Saturday, November 04, 2006

The debate reaches England

A decision by Spanish towns to tone down festivals marking the expulsion of the country's Muslim rulers has prompted conservative politicians to rush to defend the tradition and sparked debate about freedom of expression versus religious sensitivity. The issue echoes the polemic in Europe over self-censorship that followed the cancellation of a Mozart opera in Germany, deemed offensive to Muslims.

The opposition Popular party on Friday called for the government to get the festivals protected by the United Nations' cultural arm, Unesco. Eduardo Zaplana, PP parliamentary spokesman, said: "Under no circumstances can we bend to the demands of people who intimidate us, and we are proud of these festivals." "We don't offend anyone. We've been doing this since the 18th century," said Javier Morales, organiser of the biggest festival, in Alcoi, Valencia.

In recent decades, many towns had eliminated the more provocative elements of the 300-year-old celebrations, including the destruction of effigies of Mohammed. Those who retained them began dropping them this year.

Beneixama, in Valencia, left out of its festival in September the destruction of a papier-maché Mohammed, whose head was traditionally filled with fireworks. In Bocairent, celebrants threw an effigy of Mohammed off the castle ramparts but stopped short of blowing up the head, according to a report in Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Felix Herrero, head of the Spanish Federation of Islamic Organisations, said the aggressive elements of the festivals "had no place in a democratic Spain". Celebrating the reconquest was, he said, comparable to commemorating General Franco's victory over the leftist Republican armies during Spain's civil war.

Mansur Escudero, head of the Spanish Islamic Union, said arch-conservatives in the church and in politics had seized on the current tension over Islam in Europe to create a controversy."They are politicising the issue, trying to provoke a Muslim reaction so they can point and say what barbarians we are," said Mr Escudero, adding that most Muslims had never had a problem with the festivals. "It's a question of balancing freedom of expression and respect for others," he said.
Taken from an article in the Financial Times

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