A Murder in Copenhagen

by Andrew Stuttaford

Today’s murderous attack in Copenhagen was directed, as Andy noted earlier, at an event (debating the limits of free expression) featuring Lars Vilks, the Swedish artist who drew an unflattering image of the prophet Mohammed in 2007.  Andy explained how Al Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State) put a $150,000 bounty on his head. This is far from the only threat that has been directed against Vilks.

This 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer piece provides some useful (and disturbing) background:

Vilks is on a weeklong tour of the United States and Canada, speaking about freedom of expression. He had been scheduled to hold forth at the Union League Thursday, but late Wednesday, the event was abruptly called off.

Craig Snider, a Union League member who was hosting the speaker, said that after he realized the visit would require extraordinary security measures to protect Vilks, his associates, and anyone in attendance, “I voluntarily canceled it. I was not prepared to ask the league to take that kind of risk.”

Instead, he invited members of the local media to interview Vilks at the Rittenhouse.

The artist’s appearance in Ottawa was also called off, but, as of Thursday, stops in Toronto and Boston were still scheduled.

His capital offense, he explains, was to draw an image of a Muslim prophet on the body of a dog. He submitted the pen-and-ink work to a small gallery to be included in an exhibition themed “the dog in art.”

…The drawing of the dog with a prophet’s head was inspired by a popular, spontaneous, grassroots art project in his country. People had been building dog sculptures out of wood or metal or paper and leaving them in the center of traffic circles.

“I was interested in what the limits are of what you can do in art,” he says. “You can criticize all other religions without any troubles, but not Islam. I was upset with the art world. Everyone was saying we shouldn’t touch this subject.”

The gallery hung his drawings, but before the exhibit opened, it took them down, fearing violence. Vilks took them to several other galleries he had worked with, as well as the Gerlesborg School of Fine Art, where he is a frequent lecturer. All of them declined.

When a Swedish newspaper published the roundabout prophet dog drawing to illustrate an editorial about self-censorship and freedom of expression, “Things got out of my hands,” he says.

The Swedish flag was burned in Pakistan. The fatwa was issued. Suddenly, every move Vilks made had to be monitored by the Swedish secret police [to protect him]. Last year, Colleen R. Larose, a troubled woman living in Pennsburg, Pa., who called herself Jihad Jane, was arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate Vilks.

In May, he was delivering a lecture on freedom of speech at Uppsala University in Sweden when he was attacked by a man from the audience. Several days later his house was set on fire.

“It was, of course, very scary,” he says. “I’ve gotten used to it, but this year, it has escalated….”

And now . . .

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