Cliff May

In Europe, free speech may end with neither a bang nor a whimper – but with a lawyerly assist.

It was three years ago this month that the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published twelve editorial cartoons satirizing Islamist terrorism. Some Muslim organizations objected. Protests were organized. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were set ablaze. Dozens of people were killed. The cartoonists and their editors received death threats from such characters as Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza.

Kurt Westergaard is the artist who drew the most iconic and controversial cartoon: He depicted Mohammed with his turban turned into a bomb, its fuse lit. His message was clear: Here is how Mohammed appears to those who learn about Islam from suicide bombers. Westergaard is neither apologetic nor regretful. But he has said as clearly as he can that his drawing was aimed “at fanatic Islamist terrorists -- a small part of Islam.”

Westergaard has required police protection ever since. Last year he had to leave his home after Danish intelligence learned of a “concrete” assassination plot. Earlier this year, he also was forced to leave the hotel in which he had been staying because he posed “too much of a security risk” to other guests and staff.

And then, in June, a “prosecutor general” in Jordan – a Muslim nation usually described as moderate – issued a subpoena demanding Westergaard face a lawsuit in an Amman courtroom.

The 73-year-old cartoonist does not plan to submit. He said that although it ought to be obvious that “my problem is with terrorists not Muslims," people are free to interpret his work as they wish. “Disagreement is very important and if we disagree,” he told a reporter, “it does not mean that we have to sue each other and kill each other."

Apparently, it is not only Islamists who find that logic unpersuasive. The English language Daily Jordan Times reports that attorney Osama Bitar, an attorney affiliated with the lawsuit (on behalf of the “Messenger of Allah Unites Us” campaign – such an inspiring name!) has been in contact with French attorneys who “have expressed their support for the campaign and its lawsuit against Westergaard.”

"The lawyers are studying the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the cartoonist in accordance with French and international law such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Bitar. He added that the French attorneys also are considering contacting colleagues in other European countries to file separate lawsuits against Westergaard.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.