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Danish cartoonist whose Muhammad caricature sparked worldwide protests dies at 86

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard at home
Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard at home near Aarhus, Denmark, in 2010.
(Peter Hove Olsen / Polfoto)

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose image of the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban was at the center of widespread anti-Danish anger among Muslims worldwide in the mid-2000s, has died. He was 86.

Westergaard’s family announced his death to Danish media late Sunday and told the newspaper Berlingske that he had died in his sleep after a long period of illness. Danish media reported that he died Wednesday, a day after his birthday.

From the early 1980s, Westergaard worked as a cartoonist for Jyllands-Posten, one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, and was associated with the daily until he turned 75.

Westergaard became known worldwide in 2005 for his controversial depiction of Muhammad in a collection of 12 editorial cartoons of Islam’s principal figure that Jyllands-Posten published.

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Muslims consider images of the prophet to be sacrilegious and encouraging of idolatry. The images, particularly Westergaard’s, sparked a huge wave of anger among Muslims and escalated into violent anti-Denmark protests by Muslims worldwide in 2006.

Several newspapers in neighboring Norway also published the controversial cartoons. Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were burned down by angry crowds during the demonstrations.

Lawmakers in the parliament’s lower house have approved a bill that aims to safeguard France from radical Islamists and promote respect for French values.

Political observers in the Scandinavian countries have described the cartoon incident as one of the most severe foreign policy crises for both Denmark and Norway in their recent histories.

In the aftermath, Westergaard received several death threats and was assigned police protection.

In 2008, three people were arrested on suspicion of planning to kill him, and in 2010 a 28-year-old Somali man broke into his home with an ax and knife. The man was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“I would like to be remembered as the one who struck a blow for the freedom of expression. But there’s no doubt that there are some who will instead remember me as a Satan who insulted the religion of over 1 billion people,” Westergaard said, according to Berlingske.

More than a million people — including a camera-friendly rack of world leaders — took to the streets of Paris last weekend to march in support of free expression in the wake of the killing of cartoonists and others at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamist gunmen.

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The satirical French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons in 2006. In 2015, Islamic extremists attacked the paper’s Paris office, killing 12 people.

Jyllands-Posten said in an editorial published Monday that, with Westergaard’s death, “it is more important than ever to emphasize that the struggle for freedom of expression, which became his destiny, is the struggle of all of us for freedom.”

Westergaard is survived by his wife and five children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.


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