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Free speech in Europe: mixed rules

Cartoon debate has spurred charges from Muslims that a double standard is at work.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2006



LONDON

The violence over cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad has highlighted often inconsistent rules in Europe governing free speech, tolerance, and the boundaries of public expression.

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Muslims in particular charge that hate-speech laws are implemented unfairly. Many countries, they say, do not abide anti-Semitic outbursts, but will tolerate cartoons that to many Muslims are deeply offensive.

"Most of Europe would not dare mock the Holocaust, and rightly so," says Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. "Newspaper editors exercise good judgment every day when it comes to printing material so as not to cause offense, so why not on this occasion?"

In a bid to redress grievances, the French Council of Muslims has said it is considering taking France Soir, which reprinted the cartoons, to court for provocation. Last year, the Catholic church won a court injunction to ban a fashion ad based on the Last Supper. The judge said the ad was "a gratuitous ... act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs."

"This is what Muslims want - to be treated the same as other faiths," says Olivier Roy, an eminent scholar of Islamic affairs at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris.

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. "Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don't talk about," he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.

At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. "Evenhandedness cannot be a goal," he says. "It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there."

The general response from European politicians has been to frown on those who reproduced images first aired last fall in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper, while insisting that editors were within their legal rights to do so. Governments have refrained from apologizing to the Islamic community because they say publication is a matter for editors, not politicians. Muslim opinion, however, has not been appeased by this response.

"Muslims are complaining that they are not protected by the law as the other faiths are supposed to be," says Mr. Roy.

But if there are hints of double standards in the European approach, there are also suggestions of that in some Middle Eastern nations, which have exploded in fury at the cartoons but which are also liable to tolerate anti-Jewish sentiments. An Iranian newspaper has announced a plan to solicit cartoons about the Holocaust in response to the European position.

Europe is warier than the US

When it comes to hate crime and defamation laws, there is no homogenous approach in Europe. Britain, for example, has long had a more tolerant approach to free speech than countries like Germany, France, and Austria, where Holocaust denial is a crime. "It's a mixed bag, a patchwork of practices and experiences in Europe," says Agnes Callamard, director of Article 19, a global freedom-of- expression campaign group. "It's very difficult to pretend there is a common position on hate speech."

But Europe is generally warier of free speech than is the US, with its First Amendment. Laws against inciting hatred and violence have sprung up in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, resulting in criminal cases, convictions, and, in the case of foreigners, expulsions.

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