Ivy League students unsympathetic to Danish cartoonist whose life is threatened by Muslims

(Note: Kidist Paulos Asrat, who attended the Westergaard talk at Princeton, has written several blog posts about Westergaard.)

Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who four years ago drew a simple cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban as part of an experiment in free speech carried out by his newspaper, now lives his entire life under high security conditions to protect him from Muslim assassination attempts. The Belgian journalist Paul Belien (now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute) writes about Westergaard’s recent visit to the United States where he gave talks to students at Princeton and Yale:

Islam on Campus: Cartoonist Visits the Ivy League

In early October, Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew a picture of the Islamic prophet with a bomb in his turban four years ago, visited Princeton and Yale, two of America’s top universities, to speak to students, who are supposed to be tomorrow’s elite. The students did not feel any sympathy—indeed, were almost hostile—towards Mr. Westergaard, an artist who has been living under constant police protection since he drew a cartoon of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, four years ago.


Thumbnails of the twelve Muhammad cartoons. Westergaard’s cartoon is of the man with the bomb in the his turban, which created the most controversy.

Cartoons of Muhammad.jpg


“My cartoon,” Mr. Westergaard said, “was an attempt to expose those fanatics who have justified a great number of bombings, murders and other atrocities with reference to the sayings of their prophet. If many Muslims thought that their religion did not condone such acts, they might have stood up and declared that the men of violence had misrepresented the true meaning of Islam. Very few of them did so.”

On the contrary, as if to prove that Mr. Westergaard had hit the raw nerve of Islam, he had to go into hiding when Muslim radicals threatened to kill him for “insulting” their prophet. He and his wife lived in more than ten different government-provided safe houses before the Danish authorities turned his own house into a bunker, with electronic surveillance cameras, bullet-proof windows, steel doors and a panic room.

Mr. Westergaard arrived at both Princeton and Yale, heavily guarded by policemen. Ten officers kept watch inside the room—with more on guard outside—when he addressed his audience in Princeton. Such is life for Mr. Westergaard these days. “When, early in September 2005, I got a brief request from my editor to draw my impression of the prophet Muhammad, I had little idea of what I was getting myself into,” he told the students.

The Danish cartoon affair led to riots and attacks on Danish embassies and properties in Islamic countries, resulting in the death of over 130 people. The threats against Mr. Westergaard are still as imminent as they were four years ago. Last year, the Danish police arrested two Tunisians who were planning to force their way into the Westergaard home and assassinate the cartoonist. “I have been living under police protection and I expect to do so for the rest of my life,” Mr. Westergaard told his audience at Princeton and Yale.

The Danish cartoon affair has become the most important free speech cause of our time. As the right to free speech is indivisible, it includes, as Mr. Westergaard said at Princeton and Yale, “the right to treat Islam, Muhammad and Muslims exactly as you would any other religion, prophet or group of believers. If we no longer had that right, one could only conclude that the country had succumbed to de facto sharia law.”

Despite their displeasure with the cartoon Mr. Westergaard had drawn, Danish politicians have stood by him, refusing to criticize him—let alone apologize for his drawing—and providing him constant protection against his would-be assassins.

How would the American establishment react, however, if confronted with a similar case? American newspapers have refused to reprint his cartoons, even as illustrations to articles about the case. Yale University Press has published a whole book about the affair, without showing the cartoon. While an image of the cartoon was projected on a screen during Kurt Westergaard’s talk at Princeton, the university authorities at Yale refused to do so when Mr. Westergaard was giving his talk there. They told Mr. Westergaard that they would only allow the cartoon to be shown in a separate room, “so that students who do not want to see it, do not have to see it,” thereby treating the drawing as they would treat a vile piece of pornography. As it turned out, however, the cartoon was not even shown in a separate room.

Despite the price he and his wife have had to pay, the 74-year old artist does not regret that he drew the cartoon. He has also consistently refused to apologize to those whose feelings he might have hurt. To him, it is a matter of principle. “Free speech must have limits, but these limits should be determined by law and by precedents established by the courts. [ … ] My cartoon was well within the law, and nobody except some fanatical Muslims said otherwise. As a matter of fact, 22 Muslim organizations in Denmark went to court in an attempt to get the cartoons censored. The case was dismissed as groundless. Then there is the matter of taste and good manners. Here, I must also plead my innocence. My cartoon was construed as an attempt to hurt the feelings of every Muslim in the world. That was never my intention.”

Despite the Danish cartoon affair being a watershed test for the freedom of the Western media to criticize religions and ideologies without fear of violent reprisal, only a small number of students turned up at both Princeton and Yale to hear Mr. Westergaard plead his case. At Princeton, there was a turnout of about sixty people, at Yale of about eighty. Both at Princeton and at Yale, half the audience was Muslim, while the other half either agreed with them or was intimidated into appearing to do so. Perhaps the non-Muslims among America’s Ivy League students are simply unaware of the Danish cartoon affair or do not care about it.

