AFP, March 31, 2006
PARIS — A gang of young Muslims wielding iron rods has forced a Paris cafe to censor an exhibition of cartoons ridiculing religion, the owners of the establishment said Friday.
Some 50 drawings by well-known French cartoonists were installed in the Mer à Boire cafe in the working-class Belleville neighbourhood of northeast Paris, as part of an avowedly atheist show entitled ‘Neither god nor god’.
The collection targeted all religions — including Islam — but there were no representations of the prophet Mohammed such as sparked the recent crisis between the West and the Islamic world, according to Marianne who is one of the cafe’s three owners.
“We used to give glasses of water to a group of local boys aged between 10 and 12 who played football across the street. On Tuesday a few came in, flung the water on the ground and accused us of being racists,” said Marianne, who did not wish to give her family name.
“Later more of them came back with sticks and iron rods and tried to smash the pictures. They managed it with a few of them. With the customers we chased them away, but they kept coming back,” she said.
Later the cafe-owners were approached by a group of older youths.
“They said they did not approve of what the youngsters had done. But what we were doing was unacceptable too. They warned us that if we didn’t take down the cartoons they would call in the Muslim Brothers who would burn the cafe down,” said Marianne.
“They kept saying: ‘This is our home. You cannot act like this here,’“ she said.
Refusing to dismantle the exhibition, the owners have placed white sheets of paper inscribed with the word ‘censored’ over the cartoons that were targeted by the gang.
“To take down the cartoons would have been a surrender. But on the other hand we cannot expose ourselves to this kind of violence. This way you can still see the pictures if you lift the paper,” said Marianne.
One of the cartoons that aroused the wrath of the youths was a bar scene, in which the barman offers a drink to an obviously inebriated man who says “God is great.” The caption is: “The sixth pillar of Islam. The bar pillar.” In France a “bar pillar” is a barfly or drunk.
The aim of the exhibition was to poke fun at all religions, according to cartoonists who took part.
“Putting on this type of show in this place was not in the least a provocation. Unless you think that freedom of expression in itself is a provocation,” the cartoonist Charb told Le Parisien newspaper.
The Belleville neighbourhood of Paris’s 20th arrondissement is racially mixed, with a large population of north African origin, but Marianne said there were few outward signs of religious extremism.
“There are areas near here which do have a reputation for Islamists. But here it’s different. These are street gangs for whom religion has become a kind of mark of identity,” she said.
The owners of the Mer à Boire, which means “the sea you can drink” and opened in September, have filed suit with the police.