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Europe

Rising tensions over new Muhammad caricatures

Right in the middle of the tensions about the anti-Islam film, a French magazine has added fuel to fire by publishing new Muhammad caricatures. Critics accuse the publication of intentionally provoking the Muslim world.

For years already, the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo has had a reputation for causing a stir with its controversial headlines and biting humor. Now, the French publication is following up on that. The magazine has put a Muhammad caricature on its front cover, despite the tensions and violence across many Muslim countries in reaction to an anti-Islam video. The caricature shows a Muslim with a turban – intended to depict the prophet Muhammad – in a wheelchair being pushed by a Jew. Inside the copy, the magazine picks up on the controversy around the anti-Islam video produced in the United States.

Just like in the case of the Muhammad caricatures published seven years ago in a Danish daily paper, it's about the freedom of expression and the responsibility of the media. While the French government is trying to de-escalate the situation, Charlie Hebdo defends its decision to publish the caricatures as freedom of the press.

"We see this publication as a part of our job and as a free expression of opinion," editor-in-chief Gerard Biard told Deutsche Welle. "If a stupid movie is leading to clashes across almost the entire globe and we journalists are not allowed to comment on that - then who is?" Biard argued.

Under the cloak of press freedom?

Gerard Biard (photo:Michel Euler/AP/dapd)

Editor-in-chief Gerard Biard is currently under police protection

Yet Schirin Amir-Moazami of Berlin University doubts that this is the actual reason. "I am not sure that it's really about protecting press freedom," the Islam expert told DW. It could also be about not just provoking Muslims, but showing them that they are not welcome in France." Amir-Moazami has the impression that the goal is rather to pour more fuel into the fire.

Already in November 2011, there were protests outside the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo, after the magazine had published a special edition on the Sharia, the Islamic law. "The magazine is known for its provocations," said Amir-Moazami. Back then, the copies were sold out immediately. The same happened this time. The circulation is around 75,000 copies each week. For the current edition, the magazine plans to print a full second round of copies due to the high demand.

Selling more copies

Asiem El Difraoui of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs is convinced that the editors simply want to increase their circulation. "Charlie Hebdo wants to get as much media attention as possible," El Difraoui said, suggesting that the Muhammad caricatures essentially are a marketing strategy. She might have a point as the magazine already several times was facing bankruptcy. It was founded in the 1970s, and between 1981 and 1982 even had to shut down for lack of funds. But Charlie Hebdo might be playing a risky game here. The homepage getting shut down by hackers as happened in recent days might be the least of the problems.

Schirin Amir-Moazami (photo:Freie Universität Berlin)

Amir-Moazami believes the intention is to provoke Muslims

French embassies closed

Last year, the editorial office was fire-bombed. The police are now guarding the building and the publisher Stephane Charbonnier has been given police protection. The consequences abroad might be a lot more troublesome though. The French government is worried about more riots in Muslim countries. On Friday, Paris intends to shut some 20 embassies, consulates and schools abroad.

Media reaction in France is divided about the publication. The daily Le Monde grants that there is the right to criticize or even ridicule religion, but warned that publishing the caricatures in the present situation means "adding fuel to fire, so that indeed one can question the sense of responsibility of the authors and publishers." The Catholic daily La Croix criticized Charlie Hebdo, asking whether there isn't "a more subtle and more funny way to use caricature against religious fundamentalists and extremists" and to denounce the violence of the protests in the Muslim world.

A dangerous path

Paris paper Liberation however defended the magazine. "Reminding the cartoonist about the responsibility, to tell them to think hard about what to publish and about the geopolitical consequences as if they were the spokesmen of the foreign ministry, is the first step down a dangerous path. The first step is self-censorship, the last one is capitulation." However, the media is discussing the situation, but for France's five million Muslims the caricature remains a provocation.

Police outside the headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (photo:MIchel Euler/AP/dapd)

French police outside the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo

The majority is still calm. But the whole situation could benefit small radical groups like Salafists, warns Asiem El Difraoui. "The caricatures or the movie serve two different extremes: Charlie Hebdo is happy about the attention it gets with the publication of the caricatures. And radical Muslims are happy because it brings them to the world's attention." The majority of Muslims who are moderate are somewhere in the middle between those two extremes, he said. "Probably a lot of them feel insulted and hurt. Of course this does not exactly help with the integration of the large Muslim community in France," El Difraoui, who lives both in France and in Germany, noted.

Trouble in the banlieues

She also is worried that the controversy could be misused at France's domestic political level. The center-right opposition was trying to capitalize on the situation, El Difraoui warned, by positioning itself against Muslim intolerance. "The caricatures will be dangerously used as political instruments by certain politicians."

Dangerous also because it could lead to new riots in the Paris slums, the so-called banlieues, where there is not only a high percentage of Muslims, but also high youth unemployment, poor infrastructure and high crime rates. In 2005, riots in French suburban ghettos sparked violent clashes with the police. Berlin University's Amir-Moazami noted that not all young people in the Paris suburbs are very religious, but warned that young people could feel even more provoked.