At both Princeton and Yale, the university authorities had ensured that the Muslim voice critical of Mr. Westergaard would be heard. Yale even had reserved a fifth of the auditorium seats specifically for Muslims, although more showed up.

At Princeton, the official Muslim campus chaplain was sitting on the panel. He was very critical of Westergaard, but was prepared to debate him. He also made no objection to the cartoon being shown.

At Yale, however, the Muslim chaplain, one Omer Bajwa, claimed that Mr. Westergaard’s visit to Yale was part of a plot by Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, and Daniel Pipes, an American scholar, both of whom are critical of Islamism. Lars Hedegaard, the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, which had organized Mr. Westergaard’s visit to America, denied this, pointing out that “Mr. Wilders and Mr. Pipes are not even aware that Mr. Westergaard is here.”

Mr. Bajwa also wanted to know from Mr. Westergaard “what your son, who has converted to Islam, thinks about your cartoon and your refusal to apologize?” As it happens, Mr. Westergaard’s son has not converted to Islam, nor have any of his other children.

The Yale audience—all of them students whose parents pay up to $50,000 per year to send them there—was even more hostile to Mr. Westergaard than the students at Princeton. One of them told Mr. Westergaard, “You feel unsafe today, which is unfortunate, but you should realize that your presence here today has made thousands of other people feel unsafe.” This type of statement makes a moral equation between attempting to assassinate someone and drawing a cartoon.

Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, who attended the event at Yale as a guest of the International Free Speech Society, was shocked: “I was disappointed at the inability of those in attendance among the Yale community to place responsibility for the violence on those who bear responsibility. [ … ] Every questioner seemed to want to misplace blame.”

“Further,” he said, “it is clear that the university suffers from relativist truth and the multicultural ethic. There are no universal truths any longer. When I was in college, it seemed that the point of education at the university level was to use the subject matter under study to encourage independent, critical thinking. Today, all truths are equal. I reject this notion. In the final analysis, I believe that the university is lost.”

The cartoon which Mr. Westergaard drew has become an icon of our time. It is the only drawing in recent history over which people have been killed and whose maker has to live under a permanent threat of assassination. Mr. Westergaard, invariably dressed in black and red, “the colors,” he says “of anarchism,” shrugs when asked about his fears. “When you are old, there is not so much to lose,” he says.

Moreover, he explains, he sees no reason why Muslims should be treated differently from other people. He has also drawn things which Christians and Jews found to be offensive, including a “pro-Palestinian” cartoon of Nazi camp prisoners with the Nazi guards substituted by Israelis and the prisoners by Palestinians with the word ‘Arab’ on their Star of David instead of ‘Jude.’ “It was a pro-Palestinian article which I had to illustrate,” he explains. “That is my job. My illustrations have to be in line with the message of the article.” Though Danish Jews were insulted, and told Mr. Westergaard so, they never threatened to kill him, nor did they demand apologies.

The American columnist Diana West, an alumna of Yale, speaks of her former university as a “wreck.” Mr. Westergaard will not need to draw a cartoon of Yale University upon his return home. It has made a caricature of itself.


After his visit to Yale, Mr. Westergaard flew to Toronto where he was interviewed by the National Post, one of Canada’s major national newspapers. The next day, the paper published an interview with the Danish cartoonist on its first page, including the controversial cartoon. No major US paper, including its liberal flagships, has so far dared to do this.

LA replies:

Paul Belien writes:

“The Danish cartoon affair has become the most important free speech cause of our time.”

This may well be true, but I think that to call the cartoon affair a free speech issue per se is to fail to state the full isssue, something Belien himself understands as shown by his other writings. This is not ultimately about free speech. This is about the impact of having a significant Muslim population in your country. To respond to the Islam threat with calls for free speech is only to respond to the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself. The problem is the nature of Islam and the presence of Islam in the West. Once Muslim have acquired power in our society, we’re not going to have free speech, no matter how much we may talk about it.

A. Zarkov writes:

You wrote:

This is not ultimately about free speech. This is about the impact of having a significant Muslim population in your country. To respond to the Islam threat with calls for free speech is only to respond to the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself. The problem is the nature of Islam and the presence of Islam in the West. Once Muslim have acquired power in our society, we’re not going to have free speech, no matter how much we may talk about it.

I agree, but let’s go a step further. Why is that U.S. and European governments seem so impotent against the Muslims that live in their countries? After all, Muslims in the U.S. are still a very small minority, yet they wield power way beyond their numbers. Our press is largely intimidated because reporters fear for their safety. I remember one reporter saying he was critical of Romney because his Mormon religion once had the wrong beliefs about blacks. When asked if he would comment about Islam and its beliefs with regard to (say) Jews, he refused to comment because he said he feared for his safety. There you have it—it’s all about courage. If Catholics started killing artists and writers who ridiculed their religion, they would stop. Now I don’t know if the Yale students were acting out of fear, or a common cause with the enemies of the West. We need more facts to decide that one. I have to ask: if we could magically remove all Muslims from the U.S., would that solve the basic problem of cowardice? Wouldn’t a new threatening group come along?

