FaithWorld

Germany asks if Islam impedes on freedom of speech

GERMANY/A decision by the German publisher Droste not to print a murder mystery about an honour killing because it contained passages insulting Islam has raised questions in Germany about religion impeding on freedom of speech.

Droste publishers said they would have published the book, entitled “To Whom Honour is Due”, had author Gabriele Brinkmann softened the tone in some sections In one, for example, an angry character tells another to dispose of a Koran using a crude phrase we would not reproduce here. “The author was not prepared to change the derogatory passages, which would have  been a condition for the publication,” Droste said in a statement on its website. (Photo: The Merkez Mosque in Duisburg, Aug 21, 2009, Reuters/Ina Fassbender)

Little did they realise what a stir this decision would cause in Germany, which is sensitive to any compromise on freedom of speech and where security fears over Islamists have blocked several artistic ventures in recent years. “For me, it is about the principle. That is why I went public about this. I won’t hurry to be obedient and carry out self censorship,” Brinkmann told German media.  “Justified fear or cowardice?” asked the headline in the daily Hamburger Abendblatt.

Droste insists it is not worried about releasing books dealing with controversial themes, but refuse to publish books which insult peoples’ faith — whether Islam, Christianity or other religions. But Brinkmann points out that her book was a work of fiction, and it was clear that the opinions expressed by fictive characters were neither her own nor those of the publishers.

Furthermore, it is questionable if the company would have similary toned down any insults of Christianity, a religion that is regularly parodied and demonised in popular culture. Why not? Perhaps because insults against Christianity probably wouldn’t have carried the same security risks. Monty Python’s comedy The Life of Brian and Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code both provoked outrage among sections of the Christian community, but not death threats or violence.

Debating a burqa ban with a French MP — in English

f24-bothFrance 24, the French international television channel, invited me to debate the proposed ban on burqas and niqabs today with one of the parliamentary deputies leading the campaign. That’s me on the left. On the right is Jacques Myard, deputy for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party and a spirited defender of French interests. Myard wanted to ban full facial veils in France two years ago but could not muster enough support at the time. The mood in the National Assembly has changed since then and another deputy, the Communist André Gerin, got together 58 deputies from different parties to launch the inquiry that began work yesterday.

Here’s the video on the France 24 website. It’s about 20 minutes long. Myard presents the French case for banning burqas and niqabs very clearly. If you’ve read about this debate and can’t understand it, he is worth hearing to get a good feel for how many French people state the case for a ban.

Myard puts the debate squarely in the context of laïcité, the quintessentially French way of separating church and state. That separation is such an important principle in Western countries that even the Vatican — history’s big loser in this debate — now supports it. However, this principle is interpreted in different ways in different countries.

Prejudice against Muslims, Jews on the rise in Europe – Pew study

Swastikas on Muslim gravestones in northern France, 6 April 2008/stringerAnti-Muslim and anti-Jewish feelings are rising in several major European countries, according to a survey by the Washington- based Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Survey. Mike Conlon in our Chicago bureau has summed up the report here.

Apart from the figures themselves, what struck me most was the way the study says the trends are moving. Pew said the upswing in anti-Muslim feelings came mostly between 2004 and 2006, with some falls since then, while the upswing of feelings against Jews has come mostly between 2006 and 2008. Is this matched by facts on the ground, such as attacks on religious people and sites or increasingly discriminatory acts or agitation against religious minorities? Or is this a change in mood that need surveys like this to be perceived?

The news media tend to focus on actual examples of such prejudices, such as the recent anti-mosque campaign in Italy or suspected anti-Semitic attack on a young Paris Jew, since these are news events that reflect prejudices. This is admittedly an imperfect measure (which, by the way, is one reason why we also report surveys like this). We don’t claim to be able to cover such events so thoroughly that we could track trends like Pew does. Even with that proviso, I’m not sure I would have said that Europe saw a surge of anti-Muslim feeling between 2004 and 2006 and a surge of anti-Jewish feeling since then. The evidence from actual events is difficult to read.

Amr Khaled sees good side of Danish Mohammad cartoon row

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThe Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad were widely condemned in the Muslim world and led to violent protests, attacks on embassies and even deaths. Even in recent days, they have continued to stir more protest (in Pakistan) and create security problems (in Afghanistan). They have set off a kind of “clash of civilisations” with a Muslim side denouncing them as blasphemy and a western side defending them as freedom of speech. The whole dispute has been extremely polarising.

