Paris court takes up Muslim cartoon case

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Newspaper cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, first published in Denmark, electrified Europe last winter – angering Muslims and causing an intellectual uproar. It pitted two cherished Western values, freedom of expression and religious tolerance, against each other – as the Muslim world grieved over violence in the Middle East and Iraq. But the dispute was never clearly resolved.

Now, with feelings still slightly raw in Europe's neighborhoods, the cartoon case is echoing in a Paris court – over a satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, that reprinted the cartoons exactly a year ago. Charlie Hebdo's cover depicted the prophet covering his eyes, next to the line, "Mohammed overwhelmed by extremists," and thinking to himself, "It is hard to be worshiped by idiots."

In the heat of the moment two French Muslim groups filed suit, citing laws forbidding injury caused by religious slander that carry fines and a sentence.

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The trial raises larger questions about how far Europe is or should be accommodating values claimed by the Muslim world. But in the current election season here it has turned into a hot platform for French candidates to espouse issues like free speech. Every leading candidate made an appearance, including front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy, who wrote a note saying he'd rather have "an excess of [cartoon] caricatures, than an absence of caricatures."

Lawyers for the Muslims, including a legal aide to French President Jacques Chirac, say Charlie Hebdo ridiculed Islamic clerics, and incited hatred against all Muslims, as part of a "considered plan of provocation."

A ruling in favor of the Muslim groups, though unlikely, would cut deeply against strong French beliefs in free expression and separation of church and state – given voice in a letter signed Monday by 50 intellectuals. Yet France is changing. A poll by Catholic weekly Pelerin this week found 79 percent agreeing it is "unacceptable to ridicule a religion publicly."

Indeed, while French intellectuals may have adopted an absolute position against abridgement of free speech – Europe's actual approach to the issue has dramatically reversed in the past decade.

Ethnologist Jeanne Favret-Saada of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and author of a forthcoming book on the Danish cartoons says, "We Europeans have completely changed positions on secular versus religious issues, and on freedom of expression. During the fatwa on [Salman] Rushdie in 1989 [for his book "The Satanic Verses"], there was unanimity on the question of free expression. It was not debated. But today part of the left has taken the view that the Danish paper was racist."

Recent months have brought a series of messy crises over Islamic integration. In September Pope Benedict XVI brought a small firestorm by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said Muhammed commanded his followers to "spread by the sword the faith." A prominent Berlin opera house canceled a performance that included a scene involving the severed head of Muhammad. In France, a philosophy professor, Robert Redeker, is under police protection after writing that Muhammad is a "pitiless war leader [and] pillager."

Yet if anything, the two traditionally moderate Muslim groups bringing suit, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, and the Grand Mosque, now feel hard pressed. They are pressured to fight for Muslim interests by their constituency. And they got initial support from Mr. Chirac. But they didn't count on the current media circus in France, sources say, and many feel that their high-profile protestations ironically cast them in the extremist image they want to counter. On Wednesday, the Muslim plaintiffs didn't even attend the trial.

"Most minority groups in France have learned how to deal with the press, the state, the courts, and the government," argues Pierre Haski, former editor of the daily Liberation. "But with the Muslims, this is a new thing."

Many Muslims see the world in only literal terms, argues Dounia Bouzar, a former board member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. "Muslims have not yet worked on subjective interpretations."

Charlie Hebdo was not the first or the only French media outlet to publish the cartoons. Two TV stations and the national daily newspaper Le Monde ran them. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons appeared after the editor of the daily France Soir was fired for publishing them – and as a protest against the "weak" response by the European Union to attacks on Danish embassies in the Muslim states.

The Danish paper Jyllands-Posten first ran cartoons of Muhammed, including one with a bomb in his turban, in September 2005. Editor Flemming Rose said it was a challenge to Europe's growing self-censorship in the wake of filmmaker Theo van Gogh's murder in 2004. But the Muslim community in Europe, and then the world, saw it as a clear example of Islamaphobia.

According to Ms. Favret-Saada, the cartoons were partly motivated by threats from Abu Laban, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who aspired to be the leader of Muslims in Denmark, that any drawings of the prophet were forbidden, including by non-Muslims.

The letter by 50 French intellectuals criticized the left in Europe for failing to stand up for fundamental rights and too easily buying into the Muslim political argument that criticism of Islam is racist. They say too many Islamists are insisting upon extreme or totalitarian positions, while at the same time claiming they are the victims of Islamaphobia in Europe.

On the day of the trial, patrons in the Grand Mosque cafe were scattered about, drinking mint tea and displaying copies of Charlie Hebdo. One writer at the cafe said, "The entire issue is ridiculous – freedom of expression shouldn't even be a question," he said, pointing to the main mosque.

Some students visiting from Toulouse, however, said that while freedom of expression was an important right it should not impinge so far that it caused pain to others.

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