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A delicate balancing act
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 02 - 2006

Amid unrelenting protests around the world against the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed, French Muslims take their case to court
France's leading Muslim organisation, Le Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, CFCM (The French Council of the Muslim Faith), announced last week that it will take legal action against two French papers which have reprinted caricatures satirising the Prophet Mohamed, first published in a Danish paper. Tamam Ahmed Jama reports from Paris.
The exact charges against the satirical weekly Charlie- Hebdo and the daily France Soir are still being worked out. Three other French dailies -- Liberation, Le Figaro and Le Parisien -- have also reprinted the caricatures but it is not yet clear whether they too will find themselves embroiled in the impending legal battle.
The controversial cartoons have caused indignation among Muslims around the world. The French President Jacques Chirac condemned last week the reprinting of the contentious caricatures, calling it a "manifest provocation". He said that subjects that hurt the convictions of others, particularly religious convictions, should be avoided. "The freedom of expression, one of the foundational principles of the [French] Republic, rests on the values of tolerance and respect for all faiths," the French president said.
Chirac has been treading carefully over the issue -- affirming his support for freedom of the press on the one hand, and urging newspapers to exercise restraint on the other, to avoid offending the sensibilities of French Muslims, the country's largest religious minority.
France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim community, an estimated five million people. Riots and arson attacks by mainly Muslim marginalised youths swept across the country last autumn. Chirac's prudence and pragmatic response to the caricature controversy is apparently aimed at diffusing tensions as people here are very wary of return to violence.
Between 7,000 (according to police) and 10,000 (according to the organisers) marched through the French capital, Paris, on Saturday to protest against the reprinting of the cartoons, which the head of the CFCM, Dalil Boubaker, called "an act of provocation" to French Muslims. There were also other big demonstrations in the French city of Strasbourg and in other European cities including London and Berlin on the same day.
A collective of French Muslim organisations, including the CFCM, sought unsuccessfully a court order to prevent Charlie-Hebdo from publishing the caricatures before the paper reprinted them -- saying that they amounted to an insult to the Islamic faith.
The now infamous 12 cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohamed were first published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last autumn. They have been reprinted over the past couple of weeks in a number of European papers, including Germany's Die Welt, Volkskrant of the Netherlands and Italy's La Stampa. Some of the papers concerned reprinted only a sample of the cartoons -- leaving out the most offensive ones -- to give their readers an idea of what the outrage was about. Some said they reprinted the cartoons to show solidarity with the Danish paper and in defence of freedom of the press.
Reacting to the controversy over the cartoons, René van Linden, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe -- the continent's human rights watchdog -- said that, while freedom of the press was a fundamental principle of democracy, the freedom of thought, conscience and religion were also basic individual freedoms in a free society. In a plural democracy, tolerance and full respect for the religious beliefs and convictions of individuals are essential. "In a globalised world where information travels at great speed, the media should be conscious of their impact on millions of people," he said. "They should use their power to promote peace, mutual understanding and respect for what other cultures and faiths hold sacred."
The issue of the caricatures has reached a crisis point, creating fears of escalation of violence in many countries, especially in the Muslim world where scores of people died in violent clashes with security forces. It has led to the boycotting of Danish products in the Middle East, embassy burnings, recalling of diplomats and evacuation of Danish citizens, including aid workers, in a number of countries. The UN, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the EU issued a joint statement urging restraint on all sides.
The owner of France Soir has dismissed the paper's managing editor over the controversy and has apologised for the hurt caused by the publication of the cartoons, which many Muslims found deeply offensive and saw as a frontal attack on their faith. The most offensive caricature depicted the Prophet Mohamed wearing a headgear shaped like a bomb.
The satirical Danish paper whose publication of the cartoons sparked the controversy apologised for the offence caused to Muslims, but stood by its decision to print them, invoking press freedom. The Danish government also apologised for the hurt felt by Muslims, but insisted that it was not accountable for what the country's free press published.
Many analysts and media personalities vehemently defended freedom of the press in the past couple of weeks. Others have pointed out that rights and responsibilities go hand- in-hand and that freedom of the press has to be balanced against the rights of individual citizens to be protected from insults and incitement to hate.
"Freedom of expression can unfortunately be abused and used as a pretext to stigmatise communities and incite to hatred," Leila Fenni, a French lawyer with the Paris Bar Association told Al-Ahram Weekly. "In a democracy where the rule of law prevails, citizens of all confessions should have equal rights before the law, and this includes the right to protection from incitement to racial and religious hate."
Over the course of the cartoon controversy, many in Europe seemed to be stupefied, sometimes amused, by the outrage in the Muslim world over satirising the prophet. Many have blamed the polemic on mutual lack of understanding and appreciation of each other's values. Some have questioned whether Muslim demands for refraining from satirising their sacred symbols could be reconciled with the principle of press freedom, a cornerstone of Western democracy.
"But the two are not mutually exclusive; freedom of the press and freedom of religion -- and by extension the right to protection from incitement to religious hate and attack on sacred symbols -- are two fundamental pillars of democracy," Fenni said. "In any free and democratic society, there are reasonable limits to rights and freedoms. So we have to safeguard freedom of the press while also guarding against the potential for abuse: it is a delicate balancing act. And we have to keep in mind that respect for diversity and the protection of minority rights are also a hallmark of a healthy democracy."


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