BEIRUT, Jan 15 – A cover illustration of Prophet Muhammad in the latest edition of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo ignited controversy in the Middle East on Wednesday, prompting Egypt and Turkey to issue or threaten restrictions on publication of the images and stirring wide debate over religion and free speech.
Some were outraged, while others called for free speech in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that punish people for alleged blasphemy. Many expressed indifference, saying they were weary of debating cartoons that paled in significance beside the carnage taking place in wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a decree giving the prime minister authority to ban any foreign publications “offensive to religion,” the state-owned daily Al Ahram reported. Mr. Sisi has portrayed himself as a secular bulwark against Islamists. Egypt’s official religious institutions have had mixed reactions to the new cartoon.
Dar al-Ifta, an organization of Sunni scholars, criticized the French publication on Tuesday for its decision to continue printing cartoons depicting the prophet, saying it would “cause a new wave of hatred in French and western societies” and declaring that the magazine “does not serve coexistence and the dialogue of civilizations that Muslims seek.”
But Al-Azhar University, the foremost institution of Sunni scholarship, on Wednesday called on people to “ignore” the cartoons. “Ignore this unpleasant trifle,” the statement advised, “because the Prophet of mercy and humanity (peace be upon him) is on too great and high a level to be affected by drawings that lack ethics.”
The Egyptian Family House, an organization of the country’s main Muslim and Coptic Christian authorities, issued a statement decrying the cartoons because they “increase the gap between people and religions” and calling on media outlets not to “negatively target the prophets and the heavenly religions, and not to provoke the feelings of Muslims.”
Egyptian courts have recently sentenced a 21-year-old student to three years in jail for atheism and what were deemed blasphemous statements on his Facebook page, and a Christian man was sentenced last year to six years for “insulting Islam.” In Turkey, like Egypt a large and influential Muslim country, a local court in the southern city of Diyarbakir ordered the blocking of sections of four websites that showed the new cartoon, the semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported.
The image depicts Muhammad weeping and holding a sign saying “I am Charlie” in French, the slogan adopted by many of those protesting the attack by Islamist extremists on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, which killed 12 people. “Insulting the prophet can never be regarded within the context of media freedom,” Ercan Ezgin, a Turkish lawyer, wrote in the complaint that prompted the ruling in Diyarbakir, according to the CNN Turk channel.
“This cartoon bears the danger of deeply provoking billions of Muslims. It should never be acceptable to depict our prophet in such a cartoon, poking fun at him, showing him as if he’s shedding tears.” But one Turkish website, T24, translated the entire new issue of Charlie Hebdo into Turkish and those pages were still accessible Wednesday evening.
In the early morning hours on Wednesday, the Turkish police halted trucks distributing Cumhuriyet, a left-wing newspaper that carried four pages from Charlie Hebdo’s new issue. Distribution resumed only after investigators checked the contents of the paper and concluded that none of the cartoons represented the prophet, Turkish news media reported.
The newspaper received numerous threats over the phone and the Internet. Near the Cumhuriyet headquarters in central Istanbul, the police detained a protester who carried an Islamic flag, shouting, “You will not attack my religion, my prophet,” according to CNN Turk.
Three more protesters were detained close to Cumhuriyet newspaper premises late Wednesday after they held signs carrying death threats against any one who insulted Islam and its prophet. “If you have limitless freedom of speech, Muslim community has limitless right to protest,” one handwritten sign read, a photograph posted on Twitter showed.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, last week criticized extremists who kill those they consider infidels in the name of Islam — without explicitly denouncing the Paris killings — released a statement Wednesday condemning the new cartoon.
“Such an action is absolutely rejected,” it said. He called cartoon “a big provocation to the feelings of more than one and a half billion Muslims in the world, all of them believers in heaven’s messages and keen for dialogue and common values. Such actions directly contribute to supporting terrorism, extremism and extremists.”
The Islamic State militant group – to which one of the Paris attackers swore allegiance — declared on its Internet radio channel: “In a very idiotic move, Charlie Hebdo published in new edition an offensive drawing of the greatest prophet, peace be upon him. The atheist journal is seeking to exploit the recent events to gain more money with today’s edition.”
Another Twitter account that often praises the group called on users to bombard a French Foreign Ministry account with condemnation of the cartoons, and sent its own message that read: “Stop insulting our sanctities. If you do not stop insulting the Messenger of God, the Islamic State will start slaughtering you in your streets.”
Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, said in comments published Wednesday in a Czech newspaper that the attacks in Paris were a result of Western support for “terrorism,” referring to Western backing of insurgents opposed to his rule.
“We are against the killing of innocent people anywhere in the world,” Mr. Assad said, drawing anger and ridicule from Syrians opposed to his rule, who noted that his government has killed countless Syrians in indiscriminate bombardments during four years of civil war that have left more than 200,000 dead.
But on Syrian Facebook groups and other social media sites used by both supporters and opponents of Mr. Assad, there was little discussion Wednesday of the new cartoon. In an essay in Politico, Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arabic news channel, sought to explain why there was little groundswell of interest.
“Western politicians and scholars anticipating or asking for meaningful political and religious reforms by the nonexistent organized ‘moderates’ in today’s Arab world will be better advised to be patient and bid their time,” he wrote. “Can those living in Baghdad, Aleppo, Sana, and Tripoli — just to name few Arab cities — be blamed if they were not shocked by the killing of the Charlie Hebdo twelve in Paris?
Not is only Islam’s religious text being distorted, a whole Arab generation has been totally desensitized by unspeakable violence.” He went on to note that more than 76,000 Syrians died in 2014, the deadliest year since the uprising began, and that an average of 1,000 Iraqis died per month. “No one has a clear idea about the number of the maimed and the missing,” he wrote, “and of those uprooted, and those being claimed by the waves of the Mediterranean while sailing aimlessly seeking a foreign shelter.”
In Geneva, while waiting for a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in a luxury hotel, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was asked by reporters why his government had criticized the cover of the new issue. “We believe that sanctities need to be respected, and unless we learn to respect one another, it will be very difficult in a world of different views and different cultures and civilizations,” Mr. Zarif said.
“And I think we would have a much safer, much more prudent world if we were to engage in serious dialogue, serious debate about our differences, and then we will find out that what binds us together is far greater that what divides us. “We are now faced with very serious problems of extremism, not only in the Middle East but unfortunately in Europe,” Mr. Zarif added. “You’ve seen demonstrations here in Europe that are extremely dangerous.”
In Britain, more than 50 prominent Muslim leaders wrote a joint open letter appealing for calm. “Most Muslims will inevitably be hurt, offended and upset” by the latest cartoon, the letter said. “But our reaction must be a reflection of the teachings of the gentle and merciful character” of Muhammad.
The best way to respond, it said, was to display “enduring patience, tolerance, gentleness and mercy.” The six-page document said there had been an increase in attacks against places of worship; abuse on the grounds of religion; violence or threats against security forces; racist, anti-Semitic or discriminatory speech; and the glorification of terrorism.