Physical depictions of the prophet Muhammad, even when respectful in nature, are considered blasphemous and highly insulting to many followers of Islam, but Vilks has never shied away from drawing them, according to the Associated Press. Though he also creates conceptual sculptures in nature reserves in Sweden, Vilks has said he doesn’t believe in sidestepping controversy.
“As an artist, you have to take a stand for things,” Vilks, who has a PhD in art history, said in 2010, according to USA Today. “If you do something, you have to take full responsibility for it. I’m actually not interested in offending the prophet. The point is actually to show that you can. There is nothing so holy you can’t offend it.”
The death threats began in 2007, when Vilks drew several cartoons that were published in Swedish newspapers that depicted the prophet as a dog, according to BBC News. In response, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq offered more than $100,000 if Vilks was “slaughtered like a lamb,” according to the BBC.
In 2009, he was the subject of an assassination plot by a group of Muslim converts, prompting him to leave for a “remote hideaway” in Sweden, according to Russia Today.
Vilks, who reportedly sleeps with an ax by his bedside and booby-traps his art with electrified barbed wire, has also constructed a safe room patterned after a design used that reportedly saved Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
When a reporter from Russia Today caught up with Vilks, he appeared on film matter-of-factly discussing his safety with the ax in his hand.
“It could be that someone tried to do something at nighttime,” he told RT.
In 2010, two men attempted to burn down Vilks’s residence and were later imprisoned for attempted arson, according to the BBC. Later that year, he was assaulted by Muslim protesters during a lecture about free speech at Uppsala University in Sweden, according to the BBC. The incident was captured on video (below):
In 2011, three more men were arrested in Sweden for plotting to kill the artist, and last year a Pennsylvania woman began a 10-year prison term for hatching another plot to end Vilks’s life. Ever the satirist, Vilks appeared to take the threat in stride, striking an amused tone when discussing Colleen LaRose, the plot’s mastermind, who is also known as “Jihadi Jane,” according to CSM.
“They have this woman also, which I think is a good part of the plot with this fantastic name, ‘Jihad Jane,’ who is actually doing some scouting there in the surroundings,” he said. You have something of a film there, but … I believe they’re a bit low-tech.”
Vilks’s name surfaced again in the wake of the attack in January on the satirical French newsweekly Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 dead, including Stephane Charbonnier, who Vilks had recently met for the first time. As he told Russia Today in an interview after the attack, the killing touched him.
“For me this is very personal because I have just heard that the editor has been shot and I met him because he was a prize winner. There is a prize in my name that is called the Golden Dog for Freedom of Expression and he received that in Copenhagen a few months ago. So I met him and we talked a lot during that time, so it’s really kind of a personal loss.“The consequences of this will be that people become more fearful. I have problems when I have lectures or exhibitions as most things are canceled because of fright. This occasion here will make things even worse and people will be very scared after what has happened. This could also cause problems with censorship because who would dare to publish anything after what has happened?”
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, increased security concerns have led even fewer organizations to invite him for guest lectures, according to the Associated Press. Twenty-four-hour security provides Vilks with some sense of calm, but he is never fully at ease.
“Police protection doesn’t offer a 100 percent guarantee, as we saw with Charlie Hebdo, but it goes pretty far,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t have to lie awake at night listening for odd sounds.”