More Politics Than Religion in Cartoon Controversy, Observers Say

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Paris, France ( - The controversy over the publication of newspaper cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed raged through the weekend, as some observers here said the issue had become a political one.

Demonstrators in Beirut set fire to the Danish consulate on Sunday and earlier on Saturday, Muslims torched the Danish and Norwegian diplomatic missions in Damascus.

Twelve caricatures were published by a Danish newspaper last September and, after Muslim reaction escalated into a Mideast boycott against Danish products, other newspapers republished them, citing the need to defend freedom of expression.

They have now appeared in newspapers and on television programs across Europe and as far afield as New Zealand.

In the view of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French-based press freedom watchdog, the dispute has shifted from one over liberty of expression versus respect for religion, into a political row.

"One must not be naive," said Annabelle Arki, head of RSF's European desk. "This is a crisis that is essentially political, where you have Arab and Muslim heads of state who have jumped onto the [opportunity] to reinforce their power in their countries."

"We are being manipulated in what we can say or not say in relation to this problem."

Arki said that freedom of expression implied such contradictions as possibly offending individuals who hold certain beliefs. But when such instances arise, there are legal means to resolve them.

In this case, "there is a real confrontation of ideas between a very liberal conception of freedom of expression and certain groups of individuals.

"These groups refuse this conception of freedom of expression in order to advance their religious convictions ahead of fundamental human rights that apply to all individuals."

In France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, Islamic leaders condemned the cartoons but called for calm.

The Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF), a radical group that is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, said it was considering legal action against French newspapers which published the caricatures.

Morad El Hattab, a French Muslim philosopher and author, called the caricatures "gratuitous" and said their message served no real purpose but could lead to violence.

In his view, the cartoons' authors meant to criticize radical Islam, but the sketches had touched a symbol that belonged to all Muslims in the world.

"They [the newspapers that printed the cartoons] are playing a very dangerous game that can lead to extreme violence."

El Hattab said the incident was hurting communication at a time when there was a struggle between moderate and radical Muslims. "They are shutting Muslims off. We are not the ones shutting ourselves in; but a message like this is shutting us off."

At the same time, he conceded that the situation had become political.

In 2002, when a French weekly published a French cartoonist's caricature of Mohammed, the move did not spark international incidents.

"There are more politics in this story than religion," El Hattab said.

The issue has become the subject of debate on French radio and television talk shows. Muslims have generally expressed hurt and incomprehension at the publication of the cartoons.

France's Chief Rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, also added his condemnation, saying nothing would be gained by abasing religions and added that freedom of expression was not a "right without limits."

Politicians from left and right defended the principle of freedom of expression and condemned the threats of violence. President Jacques Chirac said that while freedom of expression was a fundamental right, it also called on each person to use "a spirit of responsibility, respect and restraint, to avoid all that can hurt the convictions of others."

Observers here expect the debate to increase the support base for Jean Marie Le Pen's far-right anti-immigration National Front ahead of presidential elections next year.

Earlier opinion polls indicated that Le Pen's movement had benefited from public reaction to recent riots in suburban housing projects by mostly unemployed Muslim youths.

With the threat of violence in Europe in retaliation for the cartoons, the question of apologizing over their publication has also been raised.

RSF's Arki was adamant about not apologizing.

"A country does not have to apologize for what a newspaper has published," she said. "The newspapers are independent and the heads of state are not responsible for the newspapers."

"Should the Muslim countries have to apologize for the death threats and fatwas?" she asked.

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