France was braced last night for an eruption of anti-French fury in the Muslim world after a satirical magazine published provocative cartoons of a naked prophet Mohammed in sexually-suggestive positions.
Paris ordered all of its embassies and schools in Muslim countries to close tomorrow in expectation of violent demonstrations after Friday prayers. French travellers were advised to avoid Muslim destinations.
The magazine Charlie Hebdo - angrily condemned by some French politicians and defended by others - said that the four pages of cartoons were a satire on the Islam-baiting American movie “The Innocence of Muslims” and not an attack on Islam.
But the intense vulgarity of some of the drawings, and Charlie Hebdo's record of publishing anti-Islamic cartoons, seems certain to provoke an extreme response in Muslim countries and amongst radical Muslims in France.
The magazine's offices were fire-bombed after it published an edition dominated by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed last November. Riot police were deployed to guard the rebuilt offices yesterday. The magazine's website was shut down all day by a cyber attack.
Charlie Hebdo's drawings instantly deepened the anti-western outrage in the Muslim world provoked by the film “Innocence of Muslims”, a crude anti-Islamic tirade made in America and posted online earlier this month. At least 30 people, including the US ambassador to Libya, have died in the last nine days during violent demonstrations and attacks on Western embassies and commercial interests.
French politicians and media commentators found themselves torn yesterday between fury at Charlie Hebdo's decision to - in Le Monde's words - “throw oil on the flames” and a desire to defend the magazine's right to free speech. The Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for a “sense of responsibility” and condemned the magazine's “excesses” but recalled that “liberty of expression is one of the fundamental principles of our Republic”.
The respected centre-left newspaper Le Monde said that the cartoons were “in bad-taste, even disgusting” but less disturbing than the preaching of indiscriminate anti-Western violence by radical imams in the Muslim world.
The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt expressed its indignation but called for a measured response on the streets. The acting head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Essam Erian, compared the cartoons to the topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge published last week by the French edition of Closer magazine. He called on the French legal authorities, which condemned Closer, to take a similarly line with Charlie Hebdo.
“If the case of (the duchess) is a matter of privacy, then the cartoons are an insult to a whole people. The beliefs of others must be respected,” Mr Erian said.
Mr Erian will be disappointed. The privacy of individuals is protected by French law. There is no law banning insults to religions.
The French government closed its embassy and schools in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country yesterday. It ordered similar closures in a dozen other Muslim countries before and after Friday prayers tomorrow.
Charlie Hebdo is a scurrilous, far-left weekly magazine which consists mostly of cartoons. This week's edition has four pages of drawings on Islamic themes, ranging from the mild to the violently provocative.
Two images purport to show rear views of a naked Prophet Mohammed as if posing for an X-rated movie. Another shows a spoof cover of Closer magazine with an image of a bearded “Madame Mohammed” showing her breasts. The most extreme drawing shows a Muslim man - not the Prophet himself - threatened with anal sex.
Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, described the drawings as a “disgraceful and hateful, useless and stupid provocation” but he urged the faithful not to react “like animals of Pavlov to… each insult”.
The editor of the magazine, who is known by his cartoonist's name Charb, said the cartoons were intended to mock the American anti-Islamic film and to satirize the extreme reactions to it in the Muslim world. “If we start asking whether we can portray Mohammed, we'll end up asking whether we can portray Muslims,” he said. “Then we'll be asking whether we can portray human beings… and a handful of extremists… in the world and in France will have won.”