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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 17:04 GMT
A clash of rights and responsibilities
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Western governments have reacted with noticeable caution over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslim cleric outside burning Danish mission in Beirut
The Danish mission in Beirut was set on fire by protesters

The last thing these governments want is another confrontation in which Islam is seen to be pitched against the West.

The strategy therefore is to try to prevent this from becoming a "clash of civilisations".

Officials fear Islamic radicals will exploit the issue, further justifying their case that the West is basically hostile to Islam. Islamist websites are already calling for revenge attacks.

But it has become a clash of culture, an argument about how far free speech should prevail over the sensitivities of a religious or other group.

(Update: for an account of how another picture, allegedly of Muhammad portrayed as a pig but in fact a copy of a photo from a pig-squealing contest in France, played a role, see the end of this article).

Reducing the damage

In order to minimise the damage done, governments have made a determined effort to suggest that the Danish newspaper which first printed the cartoons and the others elsewhere which reprinted them had a right to publish but a responsibility not to publish.

At the same time, the actions of protesters - burning buildings and threatening violence - have enabled these governments to switch targets onto the militant groups leading some of the demonstrations.

They have thereby sought to distinguish between those Muslims who feel that they have cause for offence and those who feel that they have to threaten and burn.

This has taken some of the pressure off governments as they struggle to reconcile a defence of free speech with criticism of the media for exercising that right.

Western statements

Western government statements have been remarkably uniform:

Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman in Washington: "Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief. But it is important that we also support the rights of individuals to express their freely held views."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw: "The right of freedom of speech in all societies and all cultures has to be exercised responsibly and does not extend to an obligation to insult."

The French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy: "Freedom of expression confers rights, it is true - it also imposes the duty of responsibility on those who are speaking out."

Criticism

The nuanced approach to the competing rights of free speech and responsibility has led to criticism from right-wing and libertarian quarters in the West.

In the United States, writer Christopher Hitchens launched into the State Department spokesman in these terms: "How appalling for the country of the First Amendment [protecting the freedom of the press] to be represented by such an administration."

The last thing governments want is another confrontation in which Islam is seen to be pitched against the West

In the UK, columnist Melanie Phillips mounted an attack on "the now pathological reluctance of the leaders of Britain and America to face up to the blindingly obvious and the extent to which they have already run up the white flag in the face of clerical fascism."

However, Western governments are reluctant to take such a firm stand. By expressing sympathy for the offence caused by the cartoons, they are also trying to encourage moderate Muslim elements both at home and abroad to seize the debate and take the initiative away from extremists.

The Moral Maze

In a special edition of the BBC Radio programme The Moral Maze on Saturday, there was an interesting division between two Muslim contributors, illustrating the debate which Western governmental reactions are designed to influence.

Tariq Ramadan, visiting fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, argued that Muslims had overreacted: "The idea that this is a clash of civilisations is to be driven by extremist views and emotional statements. The Muslim reaction is far too excessive and not the way forward."

Such arguments however were rejected by Hileh Avshar, Professor of Politics and Women's Studies at York University. She put the case for a veto by Muslims on this aspect of free speech: "You can't expect Muslims to behave exactly like Westerners do. If the Muslims feel as a matter of their faith that they do not like to have the picture of their prophet then that view should be respected."

Governments in the West are hoping that the views of Tariq Ramadan will prevail and that Muslims living in Western societies will become more liberal. In exchange, these governments are saying, we will do our best to get the media to act with sensitivity.

The issue of whether and what laws should restrict freedom of speech is also being examined.

The propaganda factor - the "pig" picture

One aspect that these governments might also want to examine is how they can counter false information.

Twelve cartoons were originally published by Jyllands-Posten. None showed the Prophet with the face of a pig. Yet such a portrayal has circulated in the Middle East (The BBC was caught out and for a time showed film of this in Gaza without realizing it was not one of the 12).

This picture, a fuzzy grey photocopy, can now be traced back (suspicion having been confirmed by an admission) to a delegation of Danish Muslim leaders who went to the Middle East in November to publicise the cartoons. The visit was organised by Abu Laban, a leading Muslim figure in Denmark.

According to the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet, the delegation took along a pamphlet showing the 12 drawings. But the delegation also showed a number of other pictures, including the "pig" one. The delegation claimed they had been sent to Danish Muslims and were the sort of insults that they had to endure. These also got into circulation.

(Update: A reader has e-mailed to say that the original of the "pig" picture was from a "pig-squealing" competition held in France every summer. Some character dressed up like a pig. See the link to the neandernews.com site on the right for the details.

Ekstra Bladet has also published a letter taken by the delegation on its mission. This gives the delegation's account of how the cartoons originated and what the reaction to them was. But it also mentions other pictures, which it said were "much more offending." These presumably included the "pig" picture, whose origin is now known.

I have also been sent links to an Egyptian newspaper which published the 12 cartoons last October. The paper said that these were "racist" and would insult Muslims everywhere. See link at right)

Western diplomats appear to have missed this entirely and seem to have made no attempt to counter some of the arguments in the pamphlet or to distinguish between the various portrayals.

The extra pictures might not have made much difference (though some of my readers argue that they must have) but it shows how rapidly propaganda can add to fuel to the fire.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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