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France tightens embassy security over cartoons

A day after a French satirical weekly published incendiary cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, security was tightened at French missions across the Muslim world amid growing calls for an international law against religious defamation.


Security was tightened at French embassies, consulates, cultural centers and international French schools in countries with sizeable Muslim populations Thursday - a day after a Paris-based satirical weekly published obscene cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Hours after the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, hit the French newsstands Wednesday, the French Foreign Ministry announced that embassies and official missions in 20 Muslim countries would be closed on Friday.

But in some countries - such as Tunisia and Egypt - the closures came into force earlier, with embassies, consulates, cultural centers and French international schools announcing they would remain shut until Monday.

The heightened security measures come at a volatile time across the Muslim world. Around 30 people have died over the past week in violent protests against an anti-Islam video clip produced in the US and posted on YouTube. The victims included US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation following an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

The publication of the latest cartoons in Charlie Hebdo has been condemned by the French government.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that while he respects freedom of expression, he sees “no point in such a provocation.” Stressing that the French government would never encourage the cartoons’ publication, he called for “reason to prevail.”

But the magazine’s editorial staff has defended the decision to publish the incendiary cartoons.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 Wednesday, Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier – who uses the byline “Charb” – maintained that the publication was “not responsible for closing schools or embassies, or violence elsewhere in the world”.

Charb maintained that the views in the cartoons “were expressed under French law. I publish a paper sold in France. To us, the only limit is French law,” he said before adding, “the only thing that threatens the press is self-censorship. "

Growing calls for international blasphemy law

The latest provocation has increased the calls in some Muslim-majority countries for an international law that would criminalise the defamation of religion.

At a massive rally in the southern suburbs of Beirut earlier this week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called on "all our people and governments” to “put pressure on the international community to issue international and national laws to criminalise insults of the three world religions” - referring to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

In media interviews given shortly after protesters attacked the US Embassy in Tunis last week, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist Ennadha movement, also revisited the international blasphemy law theme.

“We need the UN to adopt a law criminalizing the violation of the sacred,” Ghannouchi told a local radio station.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius meets Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al Azhar mosque, in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: AFP)
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius meets Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al Azhar mosque, in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: AFP)

Another powerful voice in this debate has been the grand imam of Egypt’s influential Al Azhar mosque, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb.

Shortly before meeting with the visiting French foreign minister in Cairo earlier this week, Tayeb said he would ask Fabius to support such a measure at the UN.

But while condemning the incendiary YouTube video as “stupid and insulting,” Fabius noted the reluctance of France -- like most Western countries that have defended freedom of expression -- to criminalize the defamation of religions. "We must avoid any provocations. But preventative action is tricky because in a secular state, there’s the law and there’s faith. It’s the individual, not religion, who must be protected by the law,” Fabius told reporters in Cairo.

Save the believers, not the beliefs

Within international legal and policy circles that have grappled with this issue -- and at times fought a bitter fight -- the growing calls for an international blasphemy law have been noted with disquiet.

“This issue has been around for a while,” explained Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “There was a long discussion about this at the UN for more than a decade, when some states were trying to push for the defamation of religion to be included as a human rights issue. In the end, all the states agreed to drop the idea.”

At the heart of the matter was a campaign by the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to include the thorny religious defamation issue in a UN Human Rights Council resolution.

The Saudi Arabia-based organisation argued that criticising religions is a violation of the rights of believers and leads to discrimination and violence against them.

Critics, however, maintained that an international blasphemy law could be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate religious minorities, dissenters and human rights activists. It would also restrict freedom of religion and expression, they argued.

After 12 years of diplomatic wrangling, the OIC finally dropped their campaign when a compromise deal was hammered out by the Obama administration last year, resulting in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which switches the focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.

The effects of the Arab Spring

According to Arch Puddington, vice president of research at Freedom House, a New York-based watchdog group, the rise of Islamist groups following the 2011 Arab uprisings has also fuelled the campaign for an international blasphemy law.

“I think this debate might be reignited and it’s an unfortunate development,” said Puddington. “The idea of having a global international blasphemy law is a terrible idea. I think it’s important for countries such as the US and France to stand firm behind the freedom of expression.”

Puddington warns that a basic problem with such a law is the definition of what constitutes religious defamation.

“We have to bear in mind that in some cases, those who propose the laws have a rather sweeping interpretation of what constitutes blasphemy,” he noted.

One of the earliest state promoters of an international “combating defamation of religions” law has been Pakistan, an OIC member state that has been repeatedly criticised for its notorious blasphemy laws, which unfairly target minorities as well as critics of the law – including leading politicians – with deadly consequences.

“The important point to bear in mind is that these laws of defamation are used by the powerful against the powerless,” said Human Rights Watch’s Baldwin.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, OIC officials, however, maintained that it was too early to say if the organisation would formally seek any legal changes to international frameworks following the recent disturbances.

“The first step would be to examine the existing legal structures to see if there are problems, and then may be there would be reason to re-examine them,” said OIC spokesman Rizwan Sheikh.

But he conceded that top OIC officials were holding “high level meetings” over “this unfortunate incident”, said Sheikh, referring to the YouTube posting of “Innocence of Muslims”.

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