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Tolerance on Trial: Why We Reprinted the Danish Cartoons

JURIST Special Guest Columnist Faris Sanabani, Publisher of the English-language Yemen Observer newspaper currently facing calls by Yemeni prosecutors for permanent shutdown, confiscation, and even the death penalty against its Chief Editor for republishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, explains why - and how - his paper reprinted the Danish cartoons, and tells the remarkable story of what happened after that...


When the Yemen Observer newspaper initially ran its story about the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad on February 4, the editorial urged Muslims at home and across the globe to accept the apology issued by the Danish Jyllands-Posten paper and asked all to move on. In the same issue, the cartoons were reprinted with a big X drawn over them to imply the rejection of the cartoons and what they stand for. On the same page we went further and quoted a number of western scholars, scientists and leaders who expressed the positive impression left upon them by studying the life of Prophet Muhammad. Two other small local papers published the story as well, with the intention of defending and protecting the Prophet. At the same time as our publication, a number of universities posted the Danish cartoons on their walls, urging the public to voice their protests at the depiction of the Prophet through local protests and boycotts of Danish products.

Then came the following Friday, the Muslim holiday and the day when Muslims go to their local mosques and listen to their preachers. The topic of that Friday and every Friday since then has been the Danish cartoons. People walked out enraged, promising that they will not buy Danish products and a few called for the punishment of those circulating or republishing the cartoons. The avalanche effect soon took over and no one could stand in front of religious issues. Everyone became scared, even those who believed deep in their heart that the intention of the newspapers were not to demean the Prophet.

All of a sudden a news text message was spread throughout the nation informing them of the closure of the Yemen Observer, the confiscation of the license and an order for the Publisher and Chief Editor to appear before the prosecutor. Soon the news was picked up by Al-Jazeera TV, and the Yemen Observer became the talk of the town. How dare they insult the Prophet?!

Psychological effects took over. All of a sudden we were seen as the ones insulting the Prophet. Families and friends shied away from us. Many questioned our Islamic faith and the battle spread inside and out. We knew that the time was running out and that the situation had spiraled out of both our, and the government's, control.

Immediately we connected with four of the top lawyers in Yemen. Their immediate reaction to the case was that it was not about the newspaper and what it had published but about public opinion and or politics. The lawyers felt that it was clear that the intention was not to republish or demean the Prophet. In the prosecution office the Chief Editor was taken to jail before finishing his questioning. The reason was that they had feared for his life in the face of the enraged public. The lawyers were able to argue that the Publisher should not be held directly responsible for republishing. The Yemen Observer was ordered closed and the license revoked. Then the case was sent to court.

Meanwhile we created five working teams; one with the newspapers and the local media, the other with religious leaders and mosque preachers, the third compromising of legal advisors, the fourth lobbyists within the Yemeni government and the fifth to work with international media. We were able to get the support of a number of well respected religious leaders. They voiced their support of us and called for the release of the Chief Editor and that the maximum sentence should be a prayer to Allah by the Chief Editor for forgiveness.

Soon the religious leaders in the country and the people divided into two groups, some calling for the punishment and the other asked to move on. The Chief Editor was released on bail and court hearings were postponed once again. Meanwhile the newspaper remained closed and the costs were increasing daily as there was no income yet the costs were accruing. Among the chaos and division a religious cleric started collecting money from mosques and fundamentalists to prosecute our newspaper and the other two local papers. News reports estimated that approximately $100,000 US dollars had been collected for the purpose of prosecuting the local papers.

At the last court session on March 8 we at the Yemen Observer were shocked to find out that 21 lawyers had been commissioned to prosecute the Yemen Observer in addition to the government prosecutor. As of today the lawyers commissioned by the religious cleric have called for the maximum punishment for the Chief Editor, capital punishment, for the confiscation of all property and assets of the Yemen Observer, and for a fine to be paid by the Yemen Observer for the distress to the local population caused by the reprinting of the Danish cartoons. But as scary as it may sound, a big smile broke out on our faces - including that of the judge - when the 21 lawyers called for the money to be collected from sale of property and assets as well the fine to be deposited into Beit Mal Al-Muslimin (Financial House of Muslims) an organization that has been extinct for the last 1,200 years.

We at the Yemen Observer do not support the Danish cartoons; we understand the sensitivity of the topic of religion. But we would also hate to see one billion and a half Muslims demonstrate and get killed over cartoons that they haven't even seen. We believe that the best way to overcome such irresponsible behaviors is by educating each other about what is important to each of us and to work at creating links. It is the responsibility of those of us that have been educated in the West and those in the West with a bigger vision and a better understanding to lead the way in bringing us together and making our diversity a strength to support the human race in tolerance and interdependence of each other.


Faris Sanabani is the Publisher of the Yemen Observer. The court case against the newspaper and its Chief Editor is scheduled to resume on March 22.

March 15, 2006


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