Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: Europe, Islam, and Cartoons

Stories from The Associated Press and The New York Times on the escalation of protests and death threats after the European newspapers' reprinting cartoons mocking Muhammad. I grow increasingly interested in seeing if moderate Islam isn't just a secular Western fantasy, and has any hope of balancing out or correcting this internal thrust toward violence. I also include an AP story of the Editor of the French newspaper , who was fired today for his choice to reprint those cartoons as a demonstration of the freedom of expression in a free society.

As a theologian, I am committed to the idea of the freedom of belief as the only avenue to true belief. A system like Islam's that contains within it the potential for a death penalty for apostasy is incompatible with such a freedom. This sets up a potential for a clash of incompatibility with the West that Europe has only lately begin to show a sensitivity toward. Although Europeans have lost much of their Christian character and memory, their secular version of society still coasts on the intellectual power of that vision of the dignity of the individual human being.

RELEVANT TANGENT/INTELLECTUAL HISTORY LESSON: The ideal of a society with a secularized government grew out of the experience of the "Wars of Religion" that were part of the political fallout of the Protestant Reformation. The overwhelming assumption in human society has always been that a society needed to be religiously monolithic in order to survive. Only after the experience of conflict in Christian Europe has an alternative been attempted--first in America. This wasn't a Secularist insight, although I suspect contemporary Secularists tend to credit it to themselves. The idea of the "secular" sphere where a particular religious loyalty would not be in itself politically determinative was a Christian move intended to create a political stability wherein the freedom of worship could be guaranteed. Secularism as the distinct ideology with which we are familiar developed some time later, as originally that secular sphere was seen as an "artificial" state, and the idea of an individual ideology of non-belief wasn't really foreseen. (This shift is at the root of contemporary American conflicts of Church-State understandings.)

Islam still operates in that assumption of the need for monolithic unity in religion as a presumption of social stability. That's no surprise, as I've said, because most people through most of history have believed that to be true about society and--with people as ignorant about history as they tend to be today--people in culturally-Western European countries (including in North America) forget that the system we have today is as historically new and radical an experiment in human society as it is. The question for the future will be whether or not Islam develops in such a way that that assumption in its Scriptures can be set aside. If it stays with a fundamentalist/non-historicised reading of its own Scriptures, then I suspect that Islam cannot be compatible with Europe in the long run, and the end of that incompatibility will have to be either an assimilation of European Islam, the growth of Islam in Europe until it gains a majority sufficient to democratically dismiss European legal traditions and impose Islamic law (that's not an alarmist view in itself, I read a number of Muslim leaders baldly advocating that plan), or the conflict foreseen in the "clash of civilization" theorists.

With so much general European assumptions about their Christian heritage being something of the past that has somehow been disproven or shown wanting, I do not know that the intellectual and spiritual resources of Christianity will be a major resource in safeguarding its gifts of freedom and culture to Europe. Europe's inability to even acknowledge its Christian heritage, as we saw in the refusal to include such a mention in the preamble to the Constitution of the European Union, does not speak to such a mustering of its own resources of identity.

Protests Over Muhammad Cartoons Escalate

Feb 2, 5:49 PM (ET)


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Outrage over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad escalated in the Arab and Islamic world Thursday, with Palestinian gunmen briefly kidnapping a German citizen and protesters in Pakistan chanting "death to France" and "death to Denmark."

Palestinian militants surrounded European Union headquarters in Gaza, and gunmen burst into several hotels and apartments in the West Bank in search of foreigners to take hostage.

In Iraq, Islamic leaders urged worshippers to stage demonstrations from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra following weekly prayer services Friday. Afghanistan and Indonesia condemned the drawings, and Iran summoned the Austrian ambassador, whose country holds the EU presidency.

The issue opened divisions among European Union governments. Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said EU leaders have a responsibility to "clearly condemn" insults to any religion. But French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said he preferred "an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship."

