His hurried departure from his house in a suburb of Århus reminds him of the Second World War. ‘Everywhere you looked people were on the move, escaping.’ Since the security service told him an attack on his life was being planned, Kurt Westergaard (72), the Danish cartoonist who drew Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, has been living in hiding. Three men were arrested in mid-February.
The day that Westergaard had to leave his home, his bags were already packed for a city trip that he and his wife were about to make, a present from Jyllands-Posten to mark his 25th anniversary as a cartoonist. The elderly cartoonist and his wife are now in their fifth safe house. They are about to move to their sixth. He laughs about it.
Second cartoon crisis
This second cartoon crisis underlines just how right he was to say what he did with his cartoon two years ago, says the political cartoonist resolutely. 'Terrorists get their spiritual ammunition from parts of Islam. A Muslim might choose a slightly more positive interpretation but the terrorists have kidnapped Mohammed.' He's aware there are Muslims who don't accept his reading of the situation.
Kurt Westergaard is a fighter. It was and is all about freedom of expression. Last week, foreign minister Per Stig Møller repeated it at the UN: there will be no compromises. Westergaard says, ‘It's difficult. I don't want to be part of the polarisation that is being stirred up by a small group of radicals. But as a humble cartoonist, I have to defend Denmark's values and democratic traditions, and those of the whole western world.
'We value our democracy so much that we are exporting it to Afghanistan. We are sending our young men to a faraway country. To make sure we don't waste those lives, we have to stand up for our democracy here before we look any further,' says Westergaard determinedly.
He doesn’t understand that Dutch politicians say that Geert Wilders should stop with making his anti-koran movie. Westergaard raises his voice. 'There isn't a politician in Denmark who would say that. That would be political suicide. Danish politicians know that you can't curtail freedom of expression. Wilders should release his film.'
The cartoonist is angry that he is no longer free to do what he wants. 'As an atheist, I don't have a god. What I've got is the PET, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service. They watch over me every second of the day.' He has been back to his home just once, to celebrate Christmas with his family, a tradition. 'There were policemen in the shed and in front of the house. I had to ask the officer who served dinner, at PET's suggestion, to take his gun off first.'
He's not in a position to have regrets. 'In Denmark we are critical of everything. Of the Queen, of politicians and also of religion. Ten years ago I was accused of blasphemy because I drew Jesus stepping down from the cross in an Armani suit. But I wasn't threatened. Jyllands-Posten has started a debate about creationism and Darwinism. That's one of the tasks of a newspaper, and of a cartoonist. The Muslims have to accept that.'
Westergaard tells his story in the library of Jyllands-Posten on the edge of Århus, Denmark's second city with 300,000 inhabitants. For his safety, we don't exchange personal details and he won't let a recognisable photograph be taken of him. His eyes follow everyone who comes into the room where 50 typographers once worked. The changes outside the building are more recent. Large boulders prevent cars ramming the newspaper building. The cartoonist walks with a stick. 'I fell in the bath. The first two or three nights in a new house are the worst. You have to get used to the bed, the bath ¿' Westergaard is driving in yet another car that is not his own. He reports every incident. If someone makes a gesture at him, the cartoonist is given another car.
It doesn't make him scared, just angry. 'Fear is passive, I am active. I have turned my fear into anger.' He gestures with his hands. 'I'm fighting back. Not physically, but spiritually. I'm still here! It would have been much harder, of course, if I'd been 30 years old and had young children. In that respect, I'm glad I'm an old man.'
If his life wasn't already surreal enough, says Westergaard, he would have liked to have met the men who were planning to murder him. The smile disappears. 'I'd like to ask them to their face, "Does your religion really allow you to kill an old man with grandchildren?"'