French interior minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has defended a weekly sued for printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Two French Muslim groups are suing Charlie Hebdo magazine for defamation over the cartoons, printed a year ago. Mr Sarkozy noted he was often a target of the magazine but said he would prefer “too many caricatures to an absence of caricature”.
Mr Sarkozy’s letter drew concern from one of the Muslim groups behind the legal action. “He should remain neutral,” Abdullah Zekri of the Paris Grand Mosque was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. The official French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) voiced anger at what it said was government interference and convened an emergency meeting.
Editor Philippe Val told the court the cartoons critiqued “ideas, not men”. Speaking at the opening of the hearing, Mr Val asked: “If we no longer have the right to laugh at terrorists, what arms are citizens left with? How is making fun of those who commit terrorist acts throwing oil on the fire?”
The illustrations originally appeared in the best-selling Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005 to accompany an editorial criticising self-censorship in the Danish media. One image shows the Prophet Muhammad carrying a lit bomb in the shape of a turban on his head decorated with the Islamic creed.
Muslim groups said Charlie Hebdo‘s decision to publish the cartoons “was part of a considered plan of provocation aimed against the Islamic community in its most intimate faith”. It was “born out of a simplistic Islamophobia as well as purely commercial interests”.
“This is an attack on Muslims,” UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze told the court according to Reuters. “It is as if the Prophet taught terrorism to Muslims, and so all Muslims are terrorists.”
Postscript: Over at the neocon blog Harry’s Place, David T declares that Sarkozy’s intervention in the court case “is precisely how a modern state should react to a challenge such as this. It is a proud moment for France.” Yes, and you can just imagine how enthusiastically David T would rally to Charlie Hebdo‘s defence if they were taken to court for publishing anti-semitic caricatures.
For an interesting and informative article on Charlie Hebdo and Islam see “Selling the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ to the Left“. (In fact, come to think of it, maybe Harry’s Place could adopt this as their own slogan.) According to that article:
“Charlie Hebdo began to focus on the alleged threat that Muslim movements represent at the end of 2003. Before that, this aspect was less evident and was subsumed within a general animosity towards all religious beliefs.
“However, on 23 October 2002, an article had already surprised the readers of the weekly. The philosopher Robert Misrahi, a regular contributor to the publication, wrote a eulogy to the book The Rage and the Pride, the anti-Muslim racist pamphlet written by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Despite the fact that she compared the reproduction of Muslims living in Europe to that of rats, the philosopher insisted: ‘The book and the author have been slandered: Oriana Fallaci is not a racist’. And he added: ‘She also opposes the denial of reality that is common to European opinion, whether it is Italian or French for instance. They don’t want to see or clearly condemn the fact that it is Islam which is launching a crusade against the West and not the other way around. They do not want to see that the large number of attacks, throughout the world, show evidence of a single will and a common project.’
“Here we have the presentation of an aggressive Islam (and not just Islamism) engaged in a war against the West and united in a project with unknown aims. These are words that would not have been disowned by Daniel Pipes, though he is well-known for being at the other end of the political spectrum. The following week the periodical published letters of protest from shocked readers and the reply by the editorial board suggested that some of its own journalists were not very happy with that column. Robert Misrahi was soon no longer part of the Charlie Hebdo team and it might be thought that this was not accidental.
“Everything changed from October 2003 and more exactly from the time of the European Social Forum (ESF) at Saint-Denis, which was marked by a polemic over the participation of Muslim organisations. As the first meeting of this kind after the American invasion of Iraq, the forum gave the anti-globalisation and Muslim movements the opportunity to meet in order to open a debate about imperialism. Since the summer before this meeting, the advertised presence of Muslim organisations had been denounced in Atlanticist circles. The protest focused on the possible arrival of Tariq Ramadan, after he had published an article about the communitarian attitude of certain French-Jewish intellectuals in their defence of Israel.
“In his 5 November 2003 editorial, Philippe Val took a stand against the presence of Ramadan at the ESF. From then on, his magazine was progressively oriented towards a systematic denunciation of the Islamist threat, along with an increasing number of caricatures that depicted Muslims as bearded figures wearing jellabas, beating women, being anti-semitic and inciting people to suicide attacks, caricatures that had formerly been restricted to the press of the far right.”
(An even rougher translation than this can be consulted here.)
PPS: A translation of the article by Tariq Ramadan criticising certain French intellectuals can be found here.