Cartoonists and writers defended freedom of expression after Wednesday’s attack on a satirical magazine in Paris but the reality for some artists accused of insulting Islam has been years in hiding, police protection and, for some, censorship.
Among the 12 dead at Charlie Hebdo, a weekly that lampoons Islam and other religions, were some of France’s top cartoonists. Others before them, such as Swedish artist Lars Vilks, have also drawn threats or actual violence.
“When you take out one of the few bastions of freedom of expression we have, and it has been taken out, who dares to publish anything now?” said Vilks.
Vilks was put under police protection after his 2007 drawing portraying the Prophet Mohammad as a dog led to death threats and a $100,000 bounty put on his head by an Iraqi group linked to al Qaeda.
“If you do a cartoon picture of Jesus or the Pope it can be published but the Prophet Mohammad is banned from every proper media. It is regulated by fear mixed with political correctness,” Vilks told Reuters.
In early 2014, an American woman who called herself Jihad Jane was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to kill Vilks.
Vilks says his career has suffered due to security concerns about exhibiting even his work that is unrelated to Islam.
— Madhuchhanda Bose (@madhuchhanda11) January 8, 2015
Artists across Europe spoke of fears that the Charlie Hebdo attack could lead to self-censorship over religious satire, especially with Islam. For Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous and caricatures or other characterisations have provoked protests across the Islamic world. One major Danish newspaper, Politiken, has apologised in the past for running a cartoon that upset Muslims. “Politiken recognizes and deplores that our reprinting of the cartoon drawing offended Muslims in Denmark and in other countries around the world,” it said in a 2010 statement.
Ane Imam from a Paris suburb underlined the offence Charlie Hebdo had caused but rejected violence as a response for Muslims. “We don’t agree with Charlie Hebdo. (Fight a) drawing with a drawing, but not with blood, not with hate,” said Hassen Chalghoumi, the Imam of Drancy. The Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Denmark, societies with reputations for tolerance, were at the centre of worldwide controversies in the last decade over depictions of Mohammad. Charlie Hebdo was also well known for courting controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders and has published numerous cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. “‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’,” said novelist Salman Rushdie in a statement. “Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect,” said Rushdie, whose book “The Satanic Verses” prompted late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa on him in 1989. “Self-censorship is a plague,” warned William Nygaard, a publisher who survived an assassination attempt in 1993 when he was shot by an unknown gunman outside his home in Oslo after he published the “The Satanic Verses” in Norway. Nygaard urged all media to safeguard freedom of expression. In Denmark, Jyllands-Posten newspaper published 12 cartoons by various artists in 2005, most of which depicted the Prophet Mohammad. It provoked a wave of protests across the Muslim world in which at least 50 died. The newspaper decided to publish the cartoons after hearing that a Danish writer of children’s stories could not find an illustrator for his book on Mohammad for fear of reprisals. But the publication also led to debate within Denmark over whether the newspaper had incited religious hatred. While some newspapers published the cartoons in solidarity with the principle of freedom of expression, most mainstream media steered clear. “I’m hoping this event will not have any big negative impact on media – that they don’t become scared,” retired Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard told Danish TV2 after the Paris attack. He drew a cartoon at Jyllands-Posten showing the Prophet with a bomb in his turban, a work that nearly got him killed by an axe-wielding assassin in 2010.
— Kanchan Gupta (@KanchanGupta) January 7, 2015
Westergaard talked in 2012 of living in constant fear of his life, of being unable even to go to a cafe, and of bodyguards ferrying him around in the back seat of an armoured car.
Fellow cartoonists offered sympathy for Wednesday’s victims. “Can’t sleep tonight, thoughts with my French cartooning colleagues, their families and loved ones,” David Pope, political cartoonist for Australia’s The Canberra Times, said on Twitter.
Gary Varvel, of the Indianapolis Star in the United States, responded with a cartoon of blood splattered on an artist’s desk and obscuring part of the word “Freedom”.