Anger over Danish cartoons that satirized the Prophet Muhammad continues to swell across the Muslim world and in countries with sizable Muslim-minority populations. The 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet as a terrorist first appeared at the end of September in a small Danish newspaper. In October Muslim ambassadors complained to the Danish Prime Minister. In mid-January a Norwegian paper reprinted the cartoons, and on February 1, a few papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain also reprinted them. This month demonstrations – often violent, with injuries and occasional loss of life – have erupted in more than a dozen countries. And Danish embassies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran have been attacked.
Those supporting the right to publish – or republish – the controversial cartoons say the principle of freedom of the press takes precedence over the religious conviction of Muslims that any depiction of the Prophet constitutes a sacrilege. Patrick Jarreau of the daily newspaper Le Monde said French people typically favor freedom of the press above all other considerations when evaluating the merits of republishing the cartoons. Speaking with host Judith Latham, of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Patrick Jarreau explained that France has a tradition of separation of church and state, and the freedom to criticize religion is highly valued. But France also has a large Muslim minority – nearly 10 percent – and there is “no use feeding the kind of anger that extremists in the world benefit from.” He added that his own paper had published an editorial stating that freedom of the press includes freedom of caricature, but it must be neither racist nor offensive to a group of people.
Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, a columnist with the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, noted that the political uproar now circling the globe began as genuine anger among people in the Muslim world, although it took more than 4 months to ignite. She said she thinks it was orchestrated for the benefit of various governments in the Muslim world, which are “basically dictatorships” and would prefer to have their citizens’ rage directed towards the West. At the same time, Mona Eltahawy noted that Muslims are understandably upset at the way the Prophet was portrayed, although she questioned why the anger was “so exaggerated.” She suggested that a “state-and-the-mosque dynamic” might be in play and noted that religious symbols are associated with the only kind of opposition the average person in the Muslim world believes has any effect on “their various dictators.” She said her main worry is that both sides are trying to portray the controversy as a clash of civilizations.
Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said he thinks the obligation to defend freedom of speech must be paired with another obligation – to use freedom responsibly and try not to fuel ethnic and religious hatred. Furthermore, what is being revealed in the discussion is that there is a lot of misunderstanding between the majority population in European countries and the Muslim-minority population. He said the majority feels it is important to defend freedom of expression, while the minority feels it is neither “integrated nor really respected.” Mr. Rueb said his own paper decided not to republish the Danish cartoons, and most media outlets in Germany – as in the United States – have reported on them but not republished them.
The American-Muslim community has expressed its rejection of violence in response to the defamatory cartoons. Last Friday a State Department spokesman called the cartoons “offensive,” but added that the United States “vigorously defends” individuals’ right of expression. At the White House on Wednesday, President Bush and Jordan’s King Abdullah called for the violence to stop. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Iran and Syria of exploiting the international controversy.
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