Sarkozy joined journalists in rallying around the editorial director of France Soir, who was fired by the newspaper's Egyptian owner. France Soir and several other newspapers across Europe reprinted the caricatures this week in a show of support for freedom of expression.

The cartoons were first published in September in a Danish newspaper, touching off anger among Muslims who knew about it. The issue reignited last week after Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark.

The Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had asked 40 cartoonists to draw images of the prophet. The purpose, its chief editor said, was "to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship, as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues."

Islamic law, based on clerics' interpretation of the Quran and the sayings of the prophet, forbids depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and other major religious figures - even positive ones - to prevent idolatry. Shiite Muslim clerics differ in that they allow images of their greatest saint, Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, though not Muhammad.

Critics say the drawings were particularly insulting because some appeared to ridicule Muhammad. One cartoon showed the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb.

France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk said he shared Muslim anger.

"We gain nothing by lowering religions, humiliating them and making caricatures of them. It's a lack of honesty and respect," he said. He said freedom of expression "is not a right without limits."

In the Arab world, a Jordanian newspaper, Shihan, took the bold step Thursday of running some of the drawings, saying it wanted to show its readers how offensive the cartoons were but also urging the world's Muslims to "be reasonable." Its editorial noted that Jyllands-Posten had apologized, "but for some reason, nobody in the Muslim world wants to hear the apology."

Hours later, the Jordanian government threatened legal action against Shihan, and the owners of the weekly said they had fired its chief editor, Jihad al-Momani, and withdrawn the issue from sale.

The outrage Thursday was most tangible in the Palestinian territories, where Norway and Denmark closed diplomatic offices after masked gunmen threatened to kidnap foreigners in Gaza.

Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank searched several hotels, and a German citizen was briefly kidnapped by gunmen from a hotel in the city of Nablus. Palestinian police freed the German, a teacher, after less than an hour.

Foreign reporters either pulled out of Gaza on Thursday or canceled plans to go to the coastal strip.

Palestinian security officials said they would try to protect foreigners in Gaza. Nineteen foreigners have been kidnapped in Gaza in recent months; all were freed unharmed.

The protests in the Palestinian territories came a week after the Islamic militant group Hamas defeated the ruling Fatah Party in parliamentary elections.

In one unusual twist, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, visited a Gaza church Thursday and promised protection to Christians after Fatah gunmen threatened to target churches as part of their protests. Zahar offered to dispatch gunmen from Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, to guard the church.

"You are our brothers," Zahar told Father Manuel Musallam of the Holy Family Church.

In Gaza City, a dozen gunmen linked to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' defeated Fatah Party surrounded the EU Commission's local office.

One of the militants, flanked by two masked men with assault rifles, said the governments of Germany, France, Norway and Denmark must apologize for the cartoons by Thursday evening. If no apology is issued, the gunmen said they would target citizens of the four countries and shut down media offices, including the French news agency.

"Any citizens of these countries, who are present in Gaza, will put themselves in danger," the gunman said.

About 10 armed Palestinians gathered later at the French cultural center in Gaza City and warned of a "tough response" to any further disparagement of Muhammad.

Only a few dozen foreigners from the targeted countries were in Gaza on Thursday. Many others pulled out in recent months, following a spate of abductions of foreigners by Fatah-linked gunmen.

Danish and French members of an international observer team at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt stayed away from Gaza on Thursday, and instead worked from the group's headquarters in the Israeli town of Ashkelon, said a spokesman, Julio de La Guardia.

Gunhild Forselv, spokeswoman for the international mission in the West Bank town of Hebron, said she was in touch with community leaders and was not concerned for the safety of the 72-member observer force, which includes 21 Norwegians and 11 Danes. "We don't feel threatened," she said.

The EU's election observers were winding down operations, as planned, said Mathias Eick, who is German. He said the Gaza office had been closed and that 49 observers were in Ramallah. "There were security risks even before the election and nothing has changed," he said.

Norway closed its representative office in the West Bank to the public because of the threats, but said the 23-member staff remained on the job.

The Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen said all Danes, except for two diplomats, have left the West Bank and Gaza in recent days. The Danish representative office in the West Bank was to be closed Friday because of the threats, a diplomat said.

In Nablus, gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot, went to four hotels and told staff they must not host Europeans from the targeted countries. The gunmen said they searched two apartments for foreigners to kidnap, but didn't find any. Foreigners now have three days to leave town, the gunmen said in an impromptu news conference after their fruitless search.

Iraqi Shiite Muslims stomp on a painting of the Danish flag denouncing the country's publication of a cartoon of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006, in the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq. Denmark is receiving Muslim protests over the newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in one of their major news publications. A series of caricatures, published Sept. 30 in the Danish Jyllands-Posten daily, angered Muslims that show the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. (AP Photo/Alaa al- Marjani)

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All right reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

The New York Times
February 3, 2006
Temperatures Rise Over Cartoons Mocking Muhammad

PARIS, Feb. 2 — An international dispute over European newspaper cartoons deemed blasphemous by some Muslims gained momentum on Thursday when gunmen threatened the European Union offices in Gaza and more European papers pointedly published the drawings as an affirmation of freedom of speech.

In Gaza, masked gunmen swarmed the European Union offices on Thursday to protest the cartoons, and there were threats to foreigners from European countries where the cartoons have been reprinted. The gunmen stayed about 45 minutes.

A newly elected legislator from Hamas, the radical Islamic group that swept the Palestinian elections last week, said large rallies were planned in Gaza in the next few days to protest the cartoons, which depict the Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light. Merely publishing the image of Muhammad is regarded as blasphemous by many Muslims.

"We are angry — very, very, very angry," said the legislator, Jamila al-Shanty. "No one can say a bad word about our prophet."

The conflict is the latest manifestation of growing tensions between Europe and the Muslim world as the Continent struggles to absorb a fast-expanding Muslim population whose customs and values are often at odds with Europe's secular societies. Islam is Europe's fastest growing religion and is now the second largest religion in most European countries. Racial and religious discrimination against Muslims in Europe's weakest economies adds to the strains.

The trouble began in September in Denmark, when the daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons lampooning intolerance among Muslims and links to terrorism. A Norwegian magazine published the cartoons again last month, and the issue erupted this week after diplomatic efforts failed to resolve demands by several angry Arab countries that the publications be punished.

The cartoons include one depicting Muhammad with a bomb in place of a turban on his head and another showing him on a cloud in heaven telling an approaching line of smoking suicide bombers, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!"

They have since been reprinted in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Hungary. The BBC broadcast them on Thursday.

Most European commentators concede that the cartoons were in poor taste but argue that conservative Muslims must learn to accept Western standards of free speech and the pluralism that those standards protect.

Several accused Muslims of a double standard, noting that media in several Arab countries continue to broadcast or publish references to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious early 20th-century anti-Semitic hoax that presented itself as the Jews' master plan to rule the world.

Many Muslims say the Danish cartoons reinforce a dangerous confusion between Islam and the Islamist terrorism that nearly all Muslims abhor. Dalil Boubakeur, head of France's Muslim Council, called the caricatures a new sign of Europe's growing "Islamophobia."

Saudi Arabia and Syria recalled their ambassadors from Denmark, while the Danish government summoned other foreign envoys in Copenhagen to talks on Friday over the issue, having already explained that it does not control the press.

"We are talking about an issue with fundamental significance to how democracies work," Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Copenhagen daily Politiken.

Jyllands-Posten has received two bomb threats in the past few days, despite having apologized for any hurt feelings about the drawings.

Late Thursday morning, about a dozen gunmen appeared at the European Union offices in Gaza, firing automatic weapons and spray-painting a warning on the outside gate: "Closed until an apology is sent to Muslims." The men handed out a pamphlet warning Denmark, Norway and France that they had 48 hours to apologize.

