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World: Western, Eastern Media View Cartoon Crisis As Test Of Values

  • Jeremy Bransten

http://gdb.rferl.org/A930F87C-2EA0-494F-A985-DDA6645069F7_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/A930F87C-2EA0-494F-A985-DDA6645069F7_mw800_mh600.jpg (epa) Media in the West and East are reacting very differently to the crisis over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Newspapers in many European countries have now reprinted at least some of the drawings, framing the issue in terms of freedom of speech. But many media outlets in the Middle East and other majority-Muslim regions are expressing solidarity with the religious values of their societies instead.

PRAGUE, 3 February 2006 -- Many Europeans believe the French philosopher Voltaire said it best over two centuries ago when he declared, "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."

That declaration is seen by many as emblematic of the secular, humanist values that the continent should live by -- and defend as a core principle.
"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?" -- Jordanian editor


That is why all across Europe, more and more newspapers say they have chosen to reprint the controversial cartoons that were first commissioned by a Danish newspaper. Newspapers in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria today joined the list.

In recent days, media in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal reprinted or showed the controversial caricatures on television.

Miklos Haraszti, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, today defended the traditional right of a free press to publish satirical cartoons, even if they depict figures in established religions.

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief of the German newspaper "Die Welt," on 2 February explained his decision to reprint the cartoons. "I believe that for a newspaper like we are it's important to point out that freedom of expression, the right of free speech is important even though some people can get hurt," he said.

Koeppel stressed that the aim of European newspapers, in reprinting the cartoons, is not to offend Muslims. But he said Muslims must understand that the European tradition of open debate and discussion requires tolerance of others' opinions, including potentially offensive speech.

"I respect fully everybody who feels insulted by this caricature, but we have to see the dimensions of it, and the dimension is that journalists receive death threats, a country has been blackmailed, and I think it would also be the responsibility of the spiritual leaders of the Muslim world to calm down their people and to explain what the traditions are in our world that make it possible that such caricatures are published and what it means when such caricatures are published. It doesn't mean that the West are against the people of Islam," Koeppel said.

The largest Czech daily, "Mlada fronta Dnes," is one of the papers that reprinted the drawings today. It also featured a guest editorial by local columnist Milan Vodicka who writes, "We are all a little Danish today." Vodicka calls the controversy "a clash of civilizations in a nutshell."

Again, he paraphrases Voltaire by noting that although the cartoons may be distasteful, Europeans understand satire and tolerate it -- even when it strikes at their own sacred cows. Historically, this was not always the case, he notes. But he argues that Europe has evolved in its ability to tolerate dissent and this, he says, is the central difference between East and West.

In answer to the boycott of Danish products by many Middle Eastern consumers, Vodicka urges his readers to "buy some Danish cheese or build something out of Lego."

That view is certainly not shared in the Middle East. Egypt's newspapers criticized the European press, with leading daily "Al-Gomhurriya" calling the cartoons "a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims which has been in the works for years."

Dr. Niammat Ahmed Fouad, a respected Egyptian commentator on religion for the daily "Al-Ahram" told RFE/RL that with free speech should come responsibility. When discussing religion, a topic of special sensitivity, the tone can be open but it should be respectful. That is a basic principle that people throughout the region expect to be upheld.

"We respect freedom of opinion, but it doesn't mean the freedom to harm religions. Freedom of opinion doesn't extend to the prophets of others. Politics, art, and society are the main subjects of the press, but if the discussion touches on religion, [writers] should enter with respect for the feelings of believers, in the first place," Foudad said.

In the same vein, the London-based "Al-Hayat" Arabic-language newspaper today quoted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as saying that freedom of the press, speech, and belief "should not be used to harm holy beliefs and religions."

Going against the flow, the editor of a Jordanian tabloid on 2 February printed three of the cartoons. Jihad Momani asked the provocative question: "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?"

But the paper's publishers later pulled all copies from the newsstands and fired the editor.

Isam al-Najbawi, chairman of the publishing house that owns the "Al-Shihan" newspaper, condemned the editor, in an interview with RFE/RL. "We were taken by surprise by that and the reason why is that it's not within our policy to interfere with the editorials beforehand. Only after publication and distribution on the market did it come to our knowledge. And we've taken the necessary steps to withdraw all the issues distributed and an investigation is under way to see what exactly happened."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said today that the republication of the cartoons in newspapers must end. "As Muslims, we have the big heart to forgive, but that doesn't mean that insulting cartoons about Islam must continue to appear," he said. "They must definitely, definitely stop."

(Sultan Sarwar of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report)
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.
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