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Lars Vilks

The news that Swedish artist Lars Vilks was the target of a murder plot being planned in Ireland following the arrest of four men and three women in Waterford and Cork, would not have come as much of a surprise here in Sweden.

Vilks created controversy in 2007 with his cartoon of the head of the Prophet Mohammad on the body of a dog. Later that year, an Al Qaeda faction leader put a $100,000 bounty on his head. Vilks has been under police protection ever since. The Irish Times recently called him ‘an artist who courts controversy with the same ease as the rest of us draw breath,’ and reported his defiant response to news of the alleged murder plot against him.

His works are well known here in Sweden – one hangs in my bedroom here in Sundsvall where I am on holiday. It’s a painting and shows a pile of drift wood on a beach. He often upsets the authorities by building ‘unauthorised sculptures’ in unlikely settings.

Media reaction to the death threat and arrests (three of the arrested have subsequently been released without charge) has been widespread with reports and commentary in the press and programmes debating the issues on public service television.

There are of course a wide range of opinions, but my attentin has been drawn to the leader in the local ‘independent liberal’ Sundsvalls Tidning of 11 March under the heading ‘Defend the freedom’. It starts by approvingly quoting Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who has come out against the death threats and on the side of those who are threatened (in this case Vilks). The leader concludes by also defending the rights of artists and writers to freedom of expression without reservation. However, it warns that the consequences of such ridicule can be a greater polarisation of debate between communities, leading to the radicalisation and alienation of more sections of the Muslim community.