Yesterday’s assassination attempt on historian and journalist Lars Hedegaard elicited a strong reaction from Danish media outlets and politicians, who uniformly offered the 70-year-old their support.
Hedegaard is well known for having a low opinion of Islam and in 2010 he was charged with racism after making scathing and derogatory remark about Muslims and Islam in an interview – after being found guilty by the Eastern High Court, he was let off by the Supreme Court last year.
Hedegaard’s gunman posed as mailman before pulling a gun and firing a shot that missed. Hedegaard claims to have fought back against his attacker, who fled after repeatedly fumbling his weapon and now remains at large.
But while the assassin's motivations remain unknown, Danish media and politicians, including PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne), found it hard not to make a connection Hedegaard’s controversial views.
“The attack against Lars Hedegaard is a deplorable action that I highly condemn,” Thorning-Schmidt wrote in a comment to Ritzau. “[But the attack] is even worse if it was an attempt to stop Hedegaard from using his freedom of speech.”
Annette Vilhelmsen, the business minister and the leader of Socialistisk Folkeparti, echoed Thorning-Schmidt.
"Any form of assassination attempt is unacceptable, but political assassinations belong to a category of their own because their goal is not to target an individual person, but rather our entire democracy and freedoms,” Vilhelmsen said. “Lars Hedegaard is a controversial person which is why it’s hard to imagine that the shooting is not politically motivated.”
Liberal Alliance leader Anders Samuelsen went further and argued the attacker had lost their right to remain in Denmark.
“Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of our democracy and we will not tolerate situations in which free speech is threatened with violence,” Samuelsen said. “The attacker – regardless of their residency status and ethnicity – ought to be thrown out of the country.”
Danish newspapers also offered Hedegaard support, although Politiken newspaper chose to distance themselves from his message.
“Lars Hedegaard’s world view is as far from Politiken’s as you could imagine,” the newspaper stated in an editorial. “His nonsensical , hateful and degrading statements about Muslims in Denmark are deplorable. But we share the fundamental premise that democratic debate needs to be free and peaceful.”
Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which itself has been the target of politically-motivated attacks since its controversial decision to publish caricatures of Mohammed in 2005, wrote that “no one should be scared away from participating in the debate,” while Berlingske wrote that they stood “shoulder to shoulder with Lars Hedegaard in defence of free speech”.
The assassination attempt quickly made international headlines, particularly in the Netherlands, where Hedegaard has a friend in the controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders, who took to Twitter to voice his support.
“Murder attempt on my friend and Islam critic Lars Hedegaard this morning in Denmark," Wilders wrote. "My thoughts are with him. Long live Lars!”
Wilders sits on the board of the International Free Press Society, the international branch of the Danish Free Press Society (Trykkefrihedsselskabet) that is chaired by Hedegaard.
The assassination attempt is likely to resonate strongly in the Netherlands, which has witnessed two successful assassinations of individuals with strong views of Islam.
Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 in response to his film ‘Submission’ that dealt with violence against women in Muslim societies. His murderer was a Muslim with ties to radical networks. In 2002, Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was known for his anti-Muslim views, was murdered by a far-left activist who said he did it to stop Fortuyn from using Muslims and immigrants as scapegoats to achieve political power.
Denmark is no stranger to attacks like these, however. In 2010 Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard – who drew Mohammed with a bomb in his turban for Jyllands-Posten, one of the most inflammatory images of the ‘Mohammed Crisis’ – was attacked in his home by a man wielding an axe. Westergaard survived by sheltering in a safe room in his house and the attacker was caught and convicted of terrorism last year.
The same year, a Chechen man was injured in a hotel bathroom by his own mail bomb that he was preparing to send to Jyllands-Posten newspaper.
The attack may lead Hedegaard to consider accepting protection from the domestic intelligence agency, PET, which has faced criticism from some sectors of the media for not knowing of the threat against Hedegaard.
Jacob Scharf, the head of PET, responded by conceding that his agency had its limitations.
“PET acknowledges the severity of the attack against the chairman of Trykkefrihedsselskabet, Lars Hedegaard,” Scharf wrote in a press release. “But it will never be possible for PET to offer full protection to people who make controversial statements in the public debate and thereby become potential targets of violent extremism.”
Despite almost losing his life because of his extreme views, Hedegaard remains unrepentant.
“I will not bow down to violence, murder or terror,” Hedegaard told the tabloid Ekstra Bladet. “They will not make me change my opinion or get me to shut up. If I did I might as well just lay down and die, and I’m not prepared to do that.”
The latest police press release stated that they were still searching for a Danish-speaking man described as around 25 years old, 175 to 180 cm tall, with a medium build, Middle-Eastern traits, stubble and medium-long dark curly hair that could be a wig. He was wearing a thin red coat reminiscent of those worn by Post Danmark employees.
Police are urging witnesses in the area of the streets Pelargonievej and Azaleavej between 9am and 12pm to come forward. They are also want home owners or businesses nearby who have CCTV installed to come forward.