Heavy security the price of free speech, Swedish artist, Danish historian find
Written by Joanne Hill
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
TORONTO – On a recent Sunday evening a cadre of private security guards, police officers and trained volunteers kept watch inside and outside the Toronto Zionist Centre to ensure that presentations by Swedish artist Lars Vilks and Danish historian and author Lars Hedegaard proceeded without incident. Security concerns had caused the cancellation of planned appearances in Ottawa, Philadelphia and Boston, but the Toronto event was well-attended and no threats or protests were reported.
The subject of their lecture series? Free speech.
Vilks, an artist who lives under an Islamic fatwa (death threat) for having drawn a picture of Mohammed, is an atheist; he does not come from a Muslim background. He has a PhD in art history and has worked as a professor and lecturer. He is a calm, quiet 64-year-old man with an intelligent, wry sense of humour who sees everything through the eyes of an artist.
“I became a conceptual artist and found my ways of working,” Vilks told the Jewish Tribune. “Then I got interested in (asking) what can you actually do in art. The borders in art are very interesting because that’s a way to expand your thinking and ideas and also point out the weak parts of the system.”
For Vilks, pushing at the boundaries of what is acceptable in art has included depicting religious leaders and followers in ways which some people might find offensive.
“My aim was to show the borders of what you can say and what you cannot say…. The artist’s aim is not to tell people what to do…. The only thing where I have an absolute idea is that the right of art to have freedom of expression must always be defended.”
His life-and-death fight for freedom of expression began innocuously in 2006, when Vilks made a sculpture of a dog and placed it in a traffic circle. After the sculpture was vandalized, citizens started making their own depictions of dogs and leaving them in traffic circles. This turned into a “roundabout dog” fad that swept through Sweden.
The following year, Vilks was invited to participate in a large art exhibit about religion called, Oh, My G-d. He suggested they show the Danish cartoons of Mohammed but they declined, so Vilks created some drawings of Jesus and Mohammed in irreligious poses. This work did not generate any negative reactions.
Next, Vilks was asked to create something for an exhibit titled, The Dog in Art. He contributed three drawings of Mohammed as a roundabout dog, which were initially accepted but then taken down at the last minute out of security concerns. This resulted in media coverage, including a newspaper article about freedom of religion, which showed a photograph of one of the drawings.
News of Vilks’s “blasphemy” spread quickly. Enraged Muslims rioted in Sweden and in countries such as Pakistan, where they burned the wrong flag; in Iran, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the Zionists; and Vilks started getting death threats by phone and email, culminating in an announcement by al-Qaeda that it would pay $150,000 to anyone who killed him.
The Swedish secret police told Vilks to go into hiding and change his name but he refused. Vilks has safe houses where he can take refuge and his home is wired with cameras and alarm systems. He inspects his car for bombs and is in regular contact with police. There have been three major security threats this year alone: two men were imprisoned after they firebombed his house; one of Vilks’s lectures at a Swedish university was shut down by Muslim protesters; and police thwarted an international plot against his life.
It took some getting used to, but Vilks has adjusted to living under a death threat. He chooses to see these events as an evolving work of art which began with his drawings but has expanded to include people and events. He uses his art projects, including videos, as a tool to expose and mock the bad ideas of professional pundits and jihadists.
“Everything becomes an artistic material. The more drama, the more interesting (and) the more stories you can create. Of course, it’s very good to stay alive.”
He describes himself as a careful man who is not a risk-taker.
“It’s more (a matter of) deciding (that) if you challenge me, I’m into the game. Just like playing chess. You get into the game but you know that, to win it, you can’t rush the thing: you have to find good tactics…. You have to remember that there is a risk but you also have to remember that it is a low risk; otherwise, you could not live your life because you would think that you would die all the time.”
The Danish historian and writer Lars Hedegaard, co-founder and president of the Free Press Society of Denmark, is also fighting a battle for free speech. No one has placed a bounty on his head; instead, the 68-year-old intellectual is being prosecuted by the state for speaking openly and plainly about Islamic doctrine and culture.
In January, Hedegaard will appear in court on charges of racism and hate speech, which were laid by the public prosecutor after an unedited, casual interview was released which contained a general statement by Hedegaard about the Muslim community. Hedegaard immediately published a statement clarifying his comment but it was not enough for the public prosecutor’s office, which quickly charged him.
“There’s no need to hit me with a fatwa,” Hedegaard told the Jewish Tribune, “as long as the state will get me.”
Hedegaard has written several books and numerous articles; he has been a newspaper and book editor, a lecturer and a newspaper columnist. He started studying and writing about Islam and immigration around the turn of the century because he was concerned about the radicalization of second- and third-generation Muslims in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. As a result of his outspoken views, he believes the public prosecutor was waiting for an opportunity to charge him with a hate crime and use his example to frighten others into silence.
“My case is supposed to have a dampening effect…. (People will) say, ‘They got Lars Hedegaard, they can get me, so I’d better shut up.’
“Racism in the old form simply does not exist in Denmark,” Hedegaard said. However, now “we have it in the shape of Islamic hatred towards us: that’s racism.”
Hedegaard said the consequences of a massive influx of immigration from Muslim countries into Europe are destructive.
“We are witnessing the breakup of our societies into parallel societies with [parallel] legal systems, cultures, politics, customs, aspirations, etc. Every nation state in Europe is breaking up. [Recently] the Danish police said that they had lost control over parts of our cities where an entirely different legal order is now reigning and they cannot control it. So now we have Dar al-Islam (Muslim territory) right inside our borders.”
The situation for Jews in Denmark is “very, very bad,” said Hedegaard, who converted from Christianity to Judaism in 1969. “There are schools in central Copenhagen where Jewish kids cannot attend, not because it’s illegal but because the principal will advise their parents, ‘Do not send them here because we cannot guarantee their safety….’ The Caroline School in Copenhagen is surrounded by two lines of barbed wire, about three metres high, with security guards…. This is what the little kids have to go through when they’re seven years old.”
He said governments in the West must support moderate Muslims but instead, “we support their oppressors. If we really wanted to support Muslims who want to live like we do…then we would, of course, not support those who insist on women wearing the veils…. Our states should not keep the counsel of imams, for example, who say that women should be stoned or apostates should be killed; (yet) they do. Many Muslims would like nothing better than to live like we do but what are they going to do if their imams say, ‘You’ll be killed if you do that’”
In his speech, Hedegaard said we must repeal blasphemy and hate speech laws and institute American-style laws to protect citizens’ rights to free speech and self-defence.
Vilks and Hedegaard were brought to North America by the International Free Press Society (IFPS)–Canada.
Mary Lou Ambrogio, vice-president of IFPS-Canada, told the Jewish Tribune in an email that a private, invitation-only event was now being planned for Boston.
Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 October 2010 )