Now one of the most popular preachers in the Middle East, Egypt’s Amr Khaled, has said there were positive sides to the uproar. The caricatures “were useful for Muslims and the Islamic world” because they prompted Muslims to stand up for the Prophet and for Islam, the television preacher told the German news agency dpa on Monday. The dispute “charged the batteries of Muslim youths, strengthened their faith and got them to stand up actively for their religion.”

Can a controversy that polarises people and leads to death and destruction be “useful” for a religion?

How Dutch Muslim leader reacted to Wilders anti-Koran film

“Our goal is nothing other than working peacefully for our society’s future, the future of our children, but also the future of the Netherlands. Muslims in the Netherlands love this country — they of course criticise some developments, as any citizen. The Netherlands is our country and we will try together with our compatriots to find the right tone … to finally get away from the ongoing polarisation in society, so that we can finally get on with our daily lives and don’t have to be afraid of each other.” — Mohammed Rabbae, Chairman of the National Moroccan Council of the Netherlands

Logo for Fitna movieThe day after Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders showed his anti-Koran film on the Internet, warning of Islam as a threat to Western civilisation, Dutch-Moroccan leader Rabbae had separate messages for his compatriots in the Netherlands and for fellow Muslims abroad. Speaking to Dutch and foreign journalists in the El Ouma mosque in Amsterdam, he sought to assure the Dutch that Muslims considered themselves part of society, had no sympathy for violent extremism and respected the law and the constitution. “What people feel threatened by also threatens us. What threatens Westerners also threatens us. There is no difference,” he said.

He urged Muslims abroad to respect this. “We want to tell our Muslims brothers and sisters abroad, in the Middle East, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia etc, that we as Muslims in the Netherlands are best positioned to analyse the situation in the Netherlands, and to determine the response to Wilders and others … I am appealing to our brothers and sisters abroad to follow our strategy, not to frustrate our strategy by any violent incidents or an attack to a Dutch embassy,” he said.

Ramadan wants Muslims to ignore far-right Dutch film on Koran

Logo for Fitna movieAs the premiere of the long-awaited Koran film by far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders nears, it’s not uncommon to hear Muslims call for some way to censor what they expect to be a blistering condemnation of their faith.

But not all see the film — now expected to be broadcast by the end of this month — as an opportunity to revive the polarisation of the Prophet Mohammad cartoons clash in 2006, when freedom of expression and respect for faith were presented as implacable opposites.

Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim intellectuals, has never shied from confronting the critics of his faith. But his approach to the Wilders film aims to avoid a repeat of the cartoons controversy. At a recent conference in Sweden, he told Reuters that people could not be prevented from publishing material like the Wilders film and the Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that triggered protests across the Muslim world.

Iran wants European law to squelch anti-Koran film

European Court of Human RightsIran has urged the Netherlands to block a planned anti-Koran film, citing Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights as the legal basis for doing so. This is the latest twist in the saga surrounding the controversial film by far-right leader Geert Wilders (we’ve blogged on this before). In the letter, Iran’s Justice Minister Gholamhossein Elham asked his Dutch counterpart Ernst Hirsch Ballin to use European human rights law to stop a European from exercising one of those most basic rights. Freedom of expression has been the rallying cry of those who defended the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing the Mohammad cartoons — and republishing the most controversial one (the turban bomb) this week after a death threat against the artist who drew it.

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThis also raises the question of whether any protest against purported blasphemy against Islam this time might not turn out to be on the streets, as after the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, but in the courts. European Muslim organisations brought court suits against the cartoons in Denmark and in France but lost their cases — thanks to the principle of freedom of expression. Will the Iranian letter inspire any to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg? Nota bene — Danish imams preached calm at Friday prayers, in contrast to the imams who went to the Middle East to rally opposition to the cartoons when they first came out.

On Friday, Iran’s news agency IRNA reported on the letter, which the Dutch government told NRC Handelsblad it had not yet received. IRNA wrote the following (quotes from Elham in italics):

Is another “West-versus-Islam” clash on the horizon?

Two Dutch politicians seem to be doing their best to stir up a controversy with Muslims. The far-right MP Geert Wilders says he wants to make a film for television about the Koran. Ehsan Jami, an Iranian-born local councillor who launched a Committee of Ex-Muslims in September, plans a film called “The Life of Mohammad.” Both are due to be ready early next year.

The body of murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, 2 Nov. 2004Shades of the bloody protests over the Danish Prophet Mohammad cartoons and Theo van Gogh‘s murder for his film “Submission”…

Are we in for another “free-speech-versus-blasphemy” (or, to put it more bluntly, “West-versus-Islam”) clash?