The Muhammad Cartoons Go On Trial

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Voltaire must be spinning in his grave. Just down the Parisian hill from where the Enlightenment's greatest satirist is interred, a noisy scrum of intolerance is drawing any public figure with an image to market, clamoring to deliver a sound bite before the row dies down and the cameras move on.

The contest pits the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France against the editors of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, in a lawsuit citing anti-racism laws over the magazine's February 2006 publication of those Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that caused a global uproar. The complaint describes the decision to reprint the drawings as "born of a simplistic Islamophobia and purely commercial interests"; as having "insulted people on the basis of religion"; and as a "provocation aimed against the Islamic community."

The editors of Charlie Hebdo and their incensed backers depict the trial as an assault on free speech by religious intolerance. A paper that thrives on controversy and insult, Charlie Hebdo argues the drawings were published both to support the Danish editors who drew the ire of Muslims around the world, and to make the point that a fully equal and integrated Islam in secular European societies can't expect to enjoy a deference not accorded to Christianity or Judaism. "The Pope is satirized, the Church is satirized, Christians are satirized and so are Jews — all in a well-established tradition of commentary and humor," declared Reporters Without Borders general secretary Robert Ménard outside of the court as it opened Wednesday. "Muslims have to get used to the same treatment — and in reality, most have."

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, counters that French and European Muslims have no problem with social and even religious ribbing, but that the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemous by Muslims, were then exacerbated by associating him with terrorism. "This is an affair about caricatures that incite racism," Boubakeur argues. That's a valid point if one ignores past caricatures by Charlie Hebdo and others satirically linking other religions with violent, murderous, or simply intolerant acts.

Virtually no one disputes the utter vapidity and still-born humor of the Danish caricatures at the center of the case — and which French daily Libération ran again as the trial opened Wednesday. Initially, as the fury over the caricatures grew, the magazine published another cartoon depicting the Prophet lamenting of the hue and cry, "It's hard being loved by a**holes." But now that the matter is in court, Charlie Hebdo's editors are dropping their cavalier sarcasm and instead cast themselves as the last bastion of free speech.

"This trial is medieval," said grim-faced Charlie Hebdo publisher Philippe Val before the court case opened. "If we can't criticize religion anymore, there will be no women's rights, no birth control and no gay rights."

Val isn't the only one breathing more than a little hype into the trial. In anticipation of the French and international news coverage of the case, France's media establishment has taken on a crusading tone in covering its opening — or, as in Libération's case, appointed itself the role of rear-guard in defending this attack on free speech. And this being campaign season, it's hardly surprising leading French politicians have not only spoken out on the case, but even arranged themselves invitations to testify.

Socialist Party leader François Hollande and centrist presidential candidate François Bayrou were both slated to give testimony for the defense on Wednesday. Pre-empting the appearance of his rivals, Interior Minister and presidential front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy provided a letter that defense attorneys read "lending my support to your paper, which is rooted in the old French tradition of satire" — one, he noted, that "allows us in the name of liberty to laugh at anything."

While rallying to a politically convenient cause, Sarkozy and his fellow pols might stop and consider a couple of other ironies in this case. First among them is that this collision of religious and secular values is being sorted out in a court of the French Republic — whose own quasi-theological ideology insists matters of faith stay far removed from public life. To that end, the Republic encourages religions to organize themselves into "official" organizations with which the state can interact — the co-plaintiff Union of Islamic Organizations of France being the largest member of France's "official" Islamic structure, which Sarkozy himself was instrumental in founding in 2003. The politicians might also check out a new poll published as the case came to trial, which shows that fully 79% of French respondents consider "publicly mocking religion unacceptable."