Accessibility links

World: Furor Over Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Grows

  • Jeremy Bransten --> A Frenchman reading a Paris newspaper containing the controversial cartoons (epa) The global controversy over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad continues to grow. European newspapers in several countries have now reprinted the original Danish drawings in what they call a show of support for press freedom across the continent. But protests by Muslim organizations and politicians are intensifying across the Middle East. And other groups are also wading into the fray, including the Russian Orthodox Church.

PRAGUE, 2 February 2006 -- The furor sparked by a Danish newspaper’s publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad has sparked a Europe-wide debate about where to draw the line on freedom of expression.

On 1 February, newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain reprinted the cartoons. Some said they took the action in support of "Jyllands Posten," the Danish daily that originally commissioned the caricatures.

Others said they reprinted the cartoons to inform their readers about the dispute.

Passions Inflamed

Regardless, the move has further inflamed passions in the Middle East.

Palestinian gunmen on 2 February besieged the Gaza Strip headquarters of the European Union. The militants scrawled the words "Closed Until Further Notice" on the front door of the building in Gaza City, which had not opened for business for fear of violence.

"The European insults will make all European institutions and their churches in Gaza a target for our [attacks]," said a masked spokesman for the gunmen.

His assertion was punctuated by a volley of gunfire.

Boycott Spreading

To date, Saudi Arabia and Syria have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark, and Libya has closed its embassy. Scandinavian products have been the subject of a boycott in several Arab countries.

Danish-Swedish producer Arla, one of the companies hardest hit by the boycott, says it has already begun laying off workers.

"Muslims of the world, be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam -- these caricatures or pictures of a hostage taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" -- a Jordanian newspaper

There are now fears that other European countries could be targeted.

Seventeen Arab interior ministers, meeting in Tunis on 31 January, urged “firm sanctions” against the offending cartoonists.

In Russia, both the Orthodox Church and the Council of Muftis, which represents 23 million Muslims, condemned European newspapers for printing the drawings. Chechen militants and the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir group have issued their separate condemnations.

Lawsuits, Not Violence

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based organization that defends press freedom across the world, has expressed alarm at the turn of events.

"To threaten people and to accuse a country because a newspaper has published some cartoons or some information that could be interpreted as offensive for one group or another is completely inappropriate," said Annabelle Arki, head of the organization's post-Soviet section.

Arki says freedom of the press, as it is practiced in Europe, includes the right to publish material that may offend particular groups. Those boundaries are tested every day. And if a party feels aggrieved, they can sue the publication in court.

Danish citizens demonstrate carrying a banner reading, "Sorry," on 1 February in Copenhagen

That is the appropriate way to register one’s displeasure, she says, not through boycotts or vigilante justice.

"This is a right anybody can use, so please, if there is any problem with a press publication, there are also laws to solve it," Arki says.

Arki says it is especially ironic that interior ministers from 17 Arab countries, where press freedom is generally repressed, are calling for the cartoonists’ punishment. She says it also shows their disregard for one of the fundamental principles of European democracy.

"This is totally paradoxical," Arki says. "Denmark is one of the countries in the world where press freedom is the most respected. And there is no press freedom or almost no press freedom in Arabic countries, so that’s probably why they cannot understand that a newspaper can be independent from the state and can independently from the state publish information [it chooses]."

French Editor Fired

But the issue is not that simple. The editor of the French newspaper that reprinted the cartoons was fired on 31 January by his publisher, a French-Egyptian, who said everyone’s individual beliefs had to be respected.

And in a first today for the Arab world, a Jordanian newspaper published three of the cartoons.

The editor of “Al-Shihan,” Jihad Momani, accompanied the drawings with this provocative question: "Muslims of the world, be reasonable," he said. "What brings more prejudice against Islam -- these caricatures or pictures of a hostage taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?"

The publishers of "Al-Shihan," contacted by RFE/RL, subsequently condemned the publication of the cartoons and withdrew the remaining issues from circulation. The controversy is sure to continue in the days ahead.

Clash Of Cultures

Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie (epa file photo)

The furor raised by the publication in Europe of cartoons believed by many Muslims to be insulting to Islam is far from being the first time that Western notions of freedom of expression have clashed with Islamic sensibilities. Below are a few of the major incidents in this long-running tension.

2005: London's Tate Britain museum removes from exhibition the "God Is Great #2" sculpture by John Latham for fear of offending Muslims, citing the "sensitive climate" after 7 July suicide bombings in London. The sculpture piece consists of three sacred religious texts -- the Koran, the Bible, and the Talmud -- embedded in a sheet of glass.

2004: Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered after release of his film "Submission" about violence against women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of Dutch parliament who wrote script, plans another film about Islam's attitude to gays. She has also received death threats.

2002: Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel incenses Muslims by writing in "This Day" newspaper that Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the "Miss World" contest and might have wed a beauty queen. Muslim-Christian riots in northern city of Kaduna kill 200. Daniel flees Nigeria after a fatwa urges Muslims to kill her.

1995: An Egyptian court brands academic Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid an apostate because of his writings on Islam and annuls his marriage on grounds that a Muslim may not be married to an apostate. Abu Zaid and his wife move to the Netherlands.

1994: Taslima Nasreen flees Bangladesh for Sweden after court charges her with "maliciously hurting Muslim religious sentiments." Some Muslims demand she be killed for her book "Lajja" (Shame), banned for blasphemy and suggesting free sex.

1989: Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls on all Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Dutch Immigration -- The Death Of Multiculturalism

Report Says No Anti-Muslim Backlash In Europe

Vienna Conference Ends With Appeals For Understanding, Tolerance

A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.