(photo credit: AP)
He's offended Muslims worldwide and al-Qaida wants him dead but Swedish artist Lars Vilks said Monday he has no regrets about portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a dog.
Vilks, 61, told The Associated Press he even plans to convert the row over his prophet drawings into a musical, with prominent roles depicting Iran's president, Sweden's prime minister and al-Qaida terrorists.
"A musical comes to mind ... I think it would help the debate," Vilks said after breaking away from a business seminar in southern Sweden.
The eccentric sculptor and academic appeared unfazed by death threats and the risk of rekindling fiery protests that swept across Muslim countries last year against Danish newspaper cartoons of Muhammad.
"Personally I'm not afraid," Vilks said, although he lives in a secret location under police protection. He also admits to looking for bombs underneath his car.
"I think they are trying to frighten people.
That's their (primary) aim," he said of the bounty placed on his head by the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. "Al-Qaida is far away but it could be some sort of challenge for the extremists we have here."
Vilks originally made a series of drawings for an exhibition on the theme of dogs. But the gallery refused to show them, as did several others, citing security concerns.
A Swedish newspaper then printed one of the cartoons on Aug. 19, showing Muhammad's head on a dog's body in an editorial defending the freedom of expression.
Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims, and Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.
Swedish-Muslim groups and governments in Islamic countries such as Iran and Pakistan condemned the drawings. Vilks said he has received numerous death threats through e-mail and phone calls, but added that most of the criticism has been sensible.
"Most Muslims are of course just like other people," said Vilks.
"They are friendly and nice. Even if they are insulted, they still behave civilized," he said. "I'm really the Muslims' friend although they don't like me, and I understand why."
Vilks said Muslims living in the West would have to get used to disrespectful drawings of their religious symbols, "because here in the West we mock everything."
"I think also the Muslims will understand that this is the system we have and it's not really against Muslims, it's just the principle of being able to insult religions."
Vilks is no stranger to controversy.
In the 1980s he built a sculpture made of driftwood in a nature reserve in southern Sweden without permission, triggering a lengthy legal battle. He was fined, but the seaside sculpture, a jumble of wood nailed together in chaotic fashion, draws tens of thousands of visitors a year.