Magazine November 1, 2021, Issue

Lars Vilks, Lonely Hero of the ‘Cartoon Wars’

Lars Vilks in 2007 (AFP via Getty Images)

For drawing Mohammed, he and others were attacked and mostly abandoned.

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For drawing Mohammed, he and others were attacked and mostly abandoned

When historians come to write their histories of the early 21st century, one of the strangest parts to understand may be the chapters on the “cartoon wars” — a phenomenon that people of the time actually talked about with a straight face. Even with dread. These wars spilled out from a single Danish newspaper’s publishing of cartoons of the prophet of Islam in 2005, after which embassies and people were attacked and mobs had their way. Soon Denmark, a country of just 5 million people, found itself at the center of international boycotts and became a focal point for Muslim rage.

Other cartoon wars spilled out from that first Danish one. In Paris, the magazine Charlie Hebdo ran cartoons of Mohammed, in solidarity with the dozen swiftly embattled Danish cartoonists. Less noticed perhaps was that in other Scandinavian countries, additional tiny sparks of solidarity flared up. One such came from the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Sweden had a slightly inexplicable local joke craze at the time about dogs and roundabouts. And Lars Vilks made his own small point by swiftly doing up a cartoon of a Mohammed-headed dog in the middle of a roundabout. Soon there was an outbreak of anti-Swedish sentiment in the Islamic world to join the anti-Danish sentiment. Vilks, like the cartoonists of Denmark, was the subject of repeated assassination attempts and was spirited away into a life of hiding, protected around the clock by his country’s security forces.

For all the talk in those days of standing up to threats and violence, the publications of the free world were noticeably lax about standing alongside these relatively happy few. People talked a good game. There were many editorials in many august publications saying how intolerable it was that religious fanatics should dictate what cartoonists should draw or what journalists should write. But most of the press took on the role of observer rather than participant. Meaning that the actual participants paid an excessively high price.

In January 2010, an axe-wielding Somali Muslim broke into the home of Kurt Westergaard, the creator of the most famous Danish cartoon. The jihadist’s plan to slaughter Westergaard was foiled only by the fact that the cartoonist had a panic room in his house, built by the security forces for precisely such an event. In November of the following year, the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris were firebombed. Four years later, in January 2015, two Islamists gunned their way into the publication’s offices and massacred most of those involved in the morning editorial meeting.

One month later, it was a free-speech-society meeting in Copenhagen that was attacked by an Islamist gunman. Lars Vilks was one of the speakers, but the gunman didn’t manage to reach him and instead murdered a Danish film director who happened to be nearer the door. These were just a few of the most headline-grabbing incidents. But through­out the 16 years since the first cartoons were published, jihadists made numerous other attempts on the lives of those involved. Plots to kill the cartoonists were thwarted in countries across Europe as well as in America.

Each time, the same pieties were expressed in the press. And each time, the people who had done the actual load-bearing of a free society were left yet more isolated. That Copenhagen free-speech event in 2015 was one of a number of events that Vilks’s friends held to try to ensure that his life would not shrivel up entirely. As one of the organizers of the Lars Vilks Committee told me in 2015:

We agreed that Mr. Vilks should not be alone in the world, and if the establishment or the Swedish artists wouldn’t support him, then we would. We wanted to give him a platform and a possibility to do what he used to do before he was unable to go out and meet the public because this is, of course, what disappears when you become a target, you get a lot of security around you and people are afraid to invite you. They are afraid to let you make exhibitions or have public discussions. 

After the 2015 attack, the situation for Vilks did not improve.

But that was how it was. People talked a good game. But finding galleries willing to host exhibitions of Vilks’s work became harder and harder. With each attack, the rhetoric of solidarity continued, but each time the world retreated a little more.

I saw some of this myself on various trips to Scandinavia during this period. In 2015, I was one of the speakers at the event to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Danish cartoons. As Mark Steyn has observed elsewhere, the various anniversary events increasingly resembled Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. One of the organizers, Lars Hedegaard, had an assassin arrive at his door and attempt to shoot him in the head. A cartoonist who had spoken at the fifth-anniversary event was chased into hiding and eventually gave up his profession. A Norwegian comedian who also attended the fifth-anniversary event was forced into police protection, and her family’s business was firebombed. By the 2015 event, Steyn and I constituted half of the four headline acts. In fact, we started joshing with each other, “No, honestly, after you, old boy. I don’t mind you taking top billing.”

