The Muhammad Cartoons: A European Perspective

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Do cartoons mocking Muhammad show a rising intolerance toward Muslims in Europe? Eric Rouleau, who served as France's ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia, offers his thoughts to Scott Simon.


By nature a political cartoon is usually a blunt visual image that singles out one truth from a complex subject. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it offends even as it makes people laugh, and sometimes it just offends. But in Europe, a continent of competing values and diverse cultural, ethnic and religious populations, what truth is depicted in the cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad?

The cartoons began circulating in Denmark, but were reprinted in other European nations. And this week a French magazine published the cartoons with an additional image of Muhammad on its front page. Eric Rouleau is a specialist on Mideast affairs and the former French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey. He joins us from the South of France. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ERIC ROULEAU (Former French Ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia): Thank you having me.

SIMON: Have you seen the cartoons?

Mr. ROULEAU: Yes, I've seen some of them. Yes.

SIMON: What was your immediate reaction?

Mr. ROULEAU: Look, the Europeans, in general, expressed absolutely no sympathy for the Muslims. I think it's partly because of ignorance. They don't know how much Muslims can be sensitive to such cartoons. But I'm afraid there's a lot of prejudice in Europe against the Muslims. The Muslims, of course, are not Christians. They have a brown skin. And they are recent emigrants, foreigners who are taking the jobs at a point when there's a lot of unemployment in Europe. And finally, for Europeans, Muslims are potential terrorists.

SIMON: The term xenophobia gets tossed around a lot, to summarize European attitude towards Muslim immigrants. I'm wondering if you could help us see if there are any varieties of opinion in there. For example, in Holland, Pim Fortuyn, the political leader who was assassinated, was gay, and he was worried that an increasingly large community of people coming from the Muslim world did not believe in gay rights, did not believe in equal rights for women, did not believe in freedom of expression.

Mr. ROULEAU: Some of the things he said may be true, but you see, there's a way of saying it. If you say it in an aggressive way, which gives the impression that you just hate the people you're talking about, then he was wrong. That's one aspect of things. But it's just one man who killed him. It's not the whole community. It's not the Muslim community. It's not even a group. It's a man who was, I think, mentally unbalanced, who was shocked by what he was saying and writing and filming about the Muslims.

Let me say something. We have rules in France which consider that any anti-Semitic writing or cartoon would lead you to prison. Now, the Muslims know that, that there are some things which are sacred. Now, why is it that if you put instead of the Prophet's turban, a bomb, this is freedom of speech?

SIMON: Is Europe becoming less tolerant as more Islamic immigration arrives?

Mr. ROULEAU: I'm afraid it is, yes. You know, we are living in a world where we are supposed to be engaged in a war against terrorism. We've had many articles on Islam after 9/11, and we are still having articles about Islam. But I'm always shocked to see that the articles don't distinguish very clearly between Islam, secular Muslims, religious Muslims, extremists, like those who are in power in Turkey, for example, or elsewhere, who are peaceful extremists, and the terrorists.

Now, what can we do? I mean what we can do is explaining as much as we can to the Muslim world that we are not anti-Muslim, that we are anti-terrorist.

SIMON: Eric Rouleau, who is France's former ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ROULEAU: Thank you for having me.

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