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Cartoon Of Prophet Muhammad Dogs Swedish Artist

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going next to a pair of countries facing an increase in attacks by Islamists. The attacks are notable even though most were intercepted or failed. These two small and usually peaceful countries are under pressure mainly because some Scandinavian newspapers have published cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. The countries are Denmark and Sweden.

NPR's Philip Reeves went to see one man who has drawn himself into the fight.

PHILIP REEVES: Lars Vilks lives in a small country house near the mouth of the Baltic Sea. Outside, the fields are cloaked in ice and the gloom of a winter's afternoon. Inside, Vilks sits on a chair, showing off his drawings.

Mr. LARS VILKS (Artist): This is done in a more academic style. This is the prophet in front of St. Peter's Place.

REEVES: Next to him, he has an axe. A panic button lies on the table. Vilks is ready for anything. In December, a suicide bomber attacked Sweden's capital, Stockholm. The bomber, an Iraqi-born Swede, only succeeded in killing himself. But it was a close thing. Dozens could have died.

The bomber left a message saying his mission was to avenge the presence of Swedish troops in Afghanistan and the work, he said, of the pig Lars Vilks. Back home, Vilks tightened his security.

Mr. VILKS: Now I have guards around the clock. And I cannot leave my house without permission, so I have to plan things carefully and be carried around.

REEVES: Vilks is 64. His life's been under threat since a newspaper published one of his drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a dog. Muslims worldwide found this profoundly offensive. That was back in 2007. Since then, Vilks has been assaulted at a lecture. Two men tried to torch his home. An American woman stands accused of plotting to kill him, and al-Qaida's put a price on his head of $150,000. Yet the Stockholm suicide bomber gave Vilks a particular jolt.

Mr. VILKS: I thought I was forgotten. But that's the mistake. I mean you believe that you're forgotten but actually you're not.

REEVES: The Swedish public hasn't forgotten Vilks either. Many Swedes wrote to him and said his actions had jeopardized people's lives.

Mr. VILKS: I got a lot of letters about it, an email, on my blog and everything, said: Are you satisfied now? You are the problem, and how do you feel with that responsibility?

REEVES: Vilks insists he's not the problem and that an important principle's at stake about freedom of expression and democracy.

Mr. VILKS: It is that in a democracy you cannot have decision made from terrorists. They shouldn't tell a democracy what to do and what not to do.

REEVES: There's more to this. Vilks walks across to his computer and logs on to Facebook.

Sweden has several hundred thousand Muslims, among them alienated and sometimes radicalized youngsters. Vilks says he's engaged in a daily running debate with some of them.

Mr. VILKS: I let them enter because I want to have them there. And they have an extremely rude language.

There's one guy here. He starts by saying you're a fag. I reply then, are you a racist? You are. No, I said. I just criticize religion, and you look down on a group of persons. Thus, you're a racist. Well, you hurt millions of people and you hide behind freedom of expression. You are a weak person, you are a coward.

REEVES: Vilks says these strange, usually ugly conversations allow him to make a connection.

Mr. VILKS: We have kind of a mission here, because they don't get this in school, they have no chance, they are isolated. You have to do something, because this is really bad, that you meet them with these attitudes.

REEVES: Vilks also gets phone calls. He says a lot of callers start out abusing him and then calm down.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. VILKS: He has asked me, what are you going to do? Are you going to make pictures? You draw pictures?

REEVES: Vilks considers all this, his drawings and the violent and angry reaction to them, as part of a continuously developing conceptual work of art and seems oddly detached from the possible consequences.

Mr. VILKS: My art work is the whole procedure, the whole process going on and what it comes to, so I mean I see my situation also as an outcome. Everything that happens is interesting artistically.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. VILKS: They asked me what do you think of al-Qaida?

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. VILKS: If you look at art and take it seriously, it is some sort of risky business because the idea of art is to be transgressive; you have to challenge the borders, and you have many examples of artists who actually have challenged the political systems.

REEVES: Vilks' high-risk - some say irresponsible experiment - could last for years. No one knows how it will end, including Vilks.

Mr. VILKS: For me, I mean, it's more about what's ahead, what will, how will it develop? What will come next?

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.