IN THE AFTERMATH of the Muhammad-caricature row, Muslims in Europe express little of the theological indignation of their Middle Eastern counterparts. Instead, many have kept their responses secular, posing questions about racism, politics and double standards. Such a position hasn’t really registered on Europe’s mainstream media, which have focused on the minority of unintegrated firebrand Muslims and glossed over the moderate Muslim majority that remains concerned and conflicted about the line between free speech and hate speech.
Slimane Zeghidour, a familiar face on the international French news channel TV5, where he is also the editor in chief, is quick to point out that as a secular man, he “holds no special respect for Islam.” Yet he deplores the Western media’s focus on one explanation for the cartoon crisis, simplifying it to a clash of civilizations, between “an unsacred, postmodern Europe” and “patriarchal and archaic Islam.” The current controversy, which saw the republication of images representing the Prophet Muhammad — ostensibly in the name of free speech — has ironically revealed that speech, at least in Europe, is not totally free. Lawyers representing Muslim organizations in France have pointed to laws that outlaw racist or anti-Semitic defamations. Last March, in an important precedent, a Paris tribunal forced the clothing retailer Marithé François Girbaud to retract from public view an ad that made light of a biblical scene. The verdict called the “imposing” banner an “aggressive and gratuitous intrusion into intimate beliefs.”
Newspapers greeted that outcome with not nearly as much fanfare as they did the recent trials of standup comic Dieudonné, who had caricatured a Jewish settler in one of his acts and, on another occasion, made generalizations about Jews to a magazine. The once-celebrated comedian suffered a disastrous boycott of his shows. He is still struggling, even though he was exonerated of anti-Semitic defamation by the courts in May 2004 for the first incident, and on February 9 for the second. “Caricatures of Jews or homosexuals are considered abnormal, but when they’re ridiculing Islam, everyone talks about freedom of expression,” Zeghidour says. In France, several racist-defamation lawsuits are being prepared to challenge the newspapers that had published the cartoons. Whether or not the content of the cartoons — some of which represent a swarthy, threatening man with avid eyes and a bent nose — constitutes a racist attack is a question that has not been taken seriously by the media. Certain details like exaggeration of the nose could also be found in the anti-Semitic cartoons of the 1930s, Zeghidour notes.
Last week, the populist magazine Charlie Hebdo became the latest French media outlet to print the cartoons first published in Denmark. Like the Danish Jyllands-Posten, Charlie Hebdo has a murky record on anti-Muslim rhetoric; at one point, the paper heavily supported overt Italian racist Orianna Fallacci, who was ordered to stand trial in Italy on hate-speech charges for defaming Islam in her book The Force of Reason. Charlie Hebdo may have to face the same free-speech “dares” that Jyllands-Posten briefly succumbed to when its editor in chief said he’d consider printing the results of the Iranian Hamshari paper’s Holocaust cartoon contest, only to be sent on indefinite vacation by the higher-ups. In 2003, Jyllands-Posten had previously rejected unsolicited cartoons ridiculing Jesus Christ, specifying in the rejection letter that the drawings would “provoke an outcry” among its readers, the Guardian reported.
IN DENMARK, VETERAN ARAB MEDIA reporter Osama Al-Habahbeh reacted to the cartoon outcry with the consternation of someone caught between two intolerable options. Having reported from Europe for various newspapers and broadcasts (Al-Jazeera among them) for more than 20 years, Al-Habahbeh has kept a close eye on the fascinating evolution of European Muslims, especially the growing secular class: “We don’t go to mosques, and we don’t want to be represented by the imams,” he told the Deutsche Welle news service. Al-Habahbeh says the cartoons were not a problem in themselves, “but they were the last drop” before the boiling over of tensions, stemming from five years of increasingly provocative speech at the media and government levels. Parliamentarians belonging to the right-wing Danish People’s Party, a crucial part of Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen’s coalition government, have openly compared Muslims to a cancer and said Islam was not a religion but a terrorist organization. As a result, Al-Habahbeh believes hate speech toward Danish Muslims is now seen as legitimate. Like France’s, Denmark’s laws do limit freedom of speech: Mogens Glistrup, a Holocaust denier and founder of the Progress Party (from which the People’s Party seceded), was sent to prison in 2000 for racist remarks made on television. In 2001, he made another televised statement: “Mohammedans are going to exterminate the populations in those countries they have forced themselves into.”
Al-Habahbeh is critical of the Muslim protests: “I think it’s stupid that many people are demonstrating without having seen anything,” he opines, regarding those who have taken to the streets without looking at the cartoons, on the mere idea that a representation of the Prophet exists. Discussing the Jordanian editor who published the cartoons at great personal risk, Al-Habahbeh says many journalists in the Arab world “think the same way” but are “scared.” He hopes the conflict will somehow be beneficial for Arab news organizations, by showing a positive separation of state and media. On TV, some lowbrow Arab commentators have asked, “Why not just shut down the paper?,” something Al-Habahbeh believes points to a lack of knowledge about press freedom.
Those who stand to lose most in the current controversy are Muslims in the Middle East trying to fight tactfully for greater freedoms, as well as Muslims in the West seeking to justify themselves to both secular and Islamic critics. “Muslims in Europe have not made a move,” Zeghidour explains, because they’ve been “taken hostage” by warring camps: on the one hand, “the Islamists who consider them brothers living with infidels” and, on the other, “Islamophobic Europeans who see Muslims in their midst as the enemy’s fifth column.” Zeghidour believes the tolerant masses have been lost in the commotion, adding that Europeans are the population that has most intermarried with Muslims in the past 30 years, something that can be attested to by a quick stroll down the Champs Élysées and all the mixed couples one finds there. The religious scholar Tariq Ramadan — perhaps the most famous Western Muslim, a figure embraced by suburban Muslim youth but reviled by France’s secularists — articulated the widely held belief among Euro-Muslims that the current free-speech debate conceals a political debate about immigration: “Muslim citizens are not asking for more censorship but for more respect.”