LA replies:

You wrote:

” … if we could magically remove all Muslims from the U.S., would that solve the basic problem of cowardice? Wouldn’t a new threatening group come along?”

But Muslims cannot be “magically” removed from the U.S. In order for the Muslims to leave, we ourselves must do things that will result in their leaving voluntarily or involuntarily. And in order for America to reach the point where it had the will to make that happen, it would already have to have rejected modern liberalism which has made non-discrimination and white guilt the ruling principles of society and has turned the white majority population into cowards. And if America had rejected liberalism, it would also be prepared to deal with other possible problems and threats

October 17

Michael S. writes:

Something is rotten … and not only in Denmark

Markus writes from Canada:

I agree with your take. Free speech is not the main point of this matter; immigration is—or should be. I love free speech, wouldn’t trade it for the world. And yet, a few weeks ago, when the National Post ran a cover story on the Danish cartoonist, I didn’t even care to read it. Yes, the man should be defended, yes he’s exhibited a certain kind of courage. And yet … I felt gloomy at what we’ve become—that our primary value as a civilization is our ability to debate, question, deconstruct and trivialize everything. We chatter away recklessly on every topic, break every taboo, trash everything sacred—creating a moral and spiritual vacuum for our own people to such an extent that so many of us feel no choice other than to home-school our children to keep them away from the filth all around us … And now, because the tables are somewhat turned and the object of our taboo-breaking is Islam, I’m supposed to be overjoyed?

Please understand, I’ve no use for Islam, with its false prophet, made-up god and hellish religion. But even as our erstwhile political allies are trying to get others to feel free to “question” or “challenge” Islam, I can’t help but think that we shouldn’t even be having this discussion. We may be able to win arguments here and there, maybe persuade the occasional Muslim who already has secular leanings. But we should not be putting ourselves in a position where there are significant numbers of people in our society with whom we’re going to be having a long, loud argument. Let them have that argument among their own people in their own societies.

I also am sensing a subtle tendency to push some of us into the libertarian camp, where we may not want to go. A lot of the language being used in defense of the cartoons will end up being used in defense of other forms of taboo breaking. I do like Mark Steyn, I admit, I think he’s shown a lot of cojones up here in Canada, testifying before Parliament, making his accusers look like total idiots, pushing for the repeal of a particularly abominable section of our human rights legislation, etc. But I notice that even he is using terms like “free expression” rather promiscuously. I always thought it’s good to maintain a distinction between free speech and free expression, because expression is so murky a term, that it can allow for (just to take one example) large public billboards displaying nudity. And I simply will never “defend” the right of anyone to express himself in that way in front of me and my family.

I’m not saying Steyn would necessarily advocate that (and I don’t want to make this about Steyn—I only use him as an example). But it just seems to me that a vision of society based on unconstrained “freedom” to question everything and everything is … a little stunted? Help me out here.

LA replies:

Yes. Just as liberalism in general offers no substantive vision of the good and turns us into a void, liberalism as the main weapon of defense against Islam offers no vision of the good and—in order to protect us against Islam—turns us into a void. Liberalism as the main defense against Islam promotes the same unconditioned “freedom” that allowed Islam into our society in the first place. So unqualified liberal freedom is not the answer.

I return to my theme that if freedom is to be non-destructive, it must be understood as freedom within a larger culture that sets limits to the freedom based on whether the freedom is compatible with the survival of the culture. Freedoms that will undermine or destroy the society (e.g., the freedom to perform abortions, the freedom to express oneself however one likes wherever one is, the freedom of people from incompatible cultures to immigrate en masse into the society) would not be allowed. A traditionalist Western society, seeking to balance freedom and order, individuality and culture, has criteria, based on its own history, culture, political system, etc., that help it decide which freedoms should be allowed and which ones not. A liberal Western society based on pure openness has no criteria of good freedom and bad freedom and must equally allow all freedoms and so destroy itself.

So, the standard that should be used to push back against Islam is the specific cultural and political order of our society, including but not limited to its distinctive freedoms that are part of that order.

October 19

Jake Jacobsen writes:

You don’t actually say this in your posting but its clear that you are (correctly) taking Yale students to task for not supporting Freedom, The West, Christendom et al. I’m just curious as I never had the misfortune of attending an institution of higher drinking, when was the last time when the offspring of our elites were on the right side of civilization? [LA replies: in America, up to around 1960. In Europe, the change took place in the early 20th century.]

I would assume if we could travel back to the ’70s in a time machine the headline would read “Ivy League students unsympathetic to Polish cartoonist whose life is threatened by Communists?” right?

So when was the last time students of the Ivy League weren’t idiots? (asks the Blue Collar guy) [LA replies: I would say that in America, up to around 1950 or 1960. In Europe, the shift toward nihilism took place in the early 20th century. The Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer talks about the transition to a culture of despair, which he says took place earlier in Europe than in the United States.]

PS: Have you seen District 9 yet? We have and thought it was terrific! Would be curious to know what your readers thought. [LA replies: I haven’t seen it yet.]

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 16, 2009 01:00 PM | Send

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