Posted on February 3, 2006

European Elite Scrambles to Defuse Furore Over Caricatures Of Muhammad

Guardian (London), Feb. 3, 2006

Pakistani religious students burn an effigy of Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in Multan to condemn the publication of cartoons of Muhammad. Photograph: Khalid Tanveer/AP

Europe’s political elite were scrambling last night to contain the furore across the Arab world at the publication of caricatures of Muhammad, with leaders stressing that freedom of the press did not mean freedom to cause offence.

With newspaper editors in half a dozen countries unrepentant at the decision to republish cartoons depicting the prophet, EU commissioners stepped in to berate the press and try to calm Muslim anger.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, where the cartoons were first published last autumn, said in an interview with al-Arabiya television that there had been no intention to offend. “We deeply respect all religions, including Islam, and it is important for me to tell you that the Danish people have no intention to offend Muslims,” he said.

The EU also entered the fray. Peter Mandelson, the trade commissioner, said that newspapers had been deliberately provocative in republishing the drawings. Franco Frattini, the EU justice commissioner, said that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had been “imprudent” to publish the 12 cartoons on September 30. Publication was wrong, he said, “even if the satire used was aimed at a distorted interpretation of religion, such as that used by terrorists to recruit young people, sometimes to the point of sending them into action as suicide bombers”.

Even Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, was drawn into the debate, saying that freedom of the press should not be an excuse for insulting religions.

But not everyone was acquiescent. France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said he preferred “an excess of caricature to an excess of censure”.

In Britain, the BBC and Channel 4 broadcast some of the images in footage of the newspapers carrying the cartoons. No British newspaper has yet published a cartoon, but British Muslim leaders still expressed their alarm at the drawings yesterday. Ahmed Sheikh, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, called for a message to condemn Jyllands-Posten.

“We need a simple message to the Muslim community which condemns that newspaper,” he said. In France, Dalil Boubakeur said the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which he heads, was considering legal action. “The prophet of Islam did not found a terrorist religion, on the contrary.”

Newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway and Switzerland have run some or all of the cartoons first commissioned by Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, Flemming Rose. He explained last night that the idea had been to invite artists to portray the prophet as they saw him. He has insisted that the debate goes to the heart of how compatible Islam is with the modern secular societies of Europe, in which satire and freedom of expression are deeply cherished values.

In Germany, Die Welt newspaper, which published one of the caricatures on its front page on Wednesday, ran it again yesterday on page three. Several other German papers, including the left-leaning Der Tagesspiegel, have printed another cartoon. It shows a line of ragged suicide bombers arriving in heaven, only to hear the prophet Muhammad tell them: “Stop stop, we’re out of virgins.”

Opinion in Germany has hardened in favour of editors daring to publish. “It is apparent that the demonstrations are the biggest, and the diplomatic reactions the most vehement, in countries where authoritarian regimes are under domestic pressure from Islamist opposition forces,” Boris Kalnoky wrote in Die Welt.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung went further, calling for the caricatures to be published in as many newspapers as possible. Urging “Europe-wide solidarity”, it said: “Religious fundamentalists who do not respect the difference between satire and blasphemy have a problem not only with Denmark, but with the entire western world.”

The French tabloid France Soir, which originally said it would not apologise for printing the images, did so but only after its managing director, Jacques Lefranc, was sacked by its owner, Raymond Lakah.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has condemned the decision by some European newspapers to reproduce cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as “disrespectful”.

But he praised the UK media for its “considerable responsibility and sensitivity” for not publishing them.

He said freedom of speech did not mean an “open season” on religious taboos.

Hundreds of British Muslims are protesting outside the Danish embassy in London. The cartoons first appeared in a Danish newspaper.

Among the images which have sparked outcry is one of Muhammad with a turban-shaped bomb on his head.

They have sparked protests across the Middle East.

On Thursday night a protest was held outside the BBC’s Television Centre, after the corporation aired “glimpses” of the images, which it said it used “responsibly”.

The editor of the Danish paper which first carried them has apologised, but newspapers in Spain, Italy, Germany and France have reprinted the material in a show of support.

‘Religious taboos’

Speaking after talks with the Sudanese foreign minister, Mr Straw said: “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that.

“But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.

“I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.

“There are taboos in every religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of all aspects of Christian rites and rituals in the name of free speech.

“Nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of rights and rituals of the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh religion.

“It should not be the case in respect of the Islamic religion either.

“We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.”

‘Question of judgement’

UK Muslims have denied that the reaction to the cartoons’ reproduction has been a threat to freedom of speech.

It was a “question of exercising good judgement”, said Inayat Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Britain.

Mr Bunglawala told the BBC that any kind of cartoon that was derogatory to a race or group in a stereotypical way was “unacceptable”.

“Of course Europe has the right to freedom of speech, and of course newspapers have the right to publish offensive cartoons. This was really a question about exercising good judgment,” he said.

“Knowing full well the nature of these cartoons, they were offensive, deeply offensive to millions of Muslims, these newspaper editors should have exercised better judgment.

“Instead they have created a storm. This situation is ripe for exploitation by extremists.

“There is already a lot of tension between the Muslim world and Europe due to the war in Iraq and the current threat against Iran. It all comes at a very difficult time.”