Two years ago the Danish writer Helle Brix helped found the Lars Vilks Committee. The group of media figures from left and right came together to support the Swedish artist who has been under constant threat of death since drawing a picture of Mohammed in 2007.
‘We agreed that Mr Vilks should not be alone in the world,’ says Helle when we spoke earlier this week, ‘and if the establishment or the Swedish artists wouldn’t support him then we would. We wanted to give him a platform and a possibility to do what he used to do before he was unable to go out and meet the public because this is, of course, what disappears when you become a target, you get a lot of security around you and people are afraid to invite you. They are afraid to let you make exhibitions or have public discussions so we simply facilitate meetings in Copenhagen.’ Saturday was their eighth meeting.
Helle was beside Vilks when the shooting started. ‘I didn’t realise at first what was going on. I just said to myself, what on earth is that? And then the security guards, the Swedish security guards — because of course we always have a heavy set-up, people from Danish intelligence services, Swedish intelligence services and armed police. The Swedish security guard, he shouted “Everyone run to the back, as quickly as you can.” He also pushed Lars and me to the end of the doorway into a little storage room, locked the door and there we were under a table, Lars Vilks and I.’
‘A little later a policeman came in and we noticed a lot of blood running down his leg. He was a little confused. Lars and I realised that someone had been hit and we asked, “May we ask how serious this is?” The policeman answered that two security guards from the Danish intelligence service had been hit, a policeman, that it was not serious. But that there was someone else who was seriously hurt and he said, he didn’t look so good. The person who didn’t look so good was a Danish film director, Finn Nørgaard, who was among the audience. He later died. He had gone outside the building to make a phone call or get some fresh air and met the assassin on his way in. He was shot at close range.’
It could have been even worse. ‘I and the other committee members and the audience are enormously grateful for these brave people,’ says Helle. ‘If they hadn’t fired back when the assassin went into the lobby and tried to shoot his way into the room where we were, if they hadn’t done that, putting their lives at stake, many of us would not be alive.’
The gunman escaped and later went to a synagogue where he shot a Jewish man dead. It was the same as Paris. As Helle says: ‘First you go after the cartoonists, second you go after the Jews.’
Helle — who has been a friend of mine for some years — is part of an extraordinary circle of Danish men and women who are determined to stand their ground. They have been doing so for almost a decade. Since 2005, the list of targets has only grown. As well as repeated attempts to attack the Jyllands Posten newspaper, which ran a series of satirical cartoons of Mohammed in 2005, there was the attempted assassination of the Danish writer and historian Lars Hedegaard in 2013.
All these writers and artists are well aware that freedom has enemies these days. Just last year the Vilks committee gave its free speech award to the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose editor came to Copenhagen to collect the prize. On Saturday, the meeting was opened by the French ambassador.
‘The plan was for Inna Shevchenko, the leader of [the feminist activist group] Femen, and Agnieszka Kolek, the art curator, and Lars Vilks to discuss “Is it really worth risking your life for freedom of speech, should there really not be any limits to what we can say, write and draw?" Shevchenko had just started her talk when the shooting began.
What was Helle thinking as she sat under the table with Vilks, holding hands? There were some boxes with beer for the café. ‘Mr Vilks took out a beer and lifted it up and said, well Helle, if we have to stay much longer at least we have something to drink. I was just thinking to myself, “We are going to get out alive”.’
When they were allowed back into the main room, the police said they shouldn’t leave the venue. It was then that Helle noticed the slightly surreal sight of Agnieszka Kolek on the stage doing the Power Point presentation she had been due to give about the ‘Passion for Freedom’, an art exhibition she held in London last year. ‘Agnieszka got the idea: OK, we can’t leave the room so why not discuss freedom of speech?’
‘I’m shocked but I can’t say this attack was a complete surprise,’ Helle admits. ‘Of course if the security people had said look, it’s not wise, we can’t guarantee Mr Vilks’s safety or the audience’s safety, we would not have done so.’
‘But I think the reason for supporting Lars Vilks is that it is not only Lars Vilks we are supporting. He is defending all of society because if he cannot live out his right to freedom of speech then we do not really have, to its full extent, freedom of speech. So he is pointing his finger at why Islam is the only religion to be entitled to stick to this taboo that Islam cannot be criticised, the prophet cannot be depicted and all this?’
Some people say they should stop drawing cartoons. ‘If we should stop drawing cartoons, should we also stop having synagogues, should they be converted into something else? Should we ask the Jewish people to leave or are they leaving already because they rightly so fear for their safety?’
‘I have heard an awful lot of politicians saying an awful lot, but I have not heard many concrete suggestions as to what do we do about this problem. What do we do about the fact that we have a growing number of young Muslims in European countries who are so eager to meet death in paradise and think that jihad is the way, that we can expect so much more of this in the future?’
Will they continue their meetings?
‘Yes, of course.’