March 25 (Bloomberg) — A French court this month upheld a magazine’s right to print a Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. At the same time, it affirmed a lower court’s finding that the image, published two years ago, could be “shocking, even hurtful” for devout Muslims.
The split decision illustrates how France, like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, is struggling to accommodate its growing Muslim minority without sacrificing principles such as separation of church and state and free speech, which form the heart of a cultural identity forged by Voltaire and other 18th-century philosophers.
“Europeans have to get used to living with people in their midst who have sensibilities that weren’t there before,” says Ian Buruma, author of “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance” and a professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. “If you’re going to live in mixed societies, certain rules of civility have to be taken seriously.”
That civility is being sorely tested across the region.
In the Netherlands, a film by radical Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, said to link the Koran and violence, has sparked debate even before its release. The last time a Dutch film mocked Islam, its director was killed. Van Gogh was found in Amsterdam in 2004 with his throat slit and two knives buried in his chest. His murderer, the 26-year-old son of Moroccan immigrants, pinned a note on his body calling for a holy war against infidels.
In France, schoolteacher Robert Redeker went into hiding in 2006 after being threatened for an article he wrote in Le Figaro saying the Koran is infused with “hate and violence.” In Denmark, police last month arrested three men for plotting to kill Kurt Westergaard, who drew the turban-bomb cartoon.
The violence has injected fear and anger into the debate.
“Here are these caricatures that say that Muslims are violent, and to show they are not true, there are Muslims who say we will kill you,” says Alain Finkielkraut, a French philosopher who signed a petition protesting attempts to equate blasphemy with racism.
“What we are being asked is to forbid all criticism of Islam, which is an exorbitant demand, considering that in our country, the Catholic Church and the Pope are drawn through the mud all the time.”
Wilders’s film, which may be released on the Internet before April 1, reopens old wounds in the Netherlands, where it’s seen as a test of both intellectual freedom and Muslim tolerance. Politicians say it’s a reckless provocation in a society already divided by ethnic tensions.
“Freedom doesn’t relieve anyone of responsibility,” said Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende at a Feb. 29 press conference.
Buruma, who’s half-Dutch, says the film shouldn’t be banned. It could get its run online, he says, and be left at that. He says the Netherlands may find a solution that lies not in the realm of law but of political correctness, or what he calls “good manners.”
Across Europe, politicians try to be culturally sensitive to Muslim citizens, who total 16 million, or 3 percent, of the 495 million people in the 27-member European Union, according to CentralInstitute Islam-Archives in Germany. In France, one in 10 inhabitants is Muslim, the highest proportion in the EU.
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble proposes Islam be taught in schools with Christianity and Judaism. In France, soup kitchens eliminate pork. In the U.K., the Archbishop of Canterbury said Islamic Sharia law might be applied in certain cases.
Meanwhile, some Muslims, like Christian and Jewish groups, are using blasphemy, defamation and other laws to challenge books and images they consider insulting.
On March 12, the French appeals court upheld the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to reprint the Danish cartoon, saying its role in provoking violence made it newsworthy. That failed to mollify the Union of Islamic Associations of France, which represents 350 organizations and was a plaintiff in the appeal.
“They say their intentions were good,” says Lhaj Thami Breze, its president. “I say, in spite of your intentions, I feel as though you have attacked my faith.”
Other Muslim organizations were more positive. “The fact that they recognized that the publication could be offensive to Muslims is satisfactory for us,” says Slimane Nadour, communications head of La Grande Mosquee de Paris, one of the oldest mosques in the capital and a plaintiff in the original lawsuit.
Blasphemy hasn’t been illegal in France since the 1830s, and the country is strict about its secularist heritage, even though it still has laws against racial and ethnic insults. Christian groups failed to block the screening here of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Balancing respect for religious beliefs and free speech remains delicate across Europe. In Germany, federal law bans references to religion “deemed able to disrupt the public peace.” In Greece, only blasphemy against Christianity is objectionable.
The Netherlands makes “scornful” blasphemy a crime. The last major case, in 1968, involved a novel depicting God as a donkey with particular mating habits. The author was acquitted when the prosecution failed to prove he was “scornful.”