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New Cartoon Controversy

DW staff / AFP (emw)
February 7, 2007

In a civil action, Muslim groups have taken a French satire magazine to court for reprinting the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. They claim the cartoons are as offensive as Holocaust denial.

Rage against the cartoons went around the world
Rage against the cartoons went around the worldImage: dpa

This week in the land of Voltaire a civil court will debate where free speech and religious sensitivities overlap. The Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organisations are suing the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over their reprinting of the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad which sparked violence in the Muslim world last year.

The weekly is also being sued for publishing a third drawing by French cartoonist Cabu that showed Mohammed sobbing, holding his head in his hands and saying: "It is hard to be loved by fools."

Paris Grand Mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur said the controversial cartoon showing Mohammad with a bomb in his turban was not simply satire, but an insult against all Muslims by suggesting they were all terrorists. Boubakeur said last week he wanted to show that reprinting the cartoons was a provocation equal to acts of anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial, which are both banned under French law.

However Boubakeur is facing an uphill battle. Courts in France, which observes a strict separation of church and state in the public sphere, have repeatedly defended free speech rights against religious objections. The Catholic Church failed in recent years to win court injunctions against a film poster with a cross formed like a swastika and a fashion ad with scantily clad women posing like Jesus and his Apostles in Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper.

Charlie has many friends

Cartoons have triggered world-wide debate on freedom of speech
Cartoons have triggered world-wide debate on freedom of speechImage: AP

Politicians, intellectuals, secular Muslims and left-wing pressure groups have also lined up behind the magazine, arguing that Muslim groups have no right to call for limits on free speech.

"I just cannot imagine the consequences not only for France but for Denmark and Europe if they lose the case," Fleming Rose, the Danish editor who first published the cartoons, told a news conference with Charlie Hebdo publisher Philippe Val. "It would turn back the clock decades, ages."

The organisation Reporters Without Borders has also voiced unconditional support for Charlie Hebdo, in a statement released on Tuesday. “We support Charlie Hebdo in its commitment to free expression and to the right to satire and we condemn the many different kinds of intimidation that have been targeted at this weekly,” the organisation said in it's statement. “The public area must remain open not only to dialogue but also to controversy.”

Media rage

In an act of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, French newspaper Liberation printed the contested cartoons once more on Wednesday: "It is not words which wound, or pictures that kill. It is bombs," the daily said, calling the trial "idiotic".

Verbrennung der dänischen Flagge
Moslems reacted violently to the original publicationImage: dpa

A televised debate between Charlie Hebdo publisher Val and Boubakeur broke down in acrimony on Feb. 6 after they squabbled over the limits of free speech. "If we can't criticise religion anymore, there will be no women's rights, no birth control and no gay rights," Val said in the raucous TV debate.

However it appears the general public may see things differently. In a French opinion poll conducted on Feb. 6 showed 79 percent thought it unacceptable to ridicule a religion publicly and 78 percent ruled out parodies of Jesus Christ, Mohammad or Buddha.

Legal confusion

The Paris court will hear the case on Wednesday and Thursday, and issue its ruling at a later date. The plaintiffs are requesting 30,000 euros in damages and the publication of key passages from the court’s ruling.

The editors of Jyllands-Posten were acquitted in October 2006 of any wrongdoing in a separate case in a Danish court and very few editors among the dozens of newspapers worldwide that re-printed the cartoons have faced legal action. A Russian editor of a small newspaper was fined 100,000 roubles (3,000 euros) in April last year and convicted of inciting religious hatred for publishing one of the cartoons.

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