By Molly Moore and Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 3, 2006
PARIS, Feb. 2 -- Protests against European newspapers' publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad gained momentum across the Islamic world Thursday as Pakistani schoolchildren burned French and Danish flags and Muslim presidents denounced the drawings. At the same time, more European news organizations printed or broadcast the caricatures, citing a need to defend freedom of expression.
In another day of confrontation between the largely secular nations of Europe and Muslim countries where religion remains a strong force in daily life, Islamic activists threatened more widespread protests and boycotts of European businesses. While some European officials sought to defuse the crisis, many journalists insisted that despite Islamic outrage, religious sensibilities should not result in censorship.
"We would have done exactly the same thing if it had been a pope, rabbi or priest caricature," wrote Editor in Chief Serge Faubert in Thursday's editions of France Soir, one of the newspapers that printed the cartoons.
Mahmoud A. Hashem, a businessman in Saudi Arabia reflecting broad sentiment in Muslim societies, called the cartoons just another example of a "sport to insult Islam and Muslims" after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Under Islamic teachings, any depiction of Muhammad, the faith's founder and messenger of God, is blasphemy, including depictions that are not negative. The cartoons violated that dictum, and many of them also ridiculed the prophet. In one, he is depicted as a terrorist, with his turban holding a bomb with a burning fuse.
Political analysts from both sides described the newspapers' printing of the cartoons as a dangerous incitement in a conflict that has already alienated the growing Muslim populations of West European nations and hardened extremists in both camps.
Alexandre Adler, author of "Rendez-vous With Islam," criticized the newspapers. "We're at war," he said, citing the Iraq insurgency and the electoral victories of the radical Palestinian group Hamas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "And sometimes war demands censorship. In this context, anything that might strengthen the hate of the West is irresponsible."
The European Union's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said the continued printing of the cartoons was "throwing petrol onto the flames." Acknowledging the desire to stand up for press freedom, he said newspapers must understand "the offense that is caused by publishing cartoons of this nature."
But more news organizations continued to display the cartoons Thursday, including the BBC, which said it hoped to "give audiences an understanding of the strong feelings evoked by the story."
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian gunmen kidnapped a German citizen from a hotel restaurant and threatened to seize more foreigners. The German was later released, Palestinian security officials said.
Many Europeans left the Gaza Strip as a precaution Thursday. The E.U. shuttered its office there after warnings that staff members would be kidnapped. About a dozen gunmen briefly surrounded the empty building, firing their weapons. Some European countries warned citizens against travel in the Middle East.
In the city of Multan in central Pakistan, several hundred students from Islamic schools burned French and Danish flags in protest. Boycotts of Danish grocery products expanded across the Middle East
Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ahmadinejad of Iran issued statements of condemnation, as did King Abdullah of Jordan. In a speech in Washington, the monarch said that while "we respect and revere freedom of speech, we condemn needless desecration and injury of Islamic sensibilities, such as the recent cartoons misrepresenting and vilifying my ancestor, the prophet."
Newspapers throughout the Muslim world condemned their European counterparts. Bahrain's Gulf Daily News ran a one-word headline on its front page that summarized sentiment in the region: "Apologize!"
The Egyptian publisher of France Soir, which printed the controversial caricatures Wednesday, fired the paper's managing editor, Jacques LeFranc, late Wednesday night, saying, "We present our regrets to the Muslim community and to all people who have been shocked or made indignant by this publication."
But the dismissed editor's boss, Faubert, wrote an unrepentant editorial in Thursday's editions: "We had no desire to add oil to the fire as some may think. A fundamental principle of democracy and secularism is being threatened."
But critics argued that publishers should be more discerning in the battles they choose over freedom of expression. "This is the sort of thing that will feed into al Qaeda, alienating and angering a lot of educated young people," Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan's Daily Times and Friday Times, said in a telephone interview from Lahore.
Sethi and others see a double standard at work. "People who question some of the facts of the Holocaust are ostracized; most publishers are so sensitive they won't even get into the argument," Sethi said. "A degree of censorship is imposed that is not articulated in this case."
International journalist organizations have condemned the threats of violence against the European journalists who published the cartoons.
"We defend unpopular speech around the world all the time," said Joel Simon, deputy director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "We don't make judgments whether we agree or disagree" with the message. "Sometimes we sort of have to hold our nose, but they've got the right to say that, and we defend their right."
Europe has roughly 15 million Muslims, who in some countries make up more than 10 percent of the population. Many analysts see growing social divisions between the Muslims and the majority populations of the countries, which are historically Christian but are increasingly secular in outlook.
Tensions continue in the Netherlands, where in 2004 Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose work carried strong anti-Islamic messages, was assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist. In a court appearance Thursday in that city, Bouyeri said that "the fact that you see me as the black standard-bearer of Islam in Europe fills me with honor, pride and joy."
Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament who has proposed a law that would ban women from wearing burqas in the Netherlands and has been the target of death threats, posted the cartoons on his Web site Thursday under this explanation: "What is the price of freedom? As a token of support to the Danish cartoonists and to stand up for free speech, we will place their drawings here."
The controversy, which has inflamed the Middle Eastern press and Islamic organizations, began when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons in September. The newspaper's editors had asked 12 artists to draw their depictions of Muhammad after an author had complained that he could not find an artist willing, under his or her own name, to illustrate a book about the prophet.
The issue received little attention in Europe, however, until this week, when the Danish company Arla Foods -- the second-largest dairy producer in Europe -- announced that its Middle Eastern sales had completely dried up as the controversy continued. On Thursday, the company said it was laying off about 125 workers because of those losses.
Mahmoud Hashem, 51, who owns a company based in the seaside Saudi city of Jiddah, said he had sent e-mails to more than 500 people urging them to stop buying Danish products.
"I think that all Muslims should unite and do something about this," said Hashem, reached on his cell phone as he was leaving prayers at a Jiddah mosque Thursday afternoon. "Anybody who wants to get some press uses Muslims as a punching bag."
At Sawari Superstores, one of the largest supermarket chains in Jiddah, signs were posted in the dairy section saying, "We do not sell any Danish products."
"I am not willing to buy any product from a country that has insulted my prophet, my religion and my dignity as a Muslim," said Leila Faleh, 42, a hospital administrator shopping at the store. "I would rather go back to drinking milk from a cow and eating dates."
Yuri Thamrin, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, called the cartoons' publication an act of insensitivity that has stoked anger across the Muslim world. "We as a democratic country value freedom of expression, but believe freedom of expression has to be conducted wisely and not as a cover to denigrate or insult religious symbols," Thamrin said.
"It is nothing new," lamented Mohammed Hussein Mudhaffer, a 33-year-old mechanical engineer in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. "The publishing of such cartoons showing the prophet Muhammad is part of the savage campaign waged by the West against Islam and Muslims."
Special correspondent Ambah reported from Jiddah. Correspondents Alan Sipress in Jakarta, Indonesia, Karl Vick in Istanbul, Scott Wilson in Jerusalem, Griff Witte in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mary Jordan in London and special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Marie Valla in Paris contributed to this report.