By Joshua Rhett Miller
October 01, 2009
Muslims need to develop a sense of humour and an appreciation of satire — and they need to understand that they are not "free of being mocked or being offended," says the Danish caricaturist whose cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad incited rage throughout the Muslim world four years ago.
Kurt Westergaard told roughly a dozen listeners Wednesday night that he will "always" be ready to defend an individual's right to religious freedom.
"As the Danish tradition is for satire, we say you can speak freely, you can vote, you can speak out anytime, but there's only one thing you can't do — you can't be free of being mocked or being offended," Westergaard said. "That's the conditions in Denmark and so many countries."
Westergaard spoke at a private residence in midtown Manhattan in conjunction with the Hudson New York Briefing Council. It was just his second appearance in the U.S. since the 2005 publication of his notorious cartoon, which depicted Muhammad wearing a turban resembling a lit bomb. In Islam, any depiction of Muhammad is forbidden and considered blasphemy.
Westergaard's controversial cartoon was one of 12 that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 and led to widespread violent protests throughout the Middle East, Asia, Denmark and Africa.
Several months after the cartoons were published, a Pakistani cleric reportedly offered 1.5 million rupee — roughly $16,700 — and a car to anyone who killed Westergaard. Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi, prayer leader at the Mohabat Khan mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar, announced the bounty in February 2006 at the mosque and the Jamia Ashrafia religious school that he leads.
In June 2008, Westergaard and ten newspaper editors were reportedly summoned by Jordan's public prosecutor on charges of "blasphemy" for reprinting the cartoons. Three men were arrested last year in Denmark for allegedly plotting to assassinate him.
Security at Wednesday night's event was heightened, with two uniformed New York Police Department officers stationed outside the building as Westergaard spoke. Additional security measures were also taken earlier in the day when Westergaard spoke during a luncheon at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and at Princeton University. He is scheduled to speak at Yale University on Thursday — an appearance that is causing some controversy on the Ivy League campus.
Members of the Yale Muslim Students Association have said they are "deeply hurt and offended" that Westergaard will speak on the New Haven, Conn., campus, though they do not plan to protest. The group said Yale fails to recognize the "religious and racial" sensitivities surrounding the matter.
"As an institution purportedly committed to making our campus an educational environment where all students feel equally comfortable, we feel that by hosting Kurt Westergaard Yale is undermining its commitment to creating a nurturing learning environment by failing to recognize the religious and racial sensitivity of the issue," the group said in a statement.
"Certainly, it would be unlikely for a white supremacist or a Holocaust denier to be a distinguished guest speaker at Yale; hosting individuals who propagate hate is not only a disservice to the minorities that hate is directed towards but to the campus community as a whole."
Tom Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said Westergaard had been invited to a Master's Tea by Steven Smith, a professor of political science and master of Branford College, one of Yale University's 12 undergraduate colleges.
"Individuals at Yale have deep objections to Mr. Westergaard's cartoon and commentary, but in the Yale community, the avenue to voice disagreement with expression is through more speech, not its curtailment," Conroy said in a statement.
He said Professor Smith had met with campus police, who are working with "city, state and federal" authorities regarding security at the event.
Smith said in a statement released Wednesday that he wanted to examine issues of "free speech" and "globalization" by inviting Westergaard.
But Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the event was meant to rile Muslims.
"We're strong believers in the First Amendment and he has the right to publish whatever he wants, however bigoted and offensive it is," Hooper told FOXNews.com. "The people who brought him here are obviously intending to offend Muslims, but we're not going to rise to the bait."
Hooper said Westergaard's appearances at Princeton and Yale represent more instances of the "Muslim-bashing" he says is growing in the United States.
"Their intent is to offend and get free publicity by getting Muslims to reply with a reaction," Hooper said. "So, we will not."
Westergaard, meanwhile, called on his detractors to "respect our democratic values," including freedom of speech, and reiterated that he would create the cartoon again "if it was required."
Wearing red pants and a matching red scarf, the 74-year-old walked gingerly with a cane and said he's no longer afraid of the constant threat of being assassinated for his drawings.
"I'm so old that I'm not really afraid anymore," he said. "The older you get, there's lesser and lesser at stake."
Asked whether his depiction of the Prophet Muhammad originated from his personal politics or as part of his job as a cartoonist, Westergaard replied: "I am fighting for a just cause. And so you have a moral alibi, which is good, and then I have only worked according to our traditions in Denmark.
"And, of course, there's been a lot of support from the man which I meet in the street, the ethnic Dane who pats my shoulder and says, 'Well done.' Then there's also been the Muslims who have threatened me and cursed me … but I think the most reactions I have received, they are very positive."
Diana West, vice president of The International Free Press Society, which organized and promoted Westergaard's visit to the U.S., said, "It was a sheet of cartoons in a very small newspaper in a very small country that kicked off this now extremely significant event."
"And as a result, Westergaard has lived the last four years under death threats and in heightened security. It was a cartoon that he drew — this is his job."
She went on to criticize the decision by the Yale University Press not to publish Westergaard's image in a book released earlier this month, saying it reeked of "cowardice" and "appeasement."
"The question becomes whether we in the West submit to Islamic law regarding free speech and free expression," she said. "This is supposed to be a free country."