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Free speech in Europe: mixed rules

Cartoon debate has spurred charges from Muslims that a double standard is at work.

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The violence over cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad has highlighted often inconsistent rules in Europe governing free speech, tolerance, and the boundaries of public expression.

Muslims in particular charge that hate-speech laws are implemented unfairly. Many countries, they say, do not abide anti-Semitic outbursts, but will tolerate cartoons that to many Muslims are deeply offensive.

"Most of Europe would not dare mock the Holocaust, and rightly so," says Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. "Newspaper editors exercise good judgment every day when it comes to printing material so as not to cause offense, so why not on this occasion?"

In a bid to redress grievances, the French Council of Muslims has said it is considering taking France Soir, which reprinted the cartoons, to court for provocation. Last year, the Catholic church won a court injunction to ban a fashion ad based on the Last Supper. The judge said the ad was "a gratuitous ... act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs."

"This is what Muslims want - to be treated the same as other faiths," says Olivier Roy, an eminent scholar of Islamic affairs at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris.

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. "Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don't talk about," he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.

At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. "Evenhandedness cannot be a goal," he says. "It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there."

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