Swedish artist goes into hiding following Al Qaeda death threat
As tension mounted over a drawing offensive to Muslims, Swedish police told artist Lars Vilks he was no longer safe at home.
Almost a year and a half after 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad sparked worldwide protest that left scores dead, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks has ignited similar controversy. After Mr. Vilks's controversial series of drawings featuring Islam's prophet with the body of a dog garnered attention in Sweden – art galleries refused to display them – Nerikes Allehanda, a Swedish newspaper, printed one in August. As with its Danish predecessor, the cartoon drew outrage from the Islamic world and has started a debate about freedom of expression. On Monday, the situation became even more serious, with Vilks going into hiding following a death threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In a statement issued on Saturday by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group's leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, called for the killing of Vilks and his editor Ulf Johansson, reports Al Jazeera.
"We are calling for the assassination of cartoonist Lars Vilks who dared insult our prophet, peace be upon him, and we announce a reward during this generous month of Ramadan of $100,000 for the one who kills this criminal," he said.
"The award will be increased to $150,000 if he were to be slaughtered like a lamb."
Swedish police told Vilks that he was no longer safe in his home and have relocated him to an undisclosed location. Vilks, who says he's willing to move and can "do most of his work sitting in front of his computer," has remained defiant throughout the dispute, reports The Local, a Swedish newspaper. Despite being forced into hiding, when asked if the drawings were worth all of the trouble, he remained unapologetic.
"Yes, I still think so. I think the artwork has developed well so far and is on its way towards becoming superb," he said.
Vilks described the events and the debate surrounding his drawings as a repeat of the Danish caricature row, except on a smaller scale and so far without bloodshed.
"I still hold out strong hopes of a happy ending in that this too may end up as a farce," he said.
Vilks's inspiration for the cartoon sprang from a local art phenomenon and his artistic desire to engage his audience by shocking or even enraging them. In the cartoon, Vilks refers to Muhammad as a "roundabout dog," which is a reference to homemade statues of dogs placed in many of Sweden's roundabouts, or rotaries. The sculptures drew much attention this past spring and became something of a public joke. Open Democracy, an online news magazine, reports that Vilks tried to move this "new, rather innocent national emblem into a potentially charged political arena by adding a 'Muhammad' reference to his cartoon dog."
[I]t is relevant to note that Lars Vilks's artistic premises rest on challenging his viewers by making them angry, engaged or amused. He is known not only in Sweden but in various parts of the world (including Canada) for his self-consciously "outrageous" installations. A less toxic example than the dog cartoon was his intervention at a nature compound near Kullen in southern Sweden, where Vilks - without a building permit - constructed a monument made of pieces of lumber and rubbish he had hauled in. The local community board protested - and with that Vilks had fulfilled his core purpose. Whether or not his piece of junk was to be confiscated was no longer the real issue, which for Vilks was the artist's right to provoke.
Lars Vilks, with his cartoon drawing of the Mohammed roundabout dog, pushed the same issue beyond the realm of local Swedish opinion and communal politics. Sweden has a large Muslim population composed of immigrants and (now) the children and grandchildren of immigrants, which has increased steadily during the Iraq war. It does not constitute a homogeneous group, and many of its members define themselves in secular terms. Yet a considerable number too view Vilks's roundabout dog as a deliberate act of defamation of the Muslim religion and an attempt to increase Swedish Muslims' alienation from mainstream society. Thus, even if the primary self-identification of Swedish Muslims is far from narrowly religious, as an ethnic group they feel offended by this act.
Fallout from the Vilks incident has not ballooned to Danish-cartoon proportions. But Al Qaeda in Iraq also threatened to attack Swedish businesses if Vilks failed to apologize. "[E]xpect us to strike the businesses of firms like Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, IKEA, and Electrolu," said the group's statement against Vilks. The Times of London reports that Swedish firms in the Middle East are taking the threats seriously.
Swedish companies lowered their profile in the Middle East yesterday amid fears that a newspaper cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog could spark bloody reprisals.
Åse Lindskog, a spokeswoman for Ericsson, said that staff had been told to keep a low profile in Muslim countries and to take extra care in deciding where to go or park their cars.
While the vast majority of Muslims have responded peacefully to the cartoons, the drawings have sparked outrage among some. Earlier this month, a number of Muslim nations officially condemned the cartoons. "The publication of this cartoon, which seeks to attack the character of the prophet Mohammed, is unacceptable, rejected, and condemned," a Jordian government spokesman told the Agence France-Presse. The Guardian reported that the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments responded to the cartoons, saying, "Such an irresponsible act is not conducive to friendly ties between the Islamic world and the West." The Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group representing 57 mostly Islamic nations, issued a statement calling the cartoons an "irresponsible and despicable act with malafied and provocative intention in the name of so-called freedom of expression."
The freedom of press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders came out strongly against those behind the death threats for Vilks and his editor. In an official statement, the group offered the cartoonist and his editor their "total support."
"Freedom to draw cartoons cannot be taken away by such barbaric fundamentalism," Reporters Without Borders said. "Making death threats to the author of a cartoon by promising people a reward if they kill them is a shocking lack of humanity that must be soundly condemned."
"The Swedish authorities and Muslim organisations in Sweden have done everything to calm the situation and head off a major crisis of the kind that erupted after publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Denmark in September 2005," it said. "Those making the threats now are pouring oil on the fire."
Cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad elicit such strong responses from the Muslim world not necessarily because they are critical of Islam, but more so because Islam forbids representations of Allah or the prophet. The British Broadcasting Corporation explains that though the Koran does not expressly ban such images, it says, "[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth ... [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him." The passage is largely interpreted to mean that images of Allah or the prophet are forbidden. Express bans can be found in other Islamic teachings and traditions.
Islamic tradition or Hadith, the stories of the words and actions of Muhammad and his Companions, explicitly prohibits images of Allah, Muhammad and all the major prophets of the Christian and Jewish traditions.
More widely, Islamic tradition has discouraged the figurative depiction of living creatures, especially human beings. Islamic art has therefore tended to be abstract or decorative.
Shia Islamic tradition is far less strict on this ban. Reproductions of images of the Prophet, mainly produced in the 7th Century in Persian, can be found.
Depicting the prophet with a dog's body made the cartoon even more inflammatory for Muslims, because culturally, dogs are looked upon as unclean and, in some cases, devil-like creatures. Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic scholar, explains Islam's perception of dogs in an essay.