Kurt Westergaard, 86, Dies; His Muhammad Cartoon Sparked Outrage

Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist whose 2005 caricature of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban touched off violent protests by Muslims, prompted a massacre that left 12 people dead at the offices of a French satirical magazine and made him a target of assassins for the rest of his life, died on Wednesday in Copenhagen. He was 86.

His family announced his death to Danish media on Sunday. No specific cause was given.

Mr. Westergaard was one of 12 artists commissioned by Jyllands-Posten, a self-described center-right newspaper in Denmark, to draw Muhammad “as you see him.” The newspaper said “the Muhammad cartoons,” as they came to be known — although some depicted other figures — were not intended to be offensive but rather to raise questions about self-censorship and the limits to criticism of Islam.

Mr. Westergaard said that when he drew his cartoon he was seeking to underscore his view that some people invoked the prophet to justify wanton violence. He later explained that the bearded man he had depicted, with a lit fuse protruding from his turban, could have been any Islamic fundamentalist — not necessarily the founder of Islam.

Still, many Muslims were outraged because they believe that any images of the prophet, much less one provocatively connected to terrorism, are considered blasphemous.

In 2006, Danish embassies in the Arab world were attacked in riots that claimed dozens of lives. In 2008, three people were charged by the Danish authorities with threatening to murder Mr. Westergaard. Two years later, a Somali Muslim intruder armed with an ax and a knife penetrated the cartoonist’s home in Aarhus, though it was equipped with steel doors, bulletproof glass and surveillance cameras.

At the time, Mr. Westergaard and his 5-year-old granddaughter were cowering in a fortified bathroom. The intruder was shot by the police and later convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and deportation.

In 2015, three Islamic militants stormed the Paris office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had reprinted the cartoons, and killed 12 people, most of them staff members.

In an interview with The National Post of Denmark in 2009, Mr. Westergaard expressed disappointment at the reaction to his cartoon by many newcomers to his country.

“Many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing,” he said. “We gave them everything — money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing — respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test.”

He was born Kurt Vestergaard on July 13, 1935, in Jutland, Denmark, the peninsula flanked by the North and Baltic Seas. His parents ran a grocery store.

Raised in a conservative Christian family, he experienced what he described as a religious liberation as a high school student. He later enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study psychology and then taught German and worked in a school for disabled students in Djursland. Fellow journalists said that he had always wanted to be an illustrator. He worked briefly for the newspaper Den Ny Demokrat, then joined Jyllands-Posten in 1983. He retired in 2010, when he was 75.

His survivors include his wife, Gitte; their five children; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

In 2008, Mr. Westergaard won the Sappho Award from the Free Press Society of Denmark. In 2010, he received the M100 Media Award from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for his contributions to freedom of opinion.

“I want to be remembered as the one who struck a blow for free speech,” he once said. “But there is no doubt that others will instead remember me as a Satan who insulted the religion of a billion people.”

Mr. Westergaard and his wife lived under tight security after the authorities foiled the first assassination attempt against him, although it was difficult to hide a man so often nattily attired in red trousers, a broad-brimmed black hat and giraffe-headed walking stick.

In recent years he chose to live openly in Aarhus, with bodyguards.

“I do not see myself as a particularly brave man,” he told The Guardian in 2010, adding: “But in this situation I got angry. It is not right that you are threatened in your own country just for doing your job. That’s an absurdity that I have actually benefited from, because it grants me a certain defiance and stubbornness. I won’t stand for it. And that really reduces the fear a great deal.”

Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting.

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