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Free speech clash over Muhammad cartoons flares into violence

[JURIST] [JURIST Europe] Tension over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad [JURIST report] flared into violence in Europe and across the Muslim world Thursday and Friday with members of the Front for Defenders of Islam (FPI)[MIPT backgrounder] storming the Danish embassy in Jakarta and gunmen surrounding an EU office in Gaza. More trouble is expected in the wake of Friday prayers in several Muslim countries. Seventeen Arab nations are demanding that the Danish government punish the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten [media website; controversy news archive in English], which originally published the cartoons on September 30. The caricatures, deemed sacrilegious by Islamic tradition, have since been reprinted [Le Monde slideshow] in several major European papers, in several instances on their front pages. The Danish government has scheduled a meeting of foreign ambassadors on Friday to discuss the issue while Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen [official profile] has again [January 31 recorded video in English] appealed for calm, commenting that the cartoons have led to 'a clash between Western free speech and Islamic taboos.' Jyllands-Posten has apologized [JP letter to readers] for the cartoons. BBC News has more.

9:03 AM ET - The Danish Prime Minister's statement to the ambassadors is now available in English. Rasmussen said:

We are faced with a problem, which can grow to a more global problem. The cartoons have now been reprinted in a number of newspapers all over Europe. And if the protests in the streets escalate further we maybe faced with unpredictable repercussions in all the affected countries. Therefore, I think we have a common interest in calming down feelings and in settling this affair.

As you know, the present situation has caused a heated debate in Denmark as well. I have called on all parties to abstain from any statement or action that will create further tension. I have called on representatives of the Muslim communities – including religious authorities – to convey the same message to fellow Muslims in Denmark and abroad. I have also asked the same people to help us correct the vast amount of misinformation that we have seen in the press in a number of countries.

On a final note allow me to look ahead. It may seem premature, as we do not know exactly how this will develop. Nevertheless, we do know that the debate on the very basic principles will continue. We are now witnessing a heated public debate here in Denmark and Europe as well as in Muslim countries. It is evident that we are dealing with core values in democracies and religious societies.

The real challenge is to avoid a clash of those values. We all have a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. It is my firm belief that the only way ahead is a dialogue that allows us to strengthen our insight and understanding of each other...

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are the very cornerstones of any democratic society. I firmly believe that it is the very right to question the status quo that allows a society to develop and prosper. But freedom of expression should always be combined with freedom of religion and respect between religions and cultures. Those are fundamental values in the Danish society – and in many other societies.
Read the full text of Rasmussen's statement.

Angela Onikepe is an Associate Editor for JURIST Europe, reporting European legal news from a European perspective. She is based in the UK.

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