France’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk and the central Jewish Consistoire joined their Muslim and Christian counterparts on Thursday denouncing press drawings portraying Islamic prophet Muhammad.
The caricatures were printed on Wednesday in the French evening paper France Soir and in a dozen other European newspapers after their publication in Denmark and Norway raised the ire of Arab communities and countries.
France Soir’s main editor Jacques Lefranc, who was dismissed by the newspaper’s Egyptian-French owner Raymond Lakah following the publication, said the paper decided to print the caricatures out of principal in support of the Danish media and the freedom of the press.
But the initiative was criticized by the French government, by Muslims communities and countries and by Christian and Jewish religious dignitaries.
“I share the anger of Muslims following this publication,” said Sitruk after a scheduled meeting with French Prime minister Dominique de Villepin on anti-Semitism.
“I understand the hostility in the Arab world. One does not achieve anything by humiliating religion. It’s a dishonest lack of respect,” Sitruk stressed.
He added that he was a long-time opponent of those who mock Christianity and Islam. “You don’t get anywhere by insulting religion,” he said.
Sitruk said he was one of the first religious leaders who criticized Martin Scorsese’s movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, “which referred to Jesus in insulting terms to Christian beliefs”. France’s chief rabbi added that in the past he denounced Salman Rushdie’s criticism over Islam. “One does not gain anything by putting religion down.”
“Free expression often trespassed its limits,” Sitruk told the press, stressing he is also hostile to caricatures of the head of state.
Rabbi Michel Serfaty, from the Jewish Muslim friendship association, said believes that press drawings of biblical figures or Jesus Christ can be printed, but not Muslim caricatures.
“The Christians and us are used to this,” he told EJP. “We’ve been living in this free speech environment for centuries. They’ve just arrived. We don’t care about these caricatures but they get hurt.”
Asked whether Muslims wouldn’t feel insulted if their religion is treated differently from others, Rabbi Serfaty told EJP that “the important issue now is to reach civilian peace. We must let Muslims develop their own self-criticism by themselves.”
Many French readers didn’t get to see the controversial Muhammad drawings because France Soir was totally sold out and no other paper wished to publish them.
France Soir, a paper trapped with financial problems, might completely disappear in a few days. The paper’s newsroom criticized the owner’s decision to dismiss the editor, and explained this move could have been linked to his business contacts in Egypt.
He was also criticized by political figures but the government however criticized the editor of France Soir following the publication.
“France condemns everything that hurts individuals in their religious beliefs,” said a foreign ministry press release.
Freedom of expression
In Brussels, European Commission vice-president, Franco Frattini, said in a statement issued Thursday: “I can understand the feelings of indignation, frustration and sadness of the Muslim communities. Such events do not facilitate dialogue between faiths and cultures and provide barriers to the integration process to which the member states of the Union are committed.”
However the EU official, responsible for integration policy as well as the promotion and respect of fundamental rights, recalled that “one of the founding principles of our Europe is freedom of expression, including the right to criticize.”
“A difference of opinion, even if it is bitter and disrespectful, often feeds into free polemic debate, in which satire plays a full part,” he added.
“I personally regard the publication of the cartoons as somewhat imprudent, even if the satire used was aimed at a distorted interpretation of religion, such as that used by terrorists to recruit young people to their cause and turning them into fanatics, sometimes to the point of sending them into action as suicide bombers,” Frattini said.
He sharply criticized reactions and calls for boycott against Denmark and others, including the European Union.
More newspapers in France, Germany and Spain have reprinted Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, saying press freedom was more important than protests from the Muslim world.
Yossi Lempkowicz contributed to the report
Reprinted by permission of European Jewish Press