Defending his controversial cartoons of Muhammad published in 2005, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard said, “I don’t want to run away in this situation.”
“But you are, aren’t you? It’s as if the Danish government hired you to talk about free speech,” Niaz Berenjforosh Azar ’11 cried out from the audience at the Greenberg Conference Center.
While more than a dozen students protested and security guards patrolled with dogs outside the Greenberg building, Westergaard warned against “a society where fear reigns” at a Branford Master’s Tea on Thursday afternoon. The location of event was moved from the Branford master’s house, where teas are typically held, due to heightened security concerns, University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said.
During his talk, Westergaard emphasized his right to publish the cartoon, which depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, but denied responsibility for the violence that ensued after its 2005 publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. This event was part of his first visit to North America since the cartoons were published.
Donning red pants and leaning on his cane, Westergaard, a former principal at a school for disabled children, recalled his anger that stemmed from the tragic events of September 11 — a day he cites as the inspiration for the caricatures he later drew.
“My moral alibi is good enough,” Westergaard said.
He continued reading from his prepared speech, urging the audience to avoid “turning the other cheek.”
“There are dangerous consequences to keeping controversy underground,” Westergaard said.
The cartoonist explained how his caricature and the 11 others featured in Jyllands-Posten elicited an unexpected international outcry. He alluded to, though never directly mentioned, the more than 100 deaths that occurred during the riots that resulted from the controversial images. Protests over the cartoons swelled into riots in February 2006, resulting in deaths throughout the Middle East and Africa.
“[The cartoon] had consequences we never could’ve known,” Westergaard said. “I long ago lost control of [the cartoon].”
His safety too was compromised, he said. After receiving numerous death threats, his Denmark home was bullet-proofed. Still, when asked if it was worth the risks, Westergaard replied “yes.”
In order to ensure Westergaard’s safety, the event was limited to ticketed students, photographers were kept feet from the building on the street and all entrances to the building were guarded. Although it was not the first tea held far from central campus, Branford Master Steven Smith said the amount of security required was “unusual.”
Diana West, vice president of the International Free Press Society, decided to approach Smith with the prospect of inviting Westergaard to speak on campus after she gave a Branford Master’s Tea. She proposed the idea to Smith in August when they were planning the cartoonist’s trip to coincide with the four-year anniversary of the cartoons on Sept. 30.
She added that the trip was not planned to coincide with the visit of author Jytte Klausen, whose book called “The Cartoons that Shook the World” documents the 2005 controversy. That book fell under scrutiny when the Yale University Press decided to omit the cartoons as well as other images of Muhammad.
“Kurt’s trip was planned long before the Yale University Press story broke over the summer,” West said.
Answering questions about whether his work intended to target Muslims rather than Islamic terrorists, Westergaard said he never drew cartoons about “Muslims because they were Muslim.”
“I was provoked by terrorists themselves,” he said.
Several students interviewed after the talk said Westergaard’s justification — his anger over the terrorists attacks — is insufficient for what they called “hate speech.” Klausen also made an appearance at Westergaard’s talk, briefly sitting in the audience.
Correction: October 5, 2009
A previous version of this article misstated the nationality of Kurt Westergaard, the creator of the controversial cartoons of Muhammad published in 2005. He is Danish, not Dutch. The News regrets the error.