Threat of WTO action over Muhammad cartoons boycott

Simon Freeman and Charles Bremner in Paris

Peter Mandelson today warned Muslim countries that they risk breaking trade law if they boycott Danish goods in protest at the publication of 'blasphemous' cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

The escalating row over the 12 caricatures, first published in the right-of-centre Jyllands-Posten in September last year, has evolved into an ideological clash between Western freedom of speech and Muslim religious teachings, which rule that images of the prophet are idolatrous.

The dispute has triggered violent protests in the Muslim world. In Europe, however, some or all of the cartoons were reprinted yesterday by newspapers in Norway, France, Italy, Germany and Spain as a gesture of solidarity with the Danish broadsheet and the principle of free speech.

Mr Mandelson, the EU's Trade Commissioner, has now been drawn into the dispute as unofficial boycotts of the offending countries swept the Middle East. Two large Danish firms have reported a dramatic fall in sales.

He criticised cartoons as crude and juvenile, and warned British newspapers not to follow their European counterparts in reprinting them.

He said: "I understand on one level the motivation of newspapers to stand up for freedom of speech… but they are almost bound to cause offence." He said that any other re-publication "throws petrol on the flames".

Mr Mandelson has already warned Saudi Arabia, which has recalled its ambassador to Denmark and initiated a boycott of Danish goods, that the EU will take action at the World Trade Organisation action if the Riyadh government persists in the boycott,

In Gaza, EU staff were hurriedly evacuated as masked gunmen from Islamic Jihad and a Fatah brigade conducted an armed protest. "We will watch the office closely and if European countries continue their assaults against Islam and against the Prophet Muhammad, we will turn this office into ruins," a spokesman for the Yasser Arafat Brigades told Reuters.

The row has had diplomatic and economic consequences in Arab countries sympathetic to the West as well as those already hostile. Syria and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark. The Danish embassy in Damascus was evacuated after a bomb threat.

Several European journalists have left Gaza fearing for their safety, and Norway has closed its office in the West Bank.

The leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon revived the 1988 controversy over The Satanic Verses and said that no-one would dare to insult Muslims today had the death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie been carried out.

Meanwhile in Europe, Jacques Lefranc, the editor of Paris daily France Soir who today splashed a caricature of the Prophet on his front page to illustrate the row, was sacked.

Under the headline "Yes, we have the right to caricature God", the cartoon also showed Buddha, the Christian and Jewish deities sitting on a cloud. The Christian God says: "Don’t complain Muhammad, all of us have been caricatured."

The newspaper deplored what it called the new inquisition by "backward bigots".

Raymond Lakah, the paper’s Egyptian owner, appears however to disagreed with its editorial line. Today he swiftly issued a public apology and fired M Lefranc.

Dalil Boubakeur, President of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, said that the newspaper had "perpetrated a real provocation in the eyes of millions of French Muslims".

British newspapers, while all devoting space to coverage of the dispute, stopped short of re-printing the offending cartoons. Most chose to publish artfully cropped photographs of France Soir's front page to illustrate reports of the unfolding conflict.

Right-wing magazine The Spectator bucked the trend, using the most inflammatory of the cartoons - depicting Muhammad in a bomb turban - to illustrate a link to a previous Times Online story on the dispute. A spokesman told Times Online that the website and magazine were separate editorial entities, adding that the magazine had no intention of re-printing the image.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said that the drawings reflected a growing "xenophobic tone" towards the faith in parts of the Western media.

In Berlin, Die Welt reprinted one cartoon on its front page and three others inside. "The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they were less hypocritical," it said.

Roger Koeppel, Editor of Die Welt, told The Times: "We owed it to our readers. They have to understand what the fuss is about."

In Italy some of the cartoons appeared in Corriere della Sera and La Stampa. Both newspapers said that the decision to publish had been taken on purely journalistic grounds.

Paolo Lepri, the acting foreign editor of Corriere della Sera, said that it was not a political decision. "We simply felt that you could not explain to readers why the cartoons had caused such a furore without showing them some examples by way of illustration".

The Spanish daily El Periodico published a montage of the cartoons under the headline "The Effects of Terrorism: A Test". Carlos-Enrique Bayo, foreign editor of El Periodico, said: "We don’t normally shy away from things like this. Publish and be damned, as they say."

Carsten Juste, editor of the Danish broadsheet Jyllands-Posten which triggered the crisis, has apologised for the offence the cartoons caused but has refused to say sorry for their original publication.

He said that he would not have printed them had he known that it would endanger Danish lives. "The dark dictatorships have won," he added.

Published February 02, 2006, Times Online

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,13509-2021464,00.html

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