The backlash against the European publication and reprinting of cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light continued across the Middle East and Europe on Thursday.
Palestinian gunmen briefly took up positions outside the European Commission’s office in Gaza, and the Egyptian who owns the newspaper France Soir fired its managing editor for his role in the matter.
The Gaza gunmen demanded apologies from the governments of France, Denmark and Norway after newspapers in those three countries on Wednesday reprinted the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that originally printed the cartoons last September.
The gunmen, numbering about a dozen, were thought to have ties to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, which was defeated in last week’s legislative elections. Three of the gunmen jumped on the outer wall of the EU office and the rest took up positions at the entrance.
A leaflet signed by a Fatah militia and the militant Islamic Jihad group urged all French citizens to leave Gaza.
The owner of France Soir, Raymond Lakah, said he fired the managing editor, Jacques Lefranc, on Wednesday “in a strong sign of respect for the beliefs and intimate convictions of every individual.”
But Thursday’s edition of the tabloid, which is in financial difficulty, defended its decision to print the cartoons.
“Imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of different religions,” it wrote in an editorial. “What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak and even to come and go? We know societies like that all too well. The Iran of the mullahs, for example.”
In Jordan, a gossip tabloid defiantly published three of the cartoons Thursday.
“Muslims of the world, be reasonable,” said the editor of the weekly independent newspaper Al Shihan in an editorial alongside the cartoons.
“What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?” the editor, Jihad Momani, wrote.
Momani said he decided to publish the offending cartoons “so people know what they are protesting about.” He said people were attacking drawings “they have not even seen.”
In Kabul, Afghanistan’s president condemned the cartoons and said they must never be printed again.
“Any insult to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, is an insult to more than one billion Muslims, and an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated,” President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.
In Pakistan, more than 300 Islamic students protested, chanting “Death to Denmark” and “Death to France.”
In France, Denmark’s ambassador met Thursday with the imam of the Paris mosque in a bid to appease Muslim anger.
“I thank the ambassador for taking this initiative, which was aimed at easing tensions,” said the imam, Dalil Boubakeur, who is also the head of the official French Council for the Muslim Religion.
Jyllands-Posten, Page 3 of culture section, Sept., 2005.
The cartoons can be viewed here.
“Freedom of expression cannot be the freedom to tell lies,” he added. “The prophet did not found a terrorist religion, but a religion of peace.
At the center of the storm, in Copenhagen, the cartoons fed a sharpening debate over freedom of expression, human rights and what the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten called a “clash of civilizations” between secular Western democracies and Islamic societies.
Indeed, the culture editor, Flemming Rose, said in an interview: “This is a far bigger story than just the question of 12 cartoons in a small Danish newspaper. This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society.”
While Jyllands-Posten has apologized for giving offense, it has not apologized for publishing the cartoons, one of which depicts the prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban. Images of Muhammad are regarded as blasphemous by many Muslims.
The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has rejected demands by Arab governments for an official apology, saying: “I can’t call a newspaper and tell them what to put in it. That’s not how our society works.”
In support of the Danish position, newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland reprinted some of the cartoons on Wednesday. A small Norwegian evangelical magazine, Magazinet, also published the cartoons last month.
The dispute has been likened to a string of earlier cultural confrontations between Islam and the West, beginning with the death sentence declared on the British author Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran after the publication of “The Satanic Verses.”
Robert Me’nard, the secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontie`res, a Paris-based body that monitors media developments, said in a telephone interview: “I understand that it may shock Muslims, but being shocked is part of the price of being informed.”
On Wednesday, Syria became the latest Arab country to withdraw its ambassador from Denmark, saying publication of the cartoons “constitutes a violation of the sacred principles of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims,” according to SANA, the Syrian state news agency.
The Danish Embassy in Damascus was evacuated after a bomb threat on Wednesday, but no bomb was found.
In Germany, the conservative Die Welt printed one image on its front page and declared in an editorial: “The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they were less hypocritical. When Syrian television showed drama documentaries in prime time depicting rabbis as cannibals, the imams were quiet.”
In Italy, the Turin daily La Stampa published the cartoons on Wednesday. Milan’s Corriere della Sera printed them on Monday.
Niels-Erik Hansen, a lawyer at a center offering legal support for people complaining of racial discrimination, said the debate over the cartoons raised the question of whether it would provoke attacks on Denmark’s 200,000 Muslims.
But Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, said the principle to draw from the debate was that opponents of press freedom had secured a victory.
“My guess is that no one will draw the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark in the next generation, and therefore I must say with deep shame that they have won,” he said in an interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tiden.
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