French cartoons of Muhammad spur security fears


FRANCE HAS stepped up security at its embassies around the world amid fears of a violent backlash after a satirical Paris-based magazine published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad.

The publication by Charlie Hebdo of drawings showing the prophet naked prompted the Arab League to call for restraint and drew criticism from senior French ministers. Riot police were deployed to protect the magazine’s offices in Paris.

Amid continuing protests around the globe over a controversial anti-Islam film, the cartoons raised fears of a possible escalation in a wave of violence that has seen the storming of western embassies, the killing of the US ambassador in Libya and a deadly suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

The French government ordered the temporary closure of its embassies, schools and cultural centres in 20 countries on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. The mission in Tunisia was closed with immediate effect as a “precautionary measure”, the foreign ministry said.

Arab League secretary general Nabil Elaraby called the drawings provocative and outrageous but urged those who were offended by them to “use peaceful means to express their firm rejection”.

Leaders of France’s large Muslim community said an appeal for calm would be read out in mosques across the country on Friday, but also condemned the magazine for publishing “insulting” images.

The offices of Charlie Hebdo, a left-wing title with a reputation for provocative covers, were firebombed last year after it published a mocking caricature of Muhammad. Its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, has been under police guard ever since.

“You get the impression that it’s officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists,” said Mr Charbonnier, who drew the front-page cartoon in yesterday’s issue showing an Orthodox Jew pushing the turbaned figure of Muhammad in a wheelchair.

“It shows the climate – everyone is driven by fear, and that is exactly what this small handful of extremists who do not represent anyone want – to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave.”

Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault suggested Charlie Hebdo’s editors should have taken the political climate into account when deciding whether to publish the cartoons, but made clear no action would be taken against the magazine. Interior minister Manuel Valls said freedom of speech, including caricature, was a “fundamental right” backed by law.

Tensions have been running high in recent days as protests continued over the posting of a short film on YouTube last week that mocked Muhammad as a womanising buffoon.

The US envoy to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi, and US and other foreign embassies were stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Afghan militants said a suicide bombing that killed 12 people on Tuesday was carried out in retaliation for the film, which was made with private funds in California.

At least four people died last week after hundreds of protesters forced their way into the US embassy in Tunis, ransacking it and burning some of its annexes.

In Berlin yesterday, an organisation that had planned to show the film cancelled the screening so as not to set off “any further reactions”. The Cinema for Peace Foundation had said it wanted to foster “lively but peaceful” debate, but government ministers had warned against showing the film.

Some 250 people attended an unauthorised protest against the film in Paris last Saturday, and the authorities have rejected a request to hold a second protest march next weekend.