The reaction came quickly. Just a few hours after the publication of several caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in the French daily France Soir, publisher Raymond Lakah fired the newspaper's editor in chief. In a terse statement, the Franco-Egyptian businessman expressed his "sorrow towards those in the Muslim community and all people who had been shocked or made indignant by the publication."
But despite the loss of editor Jacques Lefranc, France Soir hit the newsstands on Thursday with the headline: "Help Voltaire, they've gone mad!" Apparently the other journalists at the Parisian tabloid intend to continue where their top editor had left off before his dismissal.
The paper's editorial continued in the same vein. "Imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of different religions? Where would that leave freedom of thought, freedom of speech or the freedom to come and go? We know such societies all too well. Take, for example, Iran and its mullahs. Fanaticism is only able to feed itself through the capitulation of republicans and the secularists. And we already know what kind of defeats such a 'spirit of Munich' can lead to."
Since their initial publication in Danish and Norwegian newspapers, the caricatures have drawn outrage from the Muslim world. Amir Moussa, the general secretary of the Arab League, accused the European press of having "a double standard -- on the one hand it fears accusations of anti-Semitism, and on the other, it claims its freedom of speech when it wants to make caricatures of Islam."
In the face of such strong reaction, France Soir's Wednesday cover did come across as somewhat spiteful: "Yes, we have the right to caricature God," read the headline above an illustration that featured Mohammed and other deities wearing turbaned bombs. But in contrast to Denmark and Norway, where the editors who originally ran the cartoons have faced little fallout or punishment, France Soir sent its editor in chief packing. The reasoning is simple: France has Europe's largest population of Muslims -- 5 million -- and jokes about religion in the country, especially Islam, can be dangerous.
Sensitivity to religious issues didn't arrive in France with the first appearance of Islamic fundamentalism. The origins of the sensitivities date back to a power struggle between the secular French government and the Catholic Church that ended a hundred years ago with the strict separation of church and state, and a deeply divided French society. The one side believed religion was a totally private issue and should be kept out of public life; the other saw religion as the foundation of a common society.
Most recently, as France debated whether to pass a law against people wearing "religious symbols" in French schools -- a law clearly aimed at Muslim headscarves -- secular French collided once again with Catholics, since the law would also ban people from wearing crucifixes ostentatiously.
This dichotomy over religious issues surfaced again this week in newspaper editorials about the Mohammed caricatures. The secularists cited freedom of the press to defend the caricatures, while the Catholics called on people to respect the creeds of others.
"Perhaps people must be reminded that freedom of speech applies to anything that is respective of the laws," wrote the daily Republique des Pyrenées. "Every person in France has the right to criticize religion. "Blasphemy is officially permitted." But other papers expressed fear of hurting the feelings of people from other cultures. "Didn't anyone stop and think about the fact that in the indispensable Arab-Muslim civilization an act like this will be interpreted as a cruel provocation?" asked a commentator in Le Courrier Picard.
Conservative politicians also took part in the debate on Thursday, with many expressing their dismay over Lefranc's firing at France Soir. "This Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance is extremely dangerous," former French culture minister François Fillon said.
But others expressed their concern over the massive reaction against the cartoons in the Islamic world and also in the French Muslim community. The publication of the cartoons in Scandinavia caused so much anger that some Arab countries in the Gulf region are massively boycotting Danish products.
After the French publisher printed the caricatures in Paris on Wednesday, France also became a target of threats. Radical Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip have threatened to attack French, Danish and Norwegian citizens if they do not leave the Palestinian-controlled area. In Tunisia, the government banned the sale of France Soir's Wednesday edition, and a Moroccan newspaper demanded that the French paper be "punished." Indeed, in making his decision to fire Lefranc, fears that the children and grandchildren of France's Maghrebian immigrants might once again set fire to the streets of banlieus (roughly, "suburban ghettos") over this journalistic blasphemy couldn't have been far from publisher Lakah's mind.
And that's another reason why the sensitivities of the French Muslim community aren't to be played with lightly. Most of France's Muslims aren't just co-religionists. They also belong to the same socioeconomic segment of society. "The question of Islam isn't just a religious one. It's also social and political. It's also about discrimination and racism," wrote the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur this week.
France's Muslim community is predominantly made up of immigrants from North Africa and their children and grandchildren. They are the ones living in the banlieus across the country. "They are the most frequent victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks in our country," says French political analyst Nonna Mayer.
A study published in January suggested that religion alone did not make French Muslims any likelier to have extremist religious tendencies; however, Islam remained key to those people "looking for an identity." And when Islam is attacked or ridiculed, those people already feeling shut out from society see it as an attack on their already injured self-esteem. Le Nouvel Observateur pointed to classic example of such thinking. One paper quoted a young man named Said from Nice. He said he considered himself to be an atheist, but "when the mayor rejects the building of a mosque, I suddenly become a Muslim."
In light of the explosive mood in the suburbs, people are on edge. An overwhelming 86 percent of the French said in a survey released on Monday that the violence in the country's ghettos could reignite at any moment.
The journalist group Reporters Without Borders called for moderation and dialogue. "The political and religious authorities in the Islamic states and the press in the Arab world should calm tempers," the group said in a statement. But it may come too late.
In Iraq Danish flags are being stepped on and burned, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned if the publication of such cartoons continues, "it will have dangerous consequences by incensing the feelings of both the Islamic world and Muslims in Europe."
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