It was a memorable event, that one. By then, the Danish authorities had announced that the only building in the entire country in which the event could be held was the great fortified parliament building of Christiansborg. It was the only location in the country that the authorities had confidence could be protected by Danish security forces in the event of an attack.

And a wonderful day it was. There was much laughter and defiance in the Christiansborg that day. Not least brought on by Mark and me discovering on the way to the event that both the British Foreign Office and the American State Department had warned their respective nationals not to go near the center of Copenhagen that day because of a cartoon event going on in the nation’s parliament. Needless to say, neither the British nor the American authorities had bothered to contact Steyn or me about this little matter — not that it would have made a difference. ISIS called for an attack on the event, but it seemed that no jihadist was able to hotfoot it to us in time.

Still, for that day, we got a tiny glimpse into what life was like for this small gaggle of Scandinavian artists and others. The restaurant where we planned to have dinner that evening canceled our reservation when they noted the telltale security detail and figured out who was coming. Not the biggest problem in the world. We ended up finding a sympathetic bar where we drank more than we needed and had more fun than anyone had expected. But the sober fact was that it was only the tiniest taste of what people such as Lars Vilks went through every day of their lives. Lots of people like the idea of freedom, including freedom of expression. But the truth is that people fall into two groups after that. There are the ones who say, “And to hell with the consequences,” and those who say, “But you have to understand, my other customers might leave.” Or, “Don’t you realize that we won’t be able to keep replacing the glass in the gallery?” And so on.

So it becomes in fact almost impossible to imagine what someone like Vilks goes through in a normal day, let alone what becomes a normal year or decade: thousands and thousands of small retreats and mini-excuses. In the end, defending freedom of expression is not just risky and costly — it can also be a nuisance. And, as things drag on, people fall away.

This has been a bad year for the remaining cartoonists. In July, Kurt Westergaard died at the age of 86, but at least he died in his sleep of natural causes. On October 3, Lars Vilks died very unnaturally in a so-far-­unexplained road accident in the south of Sweden. He was being driven, as usual, in an unmarked car by two of the security-service officers assigned to him. The car seems to have somehow veered into the path of a truck. Both members of Vilks’s security detail were killed, alongside the artist. Vilks was 75.

To do justice to characters in history, you must first try to understand them. Perhaps now that Vilks, Westergaard, the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and so many of the other people involved in the cartoon wars of the past 16 years are dead, there might be some effort to understand who they were — certainly a better attempt than the lackluster efforts to understand them while they were alive. In the American context in particular, these figures seem almost completely alien. None of them were right-wingers. Not that there is anything wrong with being a right-winger. Just that, as it happens, none of these people were. From the first cartoonists to the last, they were almost all that variety of free-spirited, open-minded, humorous, if anything left-wing, vaguely anarchistic freethinkers who believe that the role of artists and thinkers in a society is to say the things that make people laugh and think. And who think that nothing should be off-limits. Absent Islam and Mohammed from the discussion, and these were all people who would have won the plaudits of the entire entertainment class, in America most of all.

Had Vilks been threatened for invoking the wrath of any religion but Islam, he would have been a guest at the Golden Globes. Had Westergaard been the subject of assassination plots from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he would have been given a Netflix special. The staff of Charlie Hebdo were in fact honored once, posthumously, by PEN America. And their reward was for dozens of high-profile and award-bedecked members of America’s literary and cultural elite to come out and condemn the slaughtered journalists and artists afresh as “anti-Islamic.” Also for somehow having failed to atone for Europe’s colonial histories. While the American cultural elite talks a very good game about understanding other cultures, it never has made the slightest effort to understand this strange and interesting band of dissident Europeans. People who in the early 21st century put their lives on the line — knowingly in many cases — because they believed that the freedom to laugh, criticize, draw, write, and inquire should not stop at the borders of Islam and that free societies that permit the existence of blasphemy laws, de facto or otherwise, cannot in truth be described as free.

They were fine people, these cartoonists. Remarkable people. And Vilks was among the best of them. They have not been replaced, you will notice. A new, brave generation has not come up after them. And there are obvious reasons for that. Not because our societies do not understand what is happening. But because we do. All too well. And we took the lesson from the past decade and a half that — whatever our societies might like to profess — the sword, or rather the scimitar, is in fact mightier than the pen. Those people in the cultural and artistic worlds who have accepted that are flourishing. It is the people who would not accept it who are dying out.

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Books, Arts & Manners


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