The assassin came to his home dressed as a postman. When the historian and journalist Lars Hedegaard opened his front door, the man — whom Lars describes as ‘looking like a typical Muslim immigrant’ in his mid-twenties — fired straight at his head. Though Hedegaard was a yard away, the bullet narrowly missed. The mild-mannered scholar (70 years old) then punched his assailant in the head. The man dropped the gun, picked it up and fired again. The gun jammed and the man ran off. More than a week later, he has yet to be found.
Hedegaard has had to leave his home and is under police protection at an undisclosed location. A week after the attempt to murder him we manage to speak by phone.
‘We have had quite a few attempts to silence people here. [The Danish cartoonist] Kurt Westergaard was almost killed a couple of years ago by a man from Somalia who came to his house and broke into it with an axe and tried to kill him. We still have prominent politicians under police guard, the former leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjærsgaard, and also the former Conservative politician Naser Khader, who is of Syrian descent, a liberal Muslim. And now me.’
A well-known figure in Denmark, Hedegaard’s profile rose after the mainstream media’s capitulation in the wake of the Mohammed cartoons affair. He set up the Free Press Society, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of journalists and cartoonists to express themselves without fear of murder. When I addressed them in Copenhagen a couple of years ago, I was given a thank-you present of a mug with the cartoon of Mohammed’s face on the side: a Mo mug. Hedegaard recently launched a newspaper called Dispatch International, which aims to break the silence of the Scandinavian media over issues to do with the EU, climate change, immigration and Islam. Two years ago Hedegaard was put on trial for ‘hate-speech’. He was unanimously acquitted.
But given the areas he has dealt in and what has happened to his colleagues, did he not guess that something like this might -happen?
‘I never speculated about that, because you can’t live your life that way. If every time you sit down to your computer to write something you have this idea in the back of your head, “I may be killed if I write this”, then of course you won’t be as good as you could be. You’ve got to distance yourself from fear if you want to be a true writer and a true intellectual, which is what I’m trying to be.’
And why do people keep trying to silence such defenders of free speech in Denmark, Holland and across Europe? He paraphrases the historian Bernard Lewis: ‘The leaders of the Ummah [Islamic nation] now evidently believe, or want to demonstrate, that Sharia law has already gained force in places like Denmark. In other words it has supplanted our constitution in their minds. Of course it didn’t use to be that way, it used to be the way that you could draw Mohammed or paint him or say whatever you wanted in the Dar al-Harb [‘The Land of War’ — as opposed to the ‘Land of Islam’] because this was outside what Islam considered to be its territory. Now they are implicitly claiming that we are already under Sharia law.’
But what of those who say, ‘Well, he ought to have known. This is what happens if you upset or provoke people’?
‘I don’t want to brag and put myself on a level where I don’t belong, but you could have said the same thing about the White Rose in Germany, the resistance group. They ought to have known that if they said something about Nazism, they would be killed. Or you could say the same thing about the Danish resistance movement during the German occupation. It was said to them: do not go out and sabotage. Collaborate and shut up, otherwise you’ll get to a concentration camp and you’ll be executed. You could have said the same thing to Winston Churchill or the British Army — why the hell make trouble? You know what’s going to happen if you resist — you’ll be killed. Yes, and many of them were.’
‘It’s not because I’m a hero or I want to be a martyr. Far from it. I take it seriously that people, Danish taxpayers many years ago, paid for me to get a university education at a very good university in Denmark, where I learnt about history, humanities, logic and philosophy, and English by the way. I feel an obligation to use my education for what it was meant to be. If not, then you don’t deserve to be educated. If your education is to be used to shut up, placate, downplay, sweet talk, then you are better off being a carpenter.’
And what of the media, which — particularly after the smears around the failed prosecution — have regularly portrayed him as a bigot? Do they have any culpability in this? Hedegaard is reluctant to apportion secondary blame, but finally says this:
‘You can certainly say that if you are constantly presented as an enemy of the people, as I have been, then you are fair game for any lunatic. You cannot blame some lunatics for thinking that you can easily come and kill me, because if you read all this day in and day out, year in and year out, the man is an absolute lunatic and full of lies and bile and what not, you can get him with impunity. Yes, of course I think it plays a role.’
And what happens now? ‘Well, the paper survives, we are more determined than ever that they should not take us down, come what may. What happens to me, I don’t know. I am fully prepared to stay alive to the best of my ability and I am more eager than ever to write my opinion and try to bring it across. Somebody must not like what I’m saying, so that’s all the more reason to continue saying it.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013