland, the municipal museum in The Hague recently refused to show photos of gay men wearing the masks of the prophet Muhammad and his son Ali by the Iranian-born artist Sooreh Hera; Hera has received several death threats and is in hiding. In Belarus, an editor has been sentenced to three years in a forced labor camp after republishing some of Jyllands-Posten’s Muhammad cartoons. In Egypt, bloggers are in jail after having “insulted Islam.” In Afghanistan, 23-year-old Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh has been sentenced to death because he distributed “blasphemous” material about the mistreatment of women in Islam. And in India, Bengal writer Taslima Nasreen is in a safe house after having been threatened by people who don’t like her books. Every one of the above cases speaks to the same problem: a global battle for the right to free speech. The cases are different, and you can’t compare the legal systems in Egypt and Norway, but the justifications for censorship and self-censorship are similar in different parts of the world: Religious feelings and taboos need to be treated with a kind of sensibility and respect that other feelings and ideas cannot command. This position boils down to a simple rule: If you respect my taboo, I’ll respect yours. That was the rule of the game during the Cold War until people like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Andrei Sakharov and other dissenting voices behind the Iron Curtain insisted on another rule: It is not cultures, religions or political systems that enjoy rights. Human beings enjoy rights, and certain principles like the ones embedded in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights are universal. Unfortunately, misplaced sensitivity is being used by tyrants and fanatics to justify murder and silence criticism.