The office, staffed only by Palestinians at the time, reportedly received a telephone warning that the gunmen were coming, and was quickly closed.

In Nablus, on the West Bank, two masked gunmen kidnapped a German from a hotel, thinking he was French or Danish, Agence France-Presse reported. They turned him over to the police once they realized their mistake.

Leaders of Fatah and Hamas said they did not endorse harming any foreigners in Gaza. All the same, the threat emptied hotels there of Europeans, most of them journalists. The manager of the popular Al Diera Hotel said 12 of his 22 rooms had been cleared out by late afternoon.

France Soir, the only French daily to reprint the cartoons, fired its managing editor late Wednesday as "a strong sign of respect for the beliefs and intimate convictions of every individual," according to a statement from its owner, Raymond Lakah, an Egyptian-born French businessman.

In an editorial defending its decision to publish the cartoons, France Soir asked Thursday what would remain of "the freedom to think, speak, even to come and go," if society adhered to all of the prohibitions of the world's various religions. The result, the newspaper said, would be "the Iran of the mullahs, for example."

Not everyone saw it that way. Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, issued a statement condemning "in the strongest terms" France Soir's publication of the cartoons. "Any insult to the holy prophet (peace be upon him) is an insult to more than one billion Muslims," his statement read.

On Thursday, France's embassy in Algeria, a former colony, issued a statement condemning the publication, saying the French government was "deeply attached to the spirit of tolerance and to respect of religious belief, as we are to the principle of freedom of the press."

"In this light, France condemns all those who hurt individuals in their beliefs or religious convictions," the statement read.

Still, Europeans showed no signs of backing down. Le Monde ran a sketch of a man, presumably Muhammad, made of sentences reading, "I must not draw Muhammad."

Craig S. Smith reported from Paris for this article, and Ian Fisher from Gaza.

French Editor Fired Over Muhammad Drawings

Feb 2, 9:09 AM (ET)


PARIS (AP) - The managing editor of a French newspaper was fired after it republished caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked fresh anger among Muslims, employees at the paper said Thursday.

The drawings, which first ran in a Danish paper in September, were reprinted Wednesday in France Soir and several other European papers rallying to defend freedom of expression.

The managing editor of France Soir, Jacques Lefranc, was fired after the publication by owner Raymond Lakah, an Egyptian magnate, employees said. No official reason was immediately announced.

Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet to prevent idolatry. The drawings have prompted boycotts of Danish goods and bomb threats and demonstrations against Danish facilities, and have divided opinion within Europe and the Middle East.

The cartoons include an image of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, and another portraying him holding a sword, his eyes covered by a black rectangle.

Angered by the drawings, Palestinian gunmen jumped on the outer wall of a European Union office in Gaza City on Thursday and demanded an apology. Masked gunmen also briefly took over an EU office in Gaza on Monday.

Syria has called for those behind publishing the cartoons to be punished. Danish goods were swept from shelves in many countries, and Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their ambassadors to Denmark.

The front page of France Soir on Wednesday carried the headline "Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God" and a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud.

Germany's Die Welt daily printed one of the drawings on its front page, arguing that a "right to blasphemy" was anchored in democratic freedoms. The Berliner Zeitung daily printed two of the caricatures as part of its coverage of the controversy.

Italy's La Stampa printed a small version of the offending caricature, on page 13. Two Spanish papers, Barcelona's El Periodico and Madrid's El Mundo, also carried the photos.

The publication by French Soir drew a stern reaction from the French Foreign Ministry. While it said that freedom of expression is dear to France, the ministry "condemns all that hurts individuals in their beliefs or their religious convictions."

The issue is sensitive in France, home to Western Europe's largest Muslim community with an estimated 5 million people.

Mohammed Bechari, president of the National Federation of the Muslims of France, said his group would start legal proceedings against France Soir because of "these pictures that have disturbed us, and that are still hurting the feelings of 1.2 billion Muslims."
Tags: cultural, ethical, europe, historical, islam, legal, media, philosophical, political, theological notebook

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