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Swedish Artist Who Created Controversial Muhammad Cartoons Dies In Traffic Accident


Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks says he has effectively lived under "house arrest" since his controversial Muhammad cartoons were published five years ago.
Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks says he has effectively lived under "house arrest" since his controversial Muhammad cartoons were published five years ago.

Editor's Note: Swedish artist Lars Vilks, ensnared in controversy after he drew a cartoon in 2007 depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog, died in a traffic accident on October 3, 2021.

Vilks and two of his police bodyguards were killed when the police car they were in veered into the path of an oncoming truck in southern Sweden. Vilks, 75, had lived under police protection since he received death threats owing to his Muhammad sketch, which was printed by a Swedish newspaper alongside an editorial defending freedom of expression.

Here is a 2012 interview with Vilks conducted by RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak.

BRUSSELS -- Swedish artist Lars Vilks caused a storm of controversy when his cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad's head on a dog's body was published in 2007. Large-scale protests ensued around the Muslim world, and Vilks has since lived under what he describes as "house arrest" for his own safety.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak, Vilks gives his views on freedom of speech in today's society and what consequences it has had in his life.

RFE/RL: You have claimed that freedom of speech, in a sense, was the loser in the debate that followed the publication of your cartoons, and that the Islamists are winning. What do you mean by this?

Lars Vilks: It has resulted in the fact that it has become very restrictive to use and produce images concerning Islam's religious symbols.

You can simply conclude by saying that the Prophet has become impossible to reproduce or copy and every time a case of this nature has emerged and been brought to wider attention, problems occur and we can see that there has been general self-censorship on this topic. This is what has been revealed.

RFE/RL: Salman Rushdie recently said that, whereas in 1989 there was massive support for him in the West, today no one wants to stick their neck out. Do you feel that artists have become scared to back you up?

Vilks: You need a very strong person to stand up for something because there is enormous pressure. And it will continue to be like this for some time. Who would want to sacrifice something on my behalf [when] they don't get anything in exchange? They will only see that everything becomes more complicated. You can question how one could understand things in such a way, but it is a fact that it is something that a person would be careful with.

It is interesting that this is how things are. I really think it is telling us something about our time. A fear has appeared, a McCarthy-like history has arrived in which political correctness is an absolute necessity and this political correctness, this story, cannot be disturbed and doesn't want to see any criticism.

VIlks' cartoons sparked protests across the Muslim world in 2007.
VIlks' cartoons sparked protests across the Muslim world in 2007.

RFE/RL: What is your view on the film "Innocence of Muslims" and the uproar it created?

Vilks: The film is made in an amateurish way but that is not the point. The point is that that both good and bad films are made and that bad films are allowed to be made. If you have intentions to attack the Prophet, then you are, of course, allowed to do that. Nobody can stop that. Freedom of speech exists as a tool to promote one's views.

RFE/RL: Would you consider targeting other religions and their extremists, or are you stuck with Islam?

Vilks: One has to remember that I am not particularly interested in Islam. This [the cartoon] was something I did in 2007 which I didn't think would create a big fuss, because most things that are produced concerning this topic pass unnoticed.

It is when attention is created and enough reaction is triggered that something like this can accelerate. I haven't really done much else since these drawings in 2007, but since then I have been pulled into this. And the issue itself has become an art project since I have followed its entire development.

So I am involved in this, but in a way it is the rest of the world that has created this, not my burning interest [in Islam]. I have become engaged in the question [of freedom of speech versus religion] so I have, in a sense, ended up here. But I don't see myself as a salaried employee engaged in attacking religions.

RFE/RL: You now have bodyguards who are by your side around the clock. How would you describe your life today?

Vilks: I live under a type of house arrest. I cannot leave my home without informing the security police. In that way it has changed. But on the other hand, I cannot say that there have been any cataclysmic changes. It is a way of organizing one's existence. It works well for me.

I cannot say it has been a big problem but, of course, this situation is not something one aims for. Obviously, one wouldn't want things this way. But it hasn't been as difficult for me as it might have been for others.

RFE/RL: Very few galleries want to accept your art these days. How do you make a living?

Vilks: I have made several variations of my original drawing. A recurrent complaint is that many think that it [the drawing] is bad, I don't consider it to be bad. So, in order to satisfy different technical and art directions, I have made different variations and also many oil paintings where I have placed it [the dog] in different traditional and well-known artworks throughout history. I sell these privately on the Internet. There has been quite a lot of interest.

The reason I do this is not only because it provides income. It is also because they cannot be exhibited [due to the reluctance of galleries to display Vilks' drawings], even if you may think they are quite innocent. The dog element is reduced quite a lot and involved in different contexts, and it would be a fun exhibition, but it cannot be done. The [Muhammad drawings] can't even be sold at auction on the Internet. They are being removed even there.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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