COPENHAGEN – A few pen strokes thrust Kurt Westergaard into the midst of an international crisis, exposing him to death threats and an alleged assassination plot.
Terror charges brought against two Chicago men this week show the 74-year-old Dane remains a potential target for extremists, four years after he drew a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban.
"I am an old man so I am not so afraid anymore," Westergaard said Tuesday in an interview with Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published his drawing in September 2005 along with 11 other cartoons of Muhammad.
The drawings triggered an uproar a few months later when Danish and other Western embassies in several Muslim countries were torched by angry protesters who felt the cartoons had profoundly insulted Islam.
Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.
Westergaard has said it took him 45 minutes to make the drawing, considered by many Muslims to be the most offensive of the 12 cartoons. He has rejected calls to apologize to Muslims, saying poking fun at religious symbols is protected by Denmark's freedom of speech.
The drawing was meant to illustrate that extremists draw "spiritual ammunition from Islam," but not criticize the religion as a whole, he told broadcaster DR in February 2008 after Danish police uncovered an alleged plot to kill him.
"I realize that when issues of religion are involved emotions run high, and all religions have their symbols, which possess great importance," he said. "But when you live in a secularized society, it's clear that religion can't demand some sort of special status. ... "I have a problem with the fact that we have people from another culture who don't accept that we use religious elements in a drawing."
The cartoon uproar forced Westergaard underground, living under the protection of Denmark's intelligence agency, PET.
"For my wife and I, it's like a kind of dark depression has descended on us," he told DR.
In February last year, Danish police arrested two Tunisians accused of plotting to strangle Westergaard in his home in the western city of Aarhus, close to the headquarters of Jyllands-Posten. Police failed to substantiate the charges against the men and released them. Both left Denmark.
Meanwhile, PET moved the couple from place to place — both within Denmark and abroad. Westergaard told DR the couple brought cherished items — "mugs, vases, pictures" — to simulate a sense of home. Meanwhile, police continued to empty the trash, collect the mail and turn lights on and off in Westergaard's Aarhus home, to give the impression he was still living there.
Westergaard reacted to the alleged murder plot with characteristic understatement, saying he was "maybe surprised — and a little shocked — to find that a situation like this could arise so suddenly."
In the Chicago case, prosecutors said one of the suspects told FBI agents after his Oct. 3 arrest at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport that the initial plan called for attacks on Jyllands-Posten's offices, but that he later proposed just killing the paper's former cultural editor and Westergaard.
The cartoonist didn't return calls seeking comment.
The cartoon crisis polarized a discussion about the integration of Muslim immigrants in Denmark. Many Danish Muslims said the cartoons followed a pattern of degrading comments about Islam by nationalist politicians and in some media.
Westergaard's supporters commended him for defending the freedom of speech.
"What I like about him is that he stands firm about his drawing," said Helle Merete Brix, chief editor of a magazine published by Denmark's Free Press Society. "He is a product of the European way of poking fun of authorities, whether they are religious or political."
Mohammad Rafiq, a Danish writer of Pakistani origin, called Westergaard "naive" and said he and the other cartoonists had failed to understand what the Prophet Muhammad means to Muslims.
"Denmark has failed to build a bridge between the cultures," he said.
Asked if he regretted drawing the cartoon, Westergaard gave an unequivocal answer.
"No, I don't," he told DR. "I mean, the friction between these two cultures (Muslim and Western) is always there. What will happen in the long run is that our culture — the materialistic, superior culture — will of course win out, and we will have, I think, a modified version of Islam that fits in with our secular society."