Even on a campus that’s hosted more than its fair share of controversial figures, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s Sept. 29 visit stood out as a sensitive undertaking.
Westergaard’s drawing of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban outraged many in the Middle East and Africa in 2005. Ultimately, more than 200 people died during anti-Danish riots.
The cartoonist’s road to Princeton began in early September when an alumnus told Dan May ’11, the editor-in-chief of American Foreign Policy magazine, about Westergaard’s interest in speaking to students during a brief trip to New York. May then asked the Whig-Clio Society to co-sponsor the event.
The society accepted. “This is something that really adds to the dialogue on campus, and dialogue in general on freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the place of Islam in the Western media,” Whig-Clio president Ben Weisman ’11 said.
Westergaard has received scores of death threats, and the timing of the Princeton event — the fourth anniversary of the cartoon’s publication — further increased the security challenge. Only about 100 students and faculty who had registered in advance could attend the speech; they were thoroughly searched by police who were brought in to secure Whig Hall.
Westergaard, his cartoon projected behind him, delivered pointed commentary about what he saw as the growing threat of “Islamism” in the West.
Organizers invited Sohaib Sultan, coordinator for Muslim life, to offer a reflection after the speech. “My opinion as a devout Muslim is that I find the cartoons to be an offensive portrayal of a figure that is very revered in Islam,” Sultan said.
In the end — and in contrast with Yale, where Westergaard’s appearance the next day was met with student demonstrations — the Muslim Student Association and other groups decided not to protest the event.