Merkel stands by Danish Mohammed cartoonist

8th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday defended a Danish cartoonist whose drawing of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb for a turban earned him death threats, as he was given an award in Germany.

"[We] are talking here about the freedom of opinion and of the press. It's about whether in a Western society with its values, he is allowed to publish his Mohammed cartoons in a newspaper or not," Merkel said.

"It is irrelevant whether his caricatures are tasteless or not, whether he thinks they are necessary or helpful, or not. Is he allowed to do that? Yes, he can," Merkel added in the speech in Potsdam near Berlin.

Kurt Westergaard, who is under constant police protection, "is a cartoonist, of whom there are many in Europe. Europe is a place where a cartoonist is allowed to draw something like this.

"This is no contradiction that Europe is also a place where freedom of belief, of religion, where respect for beliefs and religions, are valuable commodities."

At the same time Merkel slammed as "abhorrent" plans by US pastor Terry Jones's Dove World Outreach Center in Florida to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by burning Korans.

Westergaard, meanwhile, told reporters that his cartoon, depicting Mohammed with a turban with a lit fuse, one of a dozen first published in a Danish newspaper in 2005, would live on even if he was killed.

"Maybe they will try to kill me and maybe they will have success, but they cannot kill the cartoon," Westergaard said before being awarded the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium international media conference's 2010 prize.

He also said a clash between Islam -- he called it a "reactionary religion" -- and Western culture was inevitable.

"I do not regret (the cartoon) because I am absolutely sure that this clash ... between two cultures would have happened sooner or later," he said. "The cartoon became a catalyst."

The drawings deeply offended many Muslims and sparked protests in January and February 2006 that culminated in the torching of Danish diplomatic offices in Damascus and Beirut, and the death of dozens of people in Nigeria.

In 2008, around 20 Danish newspapers reproduced the drawings triggering further protests in Muslim countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

In January a Somali man allegedly broke into Westergaard's home and threatened to kill him with an axe and a knife. In 2009 two men were arrested in Chicago allegedly with plans to attack his newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten.

Security was tight at Wednesday's prize-giving.

Westergaard told a German newspaper that Islam was a "reactionary religion."

"In my eyes you cannot compare Islam with Christianity. It is not a nice religion and in many ways is reactionary," he told the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, citing as an example "barbaric" punishments for gays.

"But I will also stand up for people having the right to practise this religion," the local daily quoted him as saying.

Merkel meanwhile was criticised by Germany's Central Muslim Council (ZMD) for attending the event.

Merkel was honouring someone "who in our eyes kicked our Prophet, and therefore kicked all Muslims," ZMD head Aiman Mazyek told the radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur.

He said giving Westergaard a prize in this "highly charged and heated time" was "highly problematic."

Merkel's spokesman earlier Wednesday defended her decision to give the keynote speech.

"The chancellor is sending out to all people in Germany, Muslims or not, the message that press freedom, which will be the focus of her speech, is a precious commodity," spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular briefing.

© 2010 AFP

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