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Iran: Former Jailed Cartoonist Discusses Muhammad Caricatures

  • Golnaz Esfandiari --> Protesters in Pakistan chant anti-Danish slogans (epa) In the growing protest over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, journalists and cartoonist have had two reactions: some believe the cartoons crossed the bounds of good judgment, while others have argued in favor of press freedom and reprinted some or all of the 12 Danish cartoons. Iran's best- known cartoonist, Nikahang Kowsar, who was jailed in Iran in 2000 for several weeks and faced prosecution for drawing a cartoon deemed offensive by the government, is among those cartoonists who believe that religious sensitivities should be respected and that these cartoons -- because of their offending nature -- should not have been printed. Kowsar, who now lives in exile in Toronto, is, however, critical of some of the Muslim reactions to the issue, such as making threats and burning the Danish flag. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari interviewed Kowsar.

RFE/RL: European papers are split in their reaction to the row over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad; several dailies have reprinted the cartoons in defense of freedom of expression while others argue that the issue of freedom of speech does not justify [publishing] these cartoons, which are considered by most Muslims to be very offensive. What is your view as a caricaturist, since you have spent some time in jail in connection to your work?

Nikahang Kowsar: Since yesterday I've been contacting caricaturists in North America to get to know their views on this issue. An interesting view is the one expressed by Brian Gable, the cartoonist of the Canadian daily "Globe And Mail," which was published today. He says that one should avoid doing things that are for sure going to cause hatred. He has said that, as a cartoonist, 'I won't attack people's beliefs.' These are sensitivities that a press cartoonist should respect and some of the North American cartoonists believe that despite freedom of expression, an act that causes hatred is considered a crime in many countries. For example in Germany, where there is [also] freedom, if you campaign in favor of Nazis and against Jews, what is going to happen to you? You will face problems for causing hatred.

RFE/RL: What is your personal view? Are you against the publishing of cartoons that could be considered offensive by some people?

Nikahang Kowsar: I can speak from two positions. As a board member of the world association that defends the rights of cartoonists and, as such, I should defend the cartoonists who have been threatened -- and I do so as an artist. On the other hand, I am critical of what they did: when you do something that you know will create hatred and annoy people who are a minority in Europe, this can be very insensitive and can cause uneasiness among them. I would personally never do such thing.

RFE/RL: But any cartoon or satirical view of any issue can cause irritation and anger among some. What about freedom of expression? Where are the limits?

Nikahang Kowsar: Why are such cartoons not printed in North America, where there is freedom of the press? The cartoonists in North America don't even make such jokes about Jesus. These are very sensitive things; it depends on the sensitivity of the journalist himself because a press cartoonist is a journalist. A journalist knows what issues can be touched upon and what issues should not be touched upon. I think the chief editor [of the Danish daily that first published the cartoons] did not do the right thing.

RFE/RL: So where do you draw the line? How do you see the boundaries of the freedom of the press versus [causing] religious offense?

Nikahang Kowsar: In one or two of the cartoons, the wrong deeds of Muslims extremists are connected to their leader, the Prophet Muhammad, who lived some 1,400 years ago; is it right if we say that the bad things that were done by Christians in the Middle Ages were also the fault of Jesus Christ? We have to draw some lines; there are differences between the behavior of a prophet and the behavior of his followers. I think such acts are expressing hatred and opposition rather than freedom of expression.

RFE/RL: Some say that the current crisis is a small clash between the East and the West, what is your view?

Nikahang Kowsar: I believe this is the case; here [Samuel] Huntington's theory has been proven and [Muhammad] Khatami, [who promoted dialogue among civilizations] has lost.

RFE/RL: Do you think the Muslim reactions have been excessive?

Nikahang Kowsar: I think the harsh and threatening reactions of many Muslim societies have been very wrong. I think they could have reacted through legal ways. In European countries some acts that cause hatred are considered a crime; [Muslims] could have brought a case through lawyers and justify that such an act should be considered illegal. I think this is more reasonable than causing more [problems] and, for example, boycotting Danish products and burning the Danish flag. The editor of a newspaper has done something, why should a country [be targeted]?

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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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at