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by Julio Godoy

Mohammed Cartoon Issue Is Bad Taste, Not Free Speech

(IPS) PARIS -- Leading French Muslims say the Danish newspaper cartoons that equate the prophet Mohammed with terrorism symbolize a growing European prejudice against the Islamic world.

"The prophet founded a peaceful religion, and had by no means the intention of inspiring terrorist fanaticism," Dalil Boubakeur, highest religious leader of the Mosque of Paris and president of the country's Muslim Council (CFCM, after its French name), told IPS.

"We Muslims want to insist on the peaceful convictions of our religion, and will never accept that it will be deformed," Boubakeur added. He described the Danish cartoons, published Sept. 30 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, as "an unacceptable, intentional misspelling of our beliefs."

One of the cartoons depicts Mohammed carrying an ignited bomb on his head in place of a turban.

Muslim protesters torch Danish embassy in Beirut Feb. 5

Abdelwahab Meddeb, professor of comparative literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris, and an expert on Islam, said the Danish cartoons go beyond violating the complex Muslim positions against producing images of Mohammed.

Muslim leaders in other European countries expressed similar fears. Ayyub Axel Koehler, new chairman of the German Central Muslim Council, described the Danish cartoons as "blasphemous and insulting."

The cartoons, which by now have been printed in newspapers in other European countries including Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, have provoked a wave of violent demonstrations in the Arab and Muslim world, including attacks against European diplomatic facilities in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

In addition, the cartoons have taken a heavy diplomatic toll on Denmark. Religious and political leaders all over the Muslim world have called for a boycott of Danish products, and Saudi Arabia even withdrew its ambassador from Copenhagen as a demonstration of its disgust.

The demonstrations suggest that the Danish caricatures have increased the political schism dividing Europe and the Muslim world.

But Muslim leaders have expressed some satisfaction with the sacking of Jacques Lefranc, until Feb. 1 editor-in-chief of the French newspaper France Soir, for having printed the cartoons. "I thank France Soir's boss for this decision and for his courage," said Mohamed Bechari, chairman of the National Federation of French Muslims.

France Soir printed the 12 Danish cartoons, and defended that decision in an editorial arguing that freedom of the press and the freedom to satire were more important than respecting religious taboos.

"No religious dogma can be forced upon a secular, democratic society," the newspaper had argued. But this position was maintained only a few hours. By the end of the day, the newspaper's publisher Raymond Lakah, a French-Egyptian businessman, had sacked Lefranc.

Bechari dismissed the argument that freedom of the press is a more important value than respecting religious taboos.

"In the name of freedom of the press, some Europeans are willing to insult the religious convictions of 1.2 billion Muslims around the world," Bechari told IPS. He described the cartoons as "yet another provocation against Muslims, aimed at widening the divide between the Western world and Islam, and at supporting the clash of cultures."

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims around the world have paid a heavy price," Bechari told IPS. "As I saw the cartoons in France Soir, I realized that the efforts of millions of Muslims to integrate into European society had been reduced to nothing."

Curiously, this point of view is now also shared by the Danish journalist who published the cartoons in the first place.

Carsten Juste, Jyllands-Posten's editor-in-chief, who last September decided to print the cartoons to show that the Danish press was not practicing self-censorship on issues related to Islam, now says he regrets the decision.

In a Jan. 31 statement on the newspaper's Web site, Juste apologized for offending Muslims. In an interview with a Swedish newspaper last week, Juste added that "the gap dividing the peoples in the Western from the Muslim world is wider than the Grand Canyon."

Meanwhile, scholars are debating whether the Islamic ban on showing images of the prophet really exists.

"Images, in general, are rejected by Islam founding texts," said Abdelwahab Meddeb. In one passage from the Koran, he said, Mohammed is presented as arguing with his wife Aocha on images she had of her cousin. "Do not you see that a house with images is going to be deserted by the angels," Mohammed warned Aocha.

Meddeb told IPS that Islam tradition forbids images because "by imitating life, they engage in a ridiculous competition with God. These artificial images will never have a soul, in opposition to life created by God. And then, there is the danger of idolatry."

But at the same time, he said, there is no specific ban on images of Mohammed. "Islamic iconographic tradition has followed the Christian one, and there are Arab books full of images of the prophet. What you will never find in Islamic iconography is a representation of God."

Jean-Franaois Ciement, French expert on Islamic icons, agrees there is no specific ban on depicting Mohammed.

"The general prohibition of images has been getting around since the Middle Ages," Ciement told IPS.

"Artists in India, Persia, and in the Ottoman empire have represented the prophet in miniature, which reduces the danger of idolatry. Another method was representing Mohammed without a face -- without lips, ears, nose, eyes and so forth. Some artists have even thrown a veil upon Mohammed's face," he said.

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Albion Monitor   February 2, 2006   (

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