Newspaper cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, first published in Denmark, electrified Europe last winter—angering Muslims and causing an intellectual uproar. It pitted two cherished Western values, freedom of expression and religious tolerance, against each other—as the Muslim world grieved over violence in the Middle East and Iraq. But the dispute was never clearly resolved.
Now, with feelings still slightly raw in Europe’s neighborhoods, the cartoon case is echoing in a Paris court—over a satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, that reprinted the cartoons exactly a year ago. Charlie Hebdo’s cover depicted the prophet covering his eyes, next to the line, “Mohammed overwhelmed by extremists,” and thinking to himself, “It is hard to be worshiped by idiots.”
In the heat of the moment two French Muslim groups filed suit, citing laws forbidding injury caused by religious slander that carry fines and a sentence.
The trial raises larger questions about how far Europe is or should be accommodating values claimed by the Muslim world. But in the current election season here it has turned into a hot platform for French candidates to espouse issues like free speech. Every leading candidate made an appearance, including front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy, who wrote a note saying he’d rather have “an excess of [cartoon] caricatures, than an absence of caricatures.”
A ruling in favor of the Muslim groups, though unlikely, would cut deeply against strong French beliefs in free expression and separation of church and state—given voice in a letter signed Monday by 50 intellectuals. Yet France is changing. A poll by Catholic weekly Pelerin this week found 79 percent agreeing it is “unacceptable to ridicule a religion publicly.”
Indeed, while French intellectuals may have adopted an absolute position against abridgement of free speech—Europe’s actual approach to the issue has dramatically reversed in the past decade.
Ethnologist Jeanne Favret-Saada of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and author of a forthcoming book on the Danish cartoons says, “We Europeans have completely changed positions on secular versus religious issues, and on freedom of expression. During the fatwa on [Salman] Rushdie in 1989 [for his book “The Satanic Verses”], there was unanimity on the question of free expression. It was not debated. But today part of the left has taken the view that the Danish paper was racist.”
Yet if anything, the two traditionally moderate Muslim groups bringing suit, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, and the Grand Mosque, now feel hard pressed. They are pressured to fight for Muslim interests by their constituency. And they got initial support from Mr. Chirac. But they didn’t count on the current media circus in France, sources say, and many feel that their high-profile protestations ironically cast them in the extremist image they want to counter. On Wednesday, the Muslim plaintiffs didn’t even attend the trial.
Charlie Hebdo was not the first or the only French media outlet to publish the cartoons. Two TV stations and the national daily newspaper Le Monde ran them. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons appeared after the editor of the daily France Soir was fired for publishing them—and as a protest against the “weak” response by the European Union to attacks on Danish embassies in the Muslim states.
Some students visiting from Toulouse, however, said that while freedom of expression was an important right it should not impinge so far that it caused pain to others.