Middle East

French cartoons fuel Prophet film tensions

French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo's publisher and cartoonist, known only as Charb (R), works at his desk on the last issue which features on the front cover a satirical drawing he drew, entitled "Intouchables 2", while journalists are filming an recording, on September 19, 2012 at the weekly's headquarters in Paris. (AFP PHOTO THOMAS SAMSON)

PARIS: A French magazine published vulgar caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad Wednesday, brandishing its right to free speech amid global tensions over a movie insulting to Islam.

In response, the French government ordered embassies and schools to close Friday in around 20 countries.

The move by the provocative weekly Charlie Hebdo followed days of violent protests from Asia to Africa against the film “Innocence of Muslims,” and turned France into a potential target of Muslim anger.

Up to now, American government sites have drawn the most ire since the film was produced privately there.

Violence linked to the amateurish movie has killed at least 30 people in seven countries, including the American ambassador to Libya.

The French government ordered its embassies and French schools abroad to close Friday, the Muslim holy day, as a precautionary measure in about 20 countries. It immediately shut down the French Embassy and the French school in Tunisia, which saw deadly film-related protests at the U.S. Embassy there last week.

In the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles, one person was slightly hurt when two masked men threw a small explosive device through the window of a kosher supermarket.

Police said it was too early to link the incident to the cartoons.

One small local Muslim group filed a legal complaint against the weekly but there were no reports of reaction on the streets of France.

The French Foreign Ministry also issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to exercise “the greatest vigilance,” avoiding public gatherings and “sensitive buildings.”

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called the drawings outrageous but said those who were offended by them should “use peaceful means to express their firm rejection.”

In continued unrest over the release of the film, several hundred lawyers forced their way into an embassy area in Pakistan’s capital Wednesday.

In Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, the U.S. temporarily closed its consulate because of similar demonstrations.

Hundreds also protested the film in Sri Lanka’s capital, burning effigies of President Barack Obama.

The magazine’s provocative act plunged France – which has western Europe’s largest Muslim population – into a new debate over the limits of free speech in a modern democracy.

A lawsuit was filed against Charlie Hebdo hours after the Wednesday issue hit newsstands, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. It would not say who filed it. The magazine also said its website had been hacked.

France’s prime minister said freedom of expression is guaranteed, but cautioned that it “should be exercised with responsibility and respect.”

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that Charlie Hebdo could be throwing “oil on the fire,” but said it’s up to the courts to decide whether the magazine went too far.

The magazine’s crude cartoons played off the film and ridiculed the violent reaction to it.

Riot police took up positions outside the offices of the magazine, which was firebombed last year after it released an edition that mocked radical Islam.

Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, who had been under police protection for a year, defended the cartoons.

“Mohammad isn’t sacred to me,” he said in an interview at the weekly’s offices on the northeast edge of Paris. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law; I don’t live under Quranic law.”

Charbonnier said he had no regrets, adding that he felt no responsibility for any violence. “I’m not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he said. “We’ve had 1,000 issues and only three problems – all after front pages about radical Islam.”

Government authorities and Muslim leaders urged calm. “This is a disgraceful, hateful, useless and stupid provocation,” Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Paris Mosque, told AP. “[But] we are not Pavlov’s animals to react at each insult.”

Charlie Hebdo often draws attention for ridiculing sensitivity around the Prophet Mohammad, and an investigation into the firebombing of its offices last year is still open.

The magazine was acquitted in 2008 by a Paris appeals court of “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” following a complaint by Muslim associations.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said organizers of a demonstration planned for Saturday against the “Innocence of Muslims” won’t receive police authorization. Paris prosecutors have opened an investigation into an unauthorized protest last Saturday around the U.S. Embassy that drew a couple of hundred people and led to about 150 arrests.

The debate about the limits of free speech spread to neighboring Germany.

“I call on all those, especially those who rightly invoke the right of freedom of speech, to also act responsibly,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin.

The German Embassy in Sudan, which was attacked last week, remains closed and security at German embassies in other countries has been beefed up, Westerwelle added.

A German group in Berlin dropped plans to show extracts of the “Innocence of Muslims” because of the outcry it has caused.

The cartoonist of the French caricatures published Wednesday who goes by the name Luz was defiant.

“We treat the news like journalists. Some use cameras, some use computers. For us, it’s a paper and pencil,” he said. “A pencil is not a weapon. It’s just a means of expression.”

Much of the anger over the film has been directed at the U.S. government even though the film was privately produced in the United States and American officials have criticized it.

The U.S. Embassy in Indonesia said the consulate in Medan, the country’s third-largest city, has been closed temporarily because of demonstrations over the film. About 300 members of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a pan-Islamic movement, rallied peacefully Wednesday in front of it.

Egyptian authorities deployed five large security trucks with riot police outside the French Embassy in Cairo as a precautionary measure but there were no signs of protests.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2012, on page 1.




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