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Danish cartoonist remains defiant

The row over publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper resurfaced this week as Turkey held up the appointment of Danish prime minister as the new Nato secretary general. But as the BBC's Malcolm Brabant reports from Denmark, the impact of that 2006 controversy has never gone away for those closely involved.

Dusk was falling, the curtains were open and the house was hyggelig - a Danish word that means cosy, welcoming and enticing - with scores of candles flickering around the open-plan sitting room.

Kurt Westergaard
Kurt Westergaard says he is too old to be afraid

Dressed in his favourite "anarchist" colours of red and black, Kurt Westergaard sat down to a nourishing Nordic repast of black bread, plaice and prawns.

Unwinding after a day at the coalface of his profession, the bohemian grandfather with a seadog's beard and Father Christmas trousers appeared to be the epitome of Scandinavian tranquillity.

Except relaxing completely is something that this cartoonist can never afford to do.

Islamic extremists placed a $1m price on his head after he dared to mock Muslim suicide bombers by depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

For three years he was forced underground to avoid would-be assassins.

I think we are in a period in which this democratic value is under pressure, so it has to be defended
Kurt Westergaard

But Mr Westergaard has decided that he will hide no more.

"I am 73 years old," he says.

"Most of my life is over. I am too old to be afraid. I have complete faith in PET [the Danish Secret Service]."

Not only has he emerged from hiding but he has also gone on the offensive, contributing to a recently published Danish book. His new cartoons are not as provocative as the Muhammad bomb but they satirise Islam and politicians who appease the mullahs.

"It is the question of freedom of speech, freedom of expression," he says.

"I think we are in a period in which this democratic value is under pressure, so it has to be defended."

Political repercussions

The re-emergence of Mr Westergaard has the potential to reinvigorate the argument over what is more important - respect for religion or absolute freedom of expression.

Pakistani protesters burn a Danish flag, Feb 2006
The cartoons prompted anti-Danish outrage across the Muslim world

The furore over the cartoons, which reached a zenith three years ago with Danish embassies being burned and Danish products boycotted in Muslim countries, has subsided.

But the debate has simply lain dormant and has never been resolved.

And it resurfaced during last week's Nato heads of government meeting, attended by US President Barack Obama.

Turkey threatened to veto the appointment of Denmark's Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as Nato secretary general because he had refused to apologise for the cartoons.

The charm and intervention of President Obama was required to persuade Turkey to back down.

As the alliance's new chief executive, one of Mr Fogh Rasmussen's prime tasks will be to try to heal the wounds between the West and the Muslim world.

It is a matter of finding this balance and we have got to find it, not only in Denmark, but in the rest of Europe
Abdul Wahid Pedersen
Senior Danish Muslim

Turkish newspapers say one of the key concessions obtained by President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is that Mr Fogh Rasmussen will be forced to apologise for the cartoons crisis.

According to the Danish press, one of his first acts of conciliation will be to publicly acknowledge that the 12 cartoons could have caused offence to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

The U-turn is certain to upset a large percentage of the Danish population.

It is not widely appreciated that the explosion of worldwide Muslim anger in 2006 followed a visit to the Middle East by a delegation of Danish imams.

In a 2006 BBC Radio Four documentary called Denmark In the Eye of the Cartoon Storm, one of the imams, Ahmed Akkari, admitted to me that the delegation had carried three extra images that were even more inflammatory than the bomb in the turban.

"We took them to show that Muslims were being provoked," said Mr Akkari.

These extra pictures had apparently been produced by right-wing extremists and not by Jyllands Posten. They included drawings of Muhammad with a pig's head and the Prophet as a paedophile.

Following the imams' intervention, the lives of the 12 cartoonists changed irrevocably and they paid the same price as author Salman Rushdie.

Only Mr Westergaard has come out of hiding. The 11 others have followed Danish secret service advice and either have round-the-clock protection or maintain low profiles. One of them is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Still wary

Mr Westergaard's critics accuse him of being a right-wing "islamophobe" and of using the cartoons to bully Denmark's 250,000-strong Muslim minority.

Kurt Westergaard self-portrait
Kurt Westergaard's self-portrait mocks his ability to land himself in trouble

Tim Jensen, a professor of comparative religion at the University of Southern Denmark, said: "I think it is simply pathetic.

"I don't think there is any need for that [new cartoons] right now. I think Muslims have to develop a thicker skin.

"But as long as they have not, let us deal with this in as a civilised manner as possible, let's have our dialogues."

Abdul Wahid Pedersen, a Dane who converted to Islam and now sits on the country's Muslim council, denies that his religion is trying to exert a veto on a fundamental Western freedom.

"If I insult you, I don't have the freedom of speech as my protector any longer," he says.

"It is a matter of finding this balance and we have got to find it, not only in Denmark but in the rest of Europe. If we want to keep our dialogue on the level of insult then we are bound to go down a real dirty track."

Mr Westergaard denies that he bears any hostility towards Muslims.

"But of course I have an anger against those who want to kill me," he adds.

Although special security measures have been installed at his hyggelig home, he closes the curtains, just in case an assassin is lurking.

The great irony is that the new Nato secretary general is about to effectively apologise to the Islamic world for Mr Westergaard's drawing while he, as Danish prime minister, was part of the Bush-Blair alliance which alienated Muslims by invading Iraq.



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