Czech cardinal sympathises with angry Muslims

Photo: CTK

The publication of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper has brought violent reactions in some parts of the Muslim world, and heated debate in Europe about the balance between freedom of expression and respect for different beliefs. Indirectly, the Czech Republic has also found itself in the firing line.

Photo: CTK
The Czech ambassador to Pakistan was among nine European ambassadors summoned by the country's foreign minister. This was because most Czech newspapers had published at least small reproductions of one of the caricatures to illustrate their articles on the subject. Pakistan pointed concretely to the example of the paper Mlada fronta Dnes. The ambassador, Alexandr Langer, replied with arguments that we have often heard in Europe over recent days, saying that we cannot apologise for freedom of the press. He also pointed to the sensitivity of this issue in the Czech Republic, which suffered fifty years of press censorship.

The question of "political correctness" has recently been in the Czech headlines for a different reason. Last week the Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek came in for a stream of criticism, when he refused to distance himself from some fairly crude jokes directed at the Czech Republic's Romany minority. There have been parallels drawn and the question has been asked: why should it be acceptable to insult Muslims, when it would be taboo to publish stereotyped caricatures of Romanies or Jewish people?

Photo: CTK
With the Czech papers full of articles analyzing the debate, some have taken the exact opposite view, saying that Islamic extremists should not be allowed to compromise the principles of free speech. Interestingly, given Czech history, the word "appeasement" has been used by several commentators, referring back to 1938 when the world powers sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the hope of peace.

The Czech Muslim community is very small, amounting to a few thousand, a small minority of those being Czech converts. Generally speaking, they have condemned the caricatures, but not with the vehemence seen elsewhere. Here is the view of Lukas Lhotan from the Czech Islamic internet news site "Islamske noviny":

"To be quite honest, although I was offended and annoyed, in Europe caricatures, even of religious symbols, have a rich tradition. It's quite legal. It's offensive, but it's normal. You also see caricatures of Jesus."

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk
Muslims here have found an ally in the Catholic Church. The Primate of Czech Republic, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, said quite unequivocally that he felt the Danish caricatures went beyond the accepted limits of freedom of expression:

"In our part of the world it has become acceptable to defame the beliefs of others, even using lies. That's not just towards Islam but also Christianity. We've accepted this false sense of freedom, but Muslims have not been corrupted in the same way, and are willing to defend values they consider sacred."

If polls are to be believed, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular, or even atheist, countries in Europe, and it is not clear to what extent Cardinal Vlk's fears are shared by the broader Czech public. For the time being most politicians are keeping quiet, hoping that the crisis will blow over.