Accessibility links

Breaking News

German Group, Merkel To Honor Controversial Danish Cartoonist

Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard (file photo)
The Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb on his head is being honored in an awards ceremony tonight in Germany as a defender of free speech.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to make a speech tonight honoring 75-year-old cartoonist Kurt Westergaard., who sparked Muslim anger around the world, at the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium's free-speech award ceremony in Potsdam, near Berlin.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, was quoted in a statement by the organizers as saying that she remembered the repressions against free speech under East Germany's communist dictatorship and that Germans "should never forget how valuable liberty is."

Sabine Sasse, project manager of the event, told RFE/RL that the prize was to be awarded to Westergaard because of his "unbending engagement for freedom of the press and freedom of opinion" and because of his courage in defending those democratic values despite threats of death and violence against him by Islamic extremists.

"Kurt Westergaard is a symbol for press freedom and freedom of opinion because he stands for what he is doing -- and it's not right that some people want to kill him," Sasse said. "Death threats are not our culture. So we fight for these rights. In a good democracy, it must be possible to have different opinions and discuss things."

Sasse said anyone who tried to impose a chilling effect on public debate by issuing death threats against people because of their opinions was working against the development of culture and the advancement of society.

"This prize award is a sign from leading persons of our society that freedom of speech and of the press is very, very important for us. Whatever happens, we will fight for this -- - not with weapons, but with the weapon of language and awards," Sasse said.

Police spokesman Rudi Sonntag said there would be an "appropriate" security presence during the event -- including body searches of those in the audience -- because of the death threats made against Westergaard by Islamic extremists.

Caricature Furor

In 2005, following a series of major terrorist attacks around the world by Islamic extremists, public debate in Europe focused on whether Islam encourages deadly violence. It was then that Westergaard drew a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb with a lit fuse as a turban -- the most controversial of 12 portrayals of Muhammad by various editorial cartoonists.

Considered offensive by many Muslims, the drawings sparked protests in January and February 2006 that culminated with the torching of Danish diplomatic offices in Damascus and Beirut and the death of dozens of people in Nigeria. Demonstrations in Afghanistan also turned violent and deadly.

In 2008, about 20 Danish newspapers reproduced the drawings -- triggering further protests in Muslim countries like Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan.

The Muhammad cartoon scandal has come to represent a struggle between the values of press freedom and respect for religion.

Conservative Muslims consider the depiction of their prophet to be blasphemy -- a crime punishable under Shari'a law by death.

Past Threats

But critics of Islam say the violent backlash against Westergaard's cartoons, as well as the death threats issued against the cartoonist by Islamic extremists, prove that Westergaard spoke the truth by suggesting that Islam is inherently a violent religion.

In June, Westergaard announced that he was retiring from Denmark's "Jyllands-Posten" newspaper in the hope of damping down the danger to himself and fellow journalists.

Westergaard had been on leave since November 2009 after two men were arrested in Chicago with plans to attack the newspaper.

In January, a 28-year-old Somali man allegedly broke into Westergaard's home and threatened to kill him with an axe and a knife. The cartoonist locked himself in his bathroom behind a reinforced door.

The M100 Sanssouci Colloquium calls itself a "unique forum" bringing together leading media and public figures to discuss media's role in European and international affairs.

compiled from agency reports