Free speech in Europe: mixed rules

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

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.

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.

Even Britain has sought to push through a law recently to outlaw inciting religious hatred, to give religious groups like Muslims and Christians the same rights as racial groups. But the legislation was watered down over concerns about the implications for free speech.

Still, several recent prosecutions would appear to indicate a diminishing tolerance for invective. In perhaps the most high-profile case of its kind, a Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, was found guilty Tuesday of fomenting racial hatred and inciting followers to kill non-Muslims. He reserved particular vitriol for Jews.

Meanwhile, police are studying banners brandished at Friday's protest with slogans like, "Be prepared for the real Holocaust"; "Kill the one who insults the Prophet"; "Behead those who insult Islam"; and "Europe you will pay, your 9/11 is on the way." One man, a convicted drug dealer on parole who attended the rally dressed as a suicide bomber, was rearrested on Tuesday.

Reining in an anti-Semitic comedian

Other European cases hint at the preoccupations of individual jurisdictions. In France, where anti-Semitism remains taboo, a comedian named Dieudonne has been effectively sidelined for his anti-Jewish rants. Newspapers must even be careful not to equate the actions of Jews everywhere with the state of Israel following a recent case that punished the dailyLe Monde.

Roy says a form of self-censorship is in practice in France. "No mainstream newspaper would ever publish an interview with Dieudonne," he says. "He has been sidelined because he is supposed to be anti-Semitic."

French Muslims have questioned whether the outcome would have been the same if Dieudonne had aimed his humor at Muslims.

In Austria, a case of Holocaust denial charges is being prepared against British historian David Irving, based on two speeches he made in the country in 1989. He could face 10 years in jail if convicted. In Germany, antihate legislation that took effect last year has been used to rein in Muslim preachers who call for terrorist attacks or propagate hate.

In Turkey, the preoccupation is more nationalistic, as the recently dropped case against novelist Orhan Pamuk - for "insulting Turkish identity" in remarks to a Swiss newspaper about the killings of Armenians in the early 20th century - shows.

In Sweden, meanwhile, the most prominent case has involved a clergyman accused of inciting hatred against homosexuals. But in Britain, remarks by a Muslim leader that homosexuality was "not acceptable" have not resulted in criminal charges.

It is not always Muslims who are in the dock. Prosecutors are preparing a case against leaders of the right-wing extremist British National Party on race-hate charges linked to speeches in which one branded Islam a "wicked" faith, after they were cleared of two other charges last month.

And in Italy, a leading author, Oriana Fallaci, faces trial this year over charges that she slandered Muslims in her book "The Strength of Reason."

Those who find themselves on the wrong side of Muslim anger may also risk greater censure than those who challenge Christian precepts. Writer Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for a decade because of a fatwa, or religious edict, imposed on him for publishing "The Satanic Verses." Though it was equally iconoclastic, there was no such response when Dan Brown published "The Da Vinci Code," seen by many as offensive to the Catholic church.

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