Cartoon row goes to French court

Published Feb 2, 2007


By Tom Heneghan

Paris - The row over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed will be replayed in a French court next week when two influential Islamic groups sue a Paris satirical weekly for inciting hatred against Muslims by printing the caricatures.

The two Muslim associations aim to show that reprinting the cartoons was a provocation equal to anti-Semitic acts or Holocaust denial that are already banned under French law, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, said on Friday.

The cartoons, originally published in 2005 in the Danish daily Jyllens-Posten, provoked violent protests in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that left 50 people dead. Several European publications reprinted them as an affirmation of free speech.

The weekly Charlie Hebdo, which put out a special edition with the cartoons, argued religions are not beyond criticism and letting Muslims censor the media would curtail a basic right.

"Free speech is not the issue here. The issue is that, in France, racism is not an opinion, it is a crime," said Francis Szpiner, lawyer for the Grand Mosque, which has sued along with the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF).

"Two of those caricatures make a link between Muslims and Muslim terrorists. That has a name and it's called racism."

During the cartoon controversy, offended Muslims demanded an apology and a ban on criticising Islam. President Jacques Chirac accused Charlie Hebdo of willfully provoking Muslims.

France's five million Muslims make up Europe's largest Islamic minority, but there was little unrest here during the controversy because the French Muslim Council (CFCM) urged people to back the legal option rather than street protests.

A Paris court will hear the case next Wednesday and Thursday and issue its ruling at a later date.

Publisher Philippe Val rejects the charge that his magazine was racist against Muslims. "It is racist to imagine that they can't understand a joke," he told the weekly L'Express.

Boubakeur, who is also head of the CFCM, said one cartoon - which showed Mohammed with a bomb for a turban - was especially offensive because it had the Muslim profession of faith on the turban and thus aimed at all Muslims and not just terrorists.

Szpiner, a prominent Paris lawyer, said the Grand Mosque's complaint was not about blasphemy because it singled out only two of the 10 cartoons printed by Charlie Hebdo as racist.

"We admit that one can caricaturise the Prophet," he said, expressing a view contrary to a widespread belief in the Muslim world that images of Mohammad are forbidden. No French court would accept an argument based on that Muslim belief.

"The issue is not the principle of caricaturising the Prophet, but a racist aggression against French Muslims, telling them they are terrorists," Szpiner said.

Boubakeur hoped the case would show France needed tighter laws to protect against Islamophobia. The Grand Mosque suit is based on a law against insulting a group on religious grounds.

But he opposed a specific hate-speech law for Muslims or anything like a recent law France passed making it a crime to deny that Armenians suffered genocide in Ottoman Turkey in 1915.

"We're thinking about a general law, not just one for Jews, one for Armenians and one for Muslims," he said. "One can have differences of opinion about religion, but one cannot spout hate because hate favours violence."

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