Swedish artist Lars Vilks found himself at the center of controversy in 2007 when his cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohammed’s head on a dog’s body was published. Today, he remains a controversial figure, a fact that influences the way he lives and works. In spite of the protests and threats to his life, Vilks is unwavering in his belief that free speech is essential to an artist’s role in challenging audiences.
Vilks is no stranger to controversy in his works: He also portrayed Jesus with an animal body and a Jewish person as a pig. None of his previous works, however, drew the response of the Mohammed cartoon. After its publication, Vilks and his publisher received multiple death threats. Al Qaeda offered $100,000 to anyone who killed Vilks, with an extra $50,000 bonus if he died from a slit throat. In 2010, seven individuals originally from Morocco and Yemen were arrested in Ireland for “conspiracy to murder an individual in another jurisdiction,” and sources revealed that Vilks was their target. Around the same time Colleen LaRose from Pennsylvania, also known as “JihadJane,” was charged with conspiracy to commit murder overseas, among other charges. The indictment alleged that LaRose agreed to marry one of her co-conspirators, who urged her to go to Sweden to find and kill Vilks. LaRose pled guilty to the charges, and awaits sentencing later this month.
On May 11, 2010, Vilks was attacked at a lecture he gave on freedom of speech in art at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm, Sweden. During the lecture, Vilks presented controversial art on the topic of religion. When he showed scene from an Iranian film in which the Prophet Mohammed enters a gay bar, a man sitting in the front row rushed forward and hit Vilks in the head, leading other protestors in the audience to attempt the same before they were stopped by police.
For safety, Vilks now lives under what he describes as house arrest. He makes his living selling his work privately on the internet because few galleries will display his work. In an interview with Radio Free Europe’s Radio Liberty, he notes that the response from certain segments of the Muslim world to the use of their religious symbols resulted in self-censorship on the topic of Islam.
“It is interesting that this is how things are. I really think it is telling us something about our time. A fear has appeared, a McCarthy-like history has arrived in which political correctness is an absolute necessity and this political correctness, this story, cannot be disturbed and doesn’t want to see any criticism.”
You can read the entirety of the interview here. Despite the threats to his life and the steps he has had to take to protect himself, Vilks remains unapologetic in his adamant belief in free speech.
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Soyini A. Hamit is a comic fan, a writer, and a 2015 J.D. candidate at Phoenix School of Law.