Thursday, February 02, 2006

The cartoon debate heats up

At first it was a war of words and images. Offensive cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. After the first wave of anger swept through the Islamic world and the Danish press and government retreated behind an apology, it appeared that the anger would die down.

But then some members of the media decided that the issue of free speech was of greater importance than the risk of causing offence. The Germans, Dutch, Norwegians Italians, Spanish, Swiss, Hungarians, Icelanders and French republished the cartoons and what had been a war of words boiled over - off the page and onto the streets.

Palestinian gunmen from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades snatched a German national from his hotel lobby. The German national, 21 year old human rights activist Christopher Kasten, was released shortly afterwards. Demonstrations and flag burnings have taken place in many countries. More are planned. Morocco's Islamic associations will stage a sit-in to deplore the "blasphemous" cartoons.

In Gaza City, more than 50 Palestinian gunmen stormed the European Union office Thursday and said they were closing it down "until further notice" to protest against the cartoons. At the same time, militants, from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Islamic Jihad, said "We give the three governments (Denmark, Norway and France) a 48-hour ultimatum to officially apologize to Muslims, and if not, every citizen of these three countries would be a target for our fire."

In Damascus, about 300 Syrians staged a sit-in in front of the Danish embassy in Damascus. The protesters carried banners calling for the boycott of Danish products unless Denmark issued an official apology for the cartoons.

In Pakistan, Muslims announced plans for natiowide demonstrations for Friday. Publication of the cartoons "is an insult to the entire Muslim Ummah and we must boycott the Danish government politically and economically," said Liaqat Baloch, a central leader of the religio-political party Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal.

Diplomatic reaction also took place with several Muslim countries have recalled their ambassadors in outcry of the cartoons. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said it had closed its consulate on the West Bank for public visits because of the threats, and was considering evacuating staff.

In Morocco a demonstration will be held on Friday afternoon before the Parliament building in Rabat. Morocco also banned the distribution of the Wednesday edition of the French daily, France Soir, which republished insulting cartoons.

Meanwhile the editor of the France Soir has been fired for republishing the offensive cartoons of the Prophet.

"We express our regrets to the Muslim community and all people who were shocked by the publication of the cartoons," Egyptian-born Raymond Lakah, the paper's owner, said. He decided to "remove Jacques Lefranc as managing director of the publication as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual."

Earlier this week, the Moroccan Supreme Council of Ulemas condemned the publication of the satirical cartoons, deeming it a provocative act against Muslims' feelings.

French Muslim leaders denounced in unison the reprinting of the cartoons and vowed to take the case to French courts.

"We call on French Muslims to peacefully protest this aggression on the Prophet of Islam," the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM) said in a statement after a meeting chaired by its head Dalil Boubackeur.

Boubakeur's call was echoed by Lhaj Thami Breze, the head of the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF), who blasted the provocative and unnecessary publication.

The Muslim world's two main political bodies, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League, said they were seeking a UN resolution, backed by possible sanctions, to protect religions in response to the furore.

Within the Islamic world opinion is divided on only one issue - how to describe the offence that has been caused. Many authorities and commentators have used the word "blasphemy" while others have been more circumspect. And if you thought this was a strictly northern hemisphere event then think again. Imams from as far away from the epicentre weighed in pronouncing that the cartoons were not "blasphemous" and did not require some sort of fatwah - but they were extremely offensive.


What is possibly difficult for the Islamic world to understand is that in the west it is not seen as offensive to make religious figures the subject of ridicule. Religious people may find depictions of Jesus or Buddha, tasteless but very few would condemn their publication. Cartoons in Jewish publications often hold extreme religious teachers in contempt and again, while some might object, it would not cause a major furore.

Many in the west will see the Islamic reaction as further proof of extremism and simply add it to their arsenal of examples with which to underline their disdain for all things Islamic. This is tragic at a time when the Islamic world is desperately in need of bridges to the non-Islamic world, and not further barricades.

Another question underlying this debate is a global one. Is their such a thing as a universal sensibility? Is it even desirable? Are all human rights universal? Yet these are not the questions being asked. Free speech is being trumpeted without concern for the consequences. It is pertinent to ask how the Europeans would react to cartoons that ridiculed the Jewish Holocaust

Despite the anger in the Islamic world, the general tone in Europe is unrepentant. For example, the German government said it won't apologize for German newspapers reprinting controversial cartoons.

"Why should the government apologize for an act of press freedom?" Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble asked in an interview with daily Die Welt, one of several German papers that reprinted cartoons. "If the government interferes with that, then that's the first step to restrict the freedom of the press."

On the other side, the Vice-Chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Muhhamad Amman Hobin, says he believes in press freedom but certain borders shouldn't be overstepped.

"Well I hope that it will not lead to an outburst of violence, as it did for instance in the case of Salman Rushdie's book on the Satanic Verses. But I certainly assure that any Muslim who sees these images will feel deeply hurt and deeply disturbed, and will definitely come to the conclusion that this was done on purpose, it was done not to defend the freedom of the press but to spite the Muslims. This is the feelings that the Muslims will have."

Korsh Becschneider from the Dutch Daily de Volkskrant says his paper also published the cartoons to show readers what the debate was about, but he says it's important for editors to stand together.

"I think it is important. Like today France Soir also published all the cartoons and published also a cartoon of itself. And the more papers do publish these cartoons, I think the harder it becomes for the critics who act against these papers."

Roger Koppel from Die Welt he says it's now a matter of freedom of speech.

"Of course there is one of the core values of how our culture is at stake here. We, in the West, we even subject religious topics to satire and criticism that this is a very important value for us and that we should point it out when we think it's threatened.

Deputy Editor of France Soir Arnaud Levi: "I understand the argument, but the issue here is how do you conciliate as respect such is due to personal beliefs, to religious beliefs on one hand, and on the other hand seek absolute respect that is due to the freedom of the press. And I think everybody would agree that if exceptions and limits have to be put to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, they have to be of a very restrictive interpretation, and I'm sorry to say that I understand that religious belief might forbid representation of Hemet or Allah or even the human being, but it does not apply to the non-believers."

In Norway, the chief editor of Norwegian Christian weekly Magazinet, Vebjorn Selbekka, that recently published the caricatures said that he regretted the publication - but not because it offended Moslems.

"Of course I regret that we have subjected Norwegian citizens to threats, as well as my self and my family. On the other hand, I don't regret exercising my constitutionally protected freedom of speech."

But this principle was targeted by Egyptian leader Mubarak, who was quoted Thursday as saying that freedom of speech must not be used as an excuse to insult religious beliefs.

Mubarak cautioned against the escalation of a what was being seen as a campaign against the Prophet of Islam. A Mubarak spokesman, Sulaiman Awad, said Mubarak stressed that the campaign "will have dire repercussions by stoking the sentiments of the Islamic World and Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere."

The European claim to the right to publish virtually anything in the name of free speech is simplistic. With all freedoms comes responsibility. Knowing in advance that the publication would cause offence and yet still going ahead and doing so, is not just irresponsible, it is provocative.

And as a final thought that maybe puts things in perspective. Here is what Ramzy Baroud said in Egypt’s English-language Al-Ahram Weekly.

"It is discouraging that the collective energy of the Muslim world is consumed punishing a small European country over a drawing, while US military bases infest the heart of the Arab world."

  • GO TO OUR UPDATE: Mohammed Cartoon Crisis Escalates

  • Link to our earlier coverage: The right to caricature God?

  • Link to an interesting Danish site offering both sides of the debate - An open discussion site and information source regarding freedom of speech as it applies to the current situation after the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten published carciatures of the Islamic prophet Mohammed (pbuh)

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