When Did You Forget to Defend Freedom?

Article excerpt

This month, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was put on trial after publishing, in its special issue of February 2006, the 12 Danish Muhammad cartoons, and a string of caricatures by well-known French artists. All were lampooning religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, along with their priests, imams, rabbis--name it. The cover image by Cabu, showed, under the headline "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists", the Prophet covering his eyes with his hands and crying: "It's hard to be loved by idiots."

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Charlie Hebdo is being sued for racism by the Paris Grand Mosque, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (an association under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood's Hani Ramadan and Yussuf al-Qaradawi) and the World Islamic League (a Saudi foundation which promotes Wahhabism). Their evidence includes three cartoons--Cabu's, the Danish drawing showing the Prophet with a "turbomb" (a bomb in his turban), and another with a religious Muslim at heaven's gates warning Islamist terrorists: "Stop, we've run out of virgins."

The background to this trial begins in September 2005, when the conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet in different ways. Islamist imams staged official protests throughout the world. Then all hell broke loose: burning of embassies, torching of flags, reprisal killings. In total, 140 people died in extremely violent clashes.

Europe, taken aback by such violence, seemed almost absent-minded. Its media were unusually quiet. In Britain, the historical bastion of freedom of speech, none of the national dailies published the cartoons. Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, praised the country's editors for "considerable sensitivity" in not printing the cartoons, and attacked European publications for doing so: "The republication of these cartoons has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."

Across the Channel, France-Soir published them all, and as a result its managing editor was sacked. Soon after, Charlie Hebdo, to show solidarity, reprinted the Nordic cartoons and commissioned more drawings from its cartoonists. This act, from a satirical weekly respected for its staunch secularism (and one that even Christian fundamentalists wouldn't dream of suing for "disrespect" and "insensitivity", let alone "blasphemy"), triggered unexpected reactions.

Criticism came principally from French and foreign radical Islamists. Then from the liberal-minded left, both in France and abroad, who saw intolerance in the drawings, but not in the reaction of those who branded rational criticism acts of fascism. For instance, Sarah Joseph, editor of the British Muslim lifestyle magazine Emel, wrote in the Guardian: "Some countries that have reprinted the images--Spain, France, Italy and Germany--have a nasty history of fascism . …