French paper reprints Mohammed cartoons

By ELIZABETH BRYANT  |  Feb. 1, 2006 at 1:31 PM
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PARIS, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- A French newspaper waded into an international storm over freedom of expression vs. respecting religious beliefs by printing Wednesday all 12 controversial Danish cartoons spoofing the Prophet Mohammed.

"Yes," the newspaper, France-Soir, declared on its front page, "One has the right to make fun of God." Underneath, it offered its own cartoon showing Jesus, Jehovah, Buddha and an upset Mohammed sitting on a cloud. "Don't whine," Jesus is telling the Muslim prophet, "We've all been made fun of here."

In an editorial, France-Soir said it was simply doing its job by printing the cartoons, which first ran in the Danish Jyllands-Posten daily last September.

The French newspaper denounced "this religious intolerance that refuses to support any mockery, any satire, any gibes." And the newspaper derided a motley assortment of critics of the cartoon -- ranging from Arab ministers who called the cartoons an "offense to Islam," to the Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups -- as hardly the "paragons of tolerance, humanity and democracy."

"Enough lessons from these retrograde bigots!" France-Soir wrote. "There is nothing criminal in these drawings, no racist intention, no will to denigrate a community as such. Some are funny, some less so, that's it. It's to show this that we've decided to publish them."

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman refused Wednesday to comment on the newspaper's actions, saying it was up to France-Soir to decide what it should publish. Still, he added during a midday briefing, that while the government upheld press freedom, "it should be exercised in a spirit of tolerance and in the respect of beliefs and of religions."

Regardless of its motives, France-Soir is certain to pour oil into already inflamed passions over the matter. The cartoons have been denounced by several Arab countries, some of who withdrew their envoys from Denmark in protest.

And while Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to heed the call of Arab ministers and apologize on behalf of Jyllands-Posten -- citing freedom of expression -- he did welcome the newspaper's own apology for offending Muslims.

Already, France-Soir's decision to republish the cartoons has ignited controversy in France -- and is likely to incite the ire of the country's estimated 5 million Muslims.

"It's a new provocation," Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque and head of France's Representative Muslim Council, said in a telephone interview. "Liberty is liberty. But this hurts Muslim sensitivities."

Mouloud Aounit, head of the Paris-based anti-discrimination group Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, offered more guarded criticism.

"I personally think that press freedom is the cement of human rights -- you can't respect human rights without press freedom," Aounit said.

But, he added, "I think the only limit one can place is the border between individual liberty and respect for others. That is, my freedom begins where the other ends. I personally think that this balance must be found."

For its part, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers staunchly defended France-Soir's decision to publish the cartoons.

"France-Soir is doing its duty by publishing an article about a newsworthy issue," said Annabelle Arki, head of the group's Europe desk. "It has a complete right to treat the information as it is doing -- that is defending the freedom of expression. And it says this clearly in its columns.

"We understand that some groups can be shocked by the publication of certain information, but there are legal means -- in Denmark and elsewhere -- to resolve this problem," Arki added. "They can file defamation charges in courts."

The battle between free expression and alleged slurs against Islam has been played out before in Europe -- both in the press and in the courts.

In Germany, the conservative-leaning dailies Die Welt and Berliner Zeitung reprinted some of the caricatures in their Wednesday editions.

Die Welt led with one image on its title page, accompanied by a news piece on the row. The move resulted in criticism from the German Journalist Association, or DJV. A DJV spokesman told the online daily Netzeitung: "The responsibility of the press forbids publications in word or image that may hurt the ethical or religious feelings of a group of individuals."

But the battle between freedom of press and religious sentiment has been a key theme across Europe this decade.

In 2004, for example, former French actress Brigitte Bardot was convicted for inciting racial hatred and fined $6,000 for anti-Islamic remarks in her book "A Scream in Silence." While Bardot trashed a variety of apparent evils of modern French society, she singled out Islam and immigrants for the most vitriol.

Regarding the "Islamization of France" she wrote, "not only does it fail to give way to our laws and customs. Quite the contrary, as time goes by it tries to impose its own laws on us."

Last year, too, the head of the Muslim Union of Italy filed charges against Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci for insulting Islam. At issue was Fallaci's book, "The Rage and Pride," which said Muslim immigrants in Europe had "multiplied like rats," and that the continent was turning into "a Muslim province, a Muslim colony."

Fallaci was also sued in France in 2002, but a French court dismissed the case on a technicality.

A French court also cleared the same year another controversial writer -- France's Michel Houellebecq -- for his anti-Islamic remarks. Judges in Paris concluded Houellebecq had not incited racial hatred by describing Islam as the "stupidest religion" in the literary journal Lire in 2001.

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