When Donald Trump suggested in 2015 that some American Muslims had cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center, he was roundly denounced. For career politicians of both parties, and for almost everybody in the mainstream media, the notion that any Muslim, anywhere, had celebrated the attacks of 9/11 was appalling.
Surely millions of them had rushed to mosques to pray for the victims. Theirs, after all, is a Religion of Peace that teaches love, compassion, and forgiveness — just like Christianity, only with hijabs, tabouleh, and prayer rugs. And of course they’re all every bit as patriotic as any other American.
On Sunday, Swedish artist Lars Vilks, world-famous for a 2007 cartoon showing Muhammed as a dog, died in a freak car crash on the E4 highway near Markaryd, 60 miles northeast of Malmö. He was in a car with two Swedish police officers. Reportedly, one of the cops was driving the car at very high speed when it swerved and crashed through a barrier onto the opposite lane and smashed into a truck, also moving fast. There was an explosion, fire. Vilks and both police officers died in the accident — if, indeed, it was an accident.
Vilks was in the car with the cops because, like others who have blasphemed the prophet of Islam, he was a marked man who needed round-the-clock security. This was, note well, no imagined or exaggerated need. Al-Qaida put a $100,000 bounty on his head. Assassination attempts in 2009 and 2010 went awry. Participants in yet another plot were arrested in Ireland before they could make their move. In two separate incidents, Vilks was assaulted and his house firebombed.
Then, in 2015, he was at a Copenhagen event commemorating the Charlie Hebdo massacre when a man sent to dispatch him with a semi-automatic rifle killed two fellow participants before police took him down. Partly because others had died because of a plot against him, Vilks withdrew afterwards from public events.
Many admirers of Vilks, who was 75, deeply lamented his loss online, some of them voicing the belief that the freedom of expression for which he had so greatly sacrificed will forever endure. Endure? It’s been on the decline for years, with no sign of a turnaround.
Douglas Murray made the important point that Vilks “should never have been in this situation, and if other artists and others across Europe had not been such cowards then he never would have been.” One Swedish writer lamented that that country’s creative community had never given him the support they owed him.
But there were also many who — yes — celebrated. Hamza A. Tzortzis, a British Muslim author and commentator who has appeared on the BBC programs The Big Questions and Newsnight and who claims to be “a peaceful hippie,” responded on Twitter — where he’s blue-checked — with a quote from the Quran: “Indeed, We have granted you ‘O Prophet’ abundant goodness. So pray and sacrifice to your Lord ‘alone.’ Only the one who hates you is truly cut off ‘from any goodness.’”
Another blue-check, Gothenburg-based physician and writer Saleem Javid, wrote: “While the right to freedom of speech should be protected, it is also worth mentioning that Vilks was cozying up with rightwing extremists, racists, homophobes and islamophobes from Scandinavia to North America. He was not an impartial artist, to say the least.”
Lahore-based writer, activist, and motivational speaker Farah Khan was blunter. “The right to freedom of expression is not — and should not be — without limitations,” she opined, noting with pleasure that Vilks had “failed to escape dreadful death even in police protection. Burn to hell Lars Vilks.”
Other responses on Twitter were more concise. “Rot in hell you scumbag” was typical. The words “great news” were all over the place.
Readers familiar with the many Quranic passages that delight — almost orgasmically — in the thought of infidels in hellfire will not be surprised that many of the tweets about Vilks summoned such images. Pictures and GIFs of fires, and photos of the fiery crash itself, were posted alongside repugnant comments. “This crash looks like art,” read one. “Buuuurn you bastard.”
Another read: “Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks . . . was prepared for hell by burning.” And a third read: “Lars Vilks [is] no more and now he is in the [sic] hell.”
A common theme was that Vilks’s death was divine payback. “This is a sermon and a lesson for those who attack the Messenger of God!!” proclaimed one Twitter user. “Police protection can’t save you from Allah!” warned another. “Allah SWT will not allow His beloved to be insulted,” asserted a third.
Of course, all of these commentators have a right to express their opinions. That’s the principle for which Vilks stood, after all, and for which he sacrificed so much.
In fact, it’s a good thing that these pious folks recorded their happiness at Vilks’s terrible death. In doing so, they’ve given us a vivid glimpse into the minds of at least a part of the umma — the worldwide community of Muslims. Anyone who dived into Vilks-related Muslim tweets thinking that the Quran is made up of passages like the Sermon on the Mount surely had a steep learning curve.
These brutal tweets have also accomplished another important thing. They’ve made it absolutely impossible to believe that there weren’t a significant number of Muslims who kicked up their heels 20 years ago when the Twin Towers came crashing down.