AP Interview: Artist Vilks says Denmark attack changed all

AP News
Posted: Mar 04, 2015 2:28 PM
AP Interview: Artist Vilks says Denmark attack changed all

MALMO, Sweden (AP) — Lars Vilks was used to tight security even before, with round-the-clock police protection at his home in southern Sweden. But after the deadly Feb. 14 attack against a free-speech seminar in Copenhagen, he lives under security measures that seem almost absurd in peaceful Sweden, with heavily armed bodyguards moving him from one secret location to another.

"It's like starting a new life," the 68-year-old Swedish artist told The Associated Press Wednesday in an interview arranged by his bodyguards at an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of the city of Malmo. "Everything has changed. I have to understand that I cannot go back home. I have to probably find some other place to live."

Vilks' life changed radically eight years ago after he drew a sketch of the Prophet Muhammad with a dog's body. Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims, and Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.

Al-Qaida put a bounty on his head. In 2010, two men tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden. Last year, a woman from Pennsylvania pleaded guilty in a plot to try to kill him.

Even then, it all seemed like a "comedy" to Vilks, because his would-be attackers seemed like "clumsy amateurs."

"Now it's come to a level where people are killed," Vilks said. "Then you can't fool around."

Police took AP journalists to the interview on a high-speed drive across Malmo, weaving through traffic and speeding through red lights to shake off any potential followers. As heavily armed officers took up positions outside the farmhouse, one of them said it was OK to reveal the location, because "we won't come back here."

The reason for the heightened security: Two and a half weeks ago in Copenhagen, 22-year-old gunman Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein attacked a cultural center hosting a free speech event, killing a Danish film director and wounding three police officers. Vilks, widely believed to have been the intended target, was whisked away unharmed by bodyguards.

Hours later, the gunman killed a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue and wounded two more officers before he was killed in a firefight with a SWAT team.

Investigators said the gunman may have been inspired by a terror spree in Paris in January. Targets there included a satirical newspaper that had caricatured Muhammad, police and a Jewish grocery store.

Even before the attacks, Vilks was struggling to find places that would exhibit his works or allow him to give lectures because of security reasons or because people thought his art was needlessly provoking Muslims.

During the AP interview, Vilks got a call from someone saying a panel discussion he was supposed to attend on Friday in Goteborg had been canceled.

"Who got scared this time?" he said into the phone. He chuckled at the answer: a dance ensemble practicing in the basement of the building where he was to speak.

"If you're going to have a negotiation with violence and the threat of violence then I think you are in a very bad situation," Vilks told AP.

Vilks was largely unknown outside Sweden before his Muhammad drawing. At home, he was best known for building a sculpture made of driftwood in a nature reserve in southern Sweden without permission, triggering a lengthy legal battle. He was fined, but the seaside sculpture — a jumble of wood nailed together in chaotic fashion — draws tens of thousands of visitors a year.

Though his life has changed forever, he said he has no regrets about his drawings. He said he's not afraid of another attack because he feels well protected by police. The only thing that irks him is that he cannot go home.

"People in my home community, they want me to leave. They don't want to have me there," Vilks said, even though his place "was kind of isolated," 1 kilometer (0.62 mile) from the closest neighbor.