Cartoonist Lars Vilks attacked for showing Prophet Mohammed in gay film

Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoon artist allegedly targeted by 'Jihad Jane' for portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a dog, was attacked Tuesday when he showed an Iranian film that depicts the Prophet in a gay bar. Are radical Muslims succeeding in muzzling free speech?

Tor Johnsson/Scanpix/AP
People demonstrate in the room where Swedish artist Lars Vilks was giving a lecture at Uppsala University, in Uppsala, Sweden, Tuesday. The artist who angered Muslims by depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog was assaulted Tuesday while giving a university lecture about the limits of artistic freedom.

Swedish cartoon artist Lars Vilks, who became the target of an alleged international murder plot for his 2007 cartoons of Mohammed as a dog, again angered Muslims Tuesday by showing an Iranian film that depicts the Prophet entering a gay bar.

When Mr. Vilks showed a scene from the film at Uppsala University in Sweden, a protester charged the dais and hit him, breaking his glasses. Police were forced to detain or pepper-spray some unruly members of the crowd as other protesters yelled "Allahu Akbar" – "God is great."

For Mr. Vilks, who has booby-trapped his own house and says he sleeps with an ax beside his bed, the right to unfettered speech – regardless of whether it offends Muslims – is a point of principle. "This must be carried through. You cannot allow it to be stopped," he told the Associated Press, saying he wouldn't hesitate to give the address again.

But the university apparently disagrees. Officials said they would "not likely" invite Vilks again because of the incident. In some quarters, the university's reponse is adding to concerns that violence and threats from some members of the Muslim community are effectively muzzling free speech.

"When it comes to depicting the Prophet, this has nothing to do with social issues or integration," says Professor Klausen. "This is about a political movement by sectarian groups where [depicting Mohammed] has now become a primary trigger for political contention. The university pretty much told [Vilks] to shut up and go talk somewhere else, and I find that reaction very dangerous and problematic. It means that the extremists have achieved what they wanted."

The Muslim viewpoint

Many Muslims would contest Klausen's assertions. Fundamental to Islam was the Prophet's turning of his followers away from the idol worship that characterized Arabia in the Seventh Century. For this reason, any depiction of any of the prophets – in either a positive or negative light – is strictly forbidden.

Earlier this year, American authorities arrested two American women, charging them with taking part in a plot to travel to Sweden and murder Vilks. Even before that plot was uncovered, Vilks had created a "panic room" in his house and booby-trapped some of his art with an electrical shock device.

Still, Vilks ventured out Tuesday for a lecture that was late getting started because of security procedures and searches. Before the attack, Vilks also showed what some might deem offensive pictures of Christian symbols.

A reporter for Stockholm News described what happened next: "It was when Vilks started to show a film by the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera, where the Prophet Mohammed went to a gay bar, that some people started to yell. After a couple of minutes, one person ran to the stage and hit Vilks in the head. Then the turmoil started. Several people ran towards the stage and at least one more person managed to attack Vilks."

Western outrage

Such outbursts – or the threat of worse violence – have outraged some Western commentators. In response to the Comedy Central decision, Jon Stewart, host of the "Daily Show" on Comedy Central, showed clips of his show making fun of every religion.

Mr. Stewart asked why a group called Revolution Muslim was allowed to express radical views and pose veiled threats – insinuating that the creators of South Park could share the same fate as a Dutch filmmaker who was killed for what some Muslims thought was an unfair portrayal of Islam.

They were able to make such threats "because of how much we in this country value and protect freedom of expression," Stewart said.

"The implication was obvious," writes Mediaite's Steve Krakauer. "While this group gets to voice their extremist opinions, this cartoon comedy show gets censored."

In Sweden, the attack on Vilks provoked empassioned debate.

"By deliberately insulting Muslims in this already-charged climate the artist placed himself in danger," writes Robert on Stockholm News, an English-language news site in Sweden. "Insulting people's deep-felt religious beliefs is not free speech … it's hate speech."

Mac Turk responded: "We either have free speech or we do not. There's NO reason why any religion should be privileged, or given special immunity from 'insult.'"

Klausen contends that institutions self-censoring Islamic themes arguably hurts Muslims the most. "Now every time illustrations are picked for stories about this issue, we'll get pictures of Muslims burning a Danish flag, reacting violently, which reinforces the notion that this is what Muslims do continuously, which is not true," she says. "This is not Muslims doing this; it's a global extremist movement that's doing it."


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