Protests over prophet cartoons continue to grow

Jeffrey Stinson

LONDON — A major clash between European press freedom and Islamic religious sensibility escalated Thursday. More European newspapers published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, and gunmen surrounded the European Union offices in Gaza demanding apologies.

The dispute began Sept. 30, 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a dozen cartoons to criticize what it saw as self-censorship by artists in response to Islamic pressure. Demonstrations and boycotts against Denmark erupted across the Muslim world after a Norwegian magazine reprinted the cartoons last month.

One cartoon depicts Mohammed with two women in burqas. Another shows him in a turban shaped like a bomb. Islamic law forbids depictions of the prophet.

Thursday, more European newspapers, including Switzerland's Le Temps and Tribune de Genève, published some of the cartoons. French and German newspapers ran some on Wednesday. In editorials, the newspapers defended their fundamental right to publish the cartoons as a matter of free expression in a democracy.

Demonstrations spread across the Muslim world on Thursday:

• Foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers began leaving Gaza after about a dozen armed Palestinians surrounded the EU offices there and threatened to kidnap citizens of France, Norway, Denmark and Germany unless those governments apologize for publishing the cartoons.

• More than 300 demonstrators in Multan, Pakistan, chanted "Death to Denmark!" and "Death to France!" and burned Danish and French flags.

• The Afghan government condemned the cartoons — the latest official protest by a Muslim nation.

Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark. Saudi Arabia is Mohammed's birthplace.

The Danish government said it was meeting envoys from Muslim states today to explain that newspapers are free to publish as they see fit.

Raymond Lakah, an Egyptian magnate and owner of the Paris daily France Soir, fired managing editor Jacques Lefranc after the newspaper printed the caricatures on Wednesday. The newspaper said in a statement that the firing was to show "a strong sign of respect for the beliefs and intimate convictions of every individual."

However, in an editorial Thursday, France Soir defended its decision to print the cartoons. "The best way to fight censorship is not to let it happen," it said.

The clash of cultures comes as Europe is dealing with new tensions with its growing Muslim population. In France, where there are more than 5 million Muslims, relations have been strained since Muslim youths rioted in Paris' suburbs in November.

Also at issue: How far the press and artists in the West should go in honoring religious taboos, and how governments should balance the need to uphold laws that protect free speech and at the same time promote religious tolerance.

"It's an extremely difficult situation," said David Dadge of the International Press Institute in Vienna. "Newspapers have a right to express opinions. People also have a right to be offended."

In its editorial, France Soir said it would not let religious taboos dictate what it publishes: "Imagine a society that added up all of the prohibitions of different religions. What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak and even to come and go?"

Dadge, whose institute seeks to protect press freedom around the globe, noted that many newspapers in Europe wrote about the growing controversy without showing all of the images. Dadge also said he doesn't think governments should tell the press what it can and can't publish.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement that he respected Islamic religious views and never would have published the cartoons.

However, he added, "In Denmark we attach fundamental importance to the freedom of expression, which is a vital and indispensable part of a democratic society."

Contributing: Wire reports

Published February 02, 2006, USA TODAY 

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