SAINT-GENIS-POUILLY, France -- Late last year, as an international crisis was brewing over Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Muslims raised a furor in this little alpine town over a much older provocateur: Voltaire, the French champion of the 18th-century Enlightenment.
A municipal cultural center here on France's border with Switzerland organized a reading of a 265-year-old play by Voltaire, whose writings helped lay the foundations of modern Europe's commitment to secularism. The play, "Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet," uses the founder of Islam to lampoon all forms of religious frenzy and intolerance.
The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the cartoon uproar. "This play ... constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community," said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, signed by Said Akhrouf, a French-born cafe owner of Moroccan descent and three other Islamic activists representing Muslim associations. They demanded the performance be cancelled.
Instead, Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was "the most excitement we've ever had down here," says the socialist mayor.
The dispute rumbles on, playing into a wider debate over faith and free-speech. Supporters of Europe's secular values have rushed to embrace Voltaire as their standard-bearer. France's national library last week opened an exhibition dedicated to the writer and other Enlightenment thinkers. It features a police file started in 1748 on Voltaire, highlighting efforts by authorities to muzzle him. "Spirit of the Enlightenment, are you there?" asked a headline Saturday in Le Figaro, a French daily newspaper.
A debate on Swiss television last month degenerated into a shouting match when the director of the Saint-Genis-Pouilly performance accused a prominent Muslim of campaigning to censor Voltaire in the past. The two men also have traded insults in the French media.
Meanwhile, the name Voltaire -- and the Enlightenment tradition he embodies -- has frequently been cited by pundits across Europe commenting on the Danish cartoon furor. That controversy has triggered violent clashes in Pakistan, Nigeria, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, leaving scores dead. It has led to the arrest of nearly a dozen Muslim journalists who re-published some of the drawings and has driven the original artists into hiding.
Sunday in the Pakistani city of Karachi, about 50,000 people, many chanting "Hang those who insulted the prophet," rallied to protest the cartoons. The protest, held a day after a visit to the country by President Bush, also featured chants of "Death to America." In a video broadcast Sunday, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, also denounced the Danish drawings, saying they showed the West has double standards because "no one dares to harm Jews ... nor even to insult homosexuals."
"Help us Voltaire. They've gone mad," read a headline last month in France Soir, a daily newspaper.
Editors in France, Germany and elsewhere have explained their decision to reprint the drawings by pointing to principles enshrined in a statement often attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire said something similar, but the phrase was coined in 1906 by a biographer of Voltaire to sum up the French writer's views.
"Fanaticism," the play that stirred the ruckus in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, portrays Muhammad as a ruthless tyrant bent on conquest. Its main theme is the use of religion to promote and mask political ambition.
For Voltaire's Muslim critics, the play reveals a centuries-old Western distortion of Islam. For his fans, it represents a manifesto for liberty and reason and should be read not so much as an attack on Islam but as a coded assault on the religious dogmas that have stained European history with bloody conflict.
When Voltaire wrote the play in 1741, Roman Catholic clergymen denounced it as a thinly veiled anti-Christian tract. Their protests forced the cancellation of a staging in Paris after three performances -- and hardened Voltaire's distaste for religion. Asked on his deathbed by a priest to renounce Satan, he quipped: "This is not the time to be making enemies."
Jean Goldzink, a scholar who edited a French edition of "Fanaticism," sees in today's tumult a repeat of the polemics aroused by Voltaire in his lifetime. "It is the same situation as in the 18th Century," Mr. Goldzink says. "Then it was Catholic priests who were angry. Now it is parts of the Muslim community."
Voltaire, the pen-name of Francois-Marie Arouet, peppered his writing with irreverent barbs that riled the Church. He described God as "a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh," and wrote that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Mr. Goldzink, the scholar, says Voltaire mocked all religions but had some sympathy for Islam, which Voltaire described as "less impure and more reasonable" than Christianity and Judaism.
Banned from Paris by France's Catholic king, Voltaire moved to Geneva. He quickly irked Swiss authorities, who burned one of his books. He then moved to a chateau a few miles from Saint-Genis-Pouilly and wrote a "Treatise on Tolerance." He later campaigned in vain to reverse a blasphemy conviction against a French noble, who was tortured, beheaded and then incinerated -- along with a copy of Voltaire's "Philosophical Dictionary."
Accusations of blasphemy attract mostly yawns today in mainly secular Europe, though they do sometimes excite the dwindling Christian faithful. Monty Python's 1979 film "Life of Brian" was banned for a time in parts of Europe. More recently, "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which portrays Jesus as a homosexual who dances around in diapers, drew protests from Christian groups. Still, it ran for months in London and was broadcast by British state television.
Some devout Muslims are trying to revive taboos against blasphemy, and there are signs of growing self-censorship on matters even tangentially related to Islam. In January, the Belgian town of Middelkerke cancelled a planned art display that featured a fiberglass model of Saddam Hussein submerged in a fish tank in his underwear. The Czech artist, David Cerny, describes his work "Shark" as "a reflection on dictatorship." Officials say they worried it might upset local Muslims.
Herve Loichemol, a French theater director who produced the recent readings of Voltaire's play in Saint-Genis-Pouilly and Geneva, says he wasn't trying to provoke Muslims but knew from experience his production might anger some. He pushed ahead anyway. Banning blasphemy "admits private beliefs into public space," he says. "This is how catastrophe starts."
In the early 1990s, Mr. Loichemol had proposed staging the play to mark the 300th anniversary of Voltaire's birth in 1694. Islamic activists objected, among them Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim whose grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalist movement in Egypt. Mr. Ramadan wrote an open letter in October 1993 warning that performing Voltaire's play would "be another brick in an edifice of hatred and rejection in which Muslims feel they are being enclosed."
After weeks of debate, Geneva authorities dropped the play, citing financial reasons. Mr. Loichemol, who lives near Voltaire's old chateau outside Geneva, denounced the decision as a revival of intolerance. Mr. Ramadan, who has become one of Europe's most influential Muslim intellectuals, has since tried to distance himself from the campaign to censor Voltaire, saying he admires the writer and has taught "Fanaticism" to students. In an interview last year with the French magazine Medias, he said he was in Egypt when the play got canned and "was not even aware of this affair."
Last spring, Mr. Loichemol decided to take another stab at reviving the play and persuaded Saint-Genis-Pouilly to include it in a program of cultural events, along with Flamenco dancers and a lowbrow farce.
Mr. Akhrouf, the cafe owner and activist, says that in early December, he got an agitated phone call from a friend who had just received a leaflet advertising the event. Mr. Akhrouf found a copy of the play on the Internet and started shaking with rage as he read the portrayal of Muhammad as a fanatic.
Shortly afterward, he attended Friday prayers at a big mosque in Geneva and talked about his concerns with Hafid Ouardiri, a mosque official and veteran of the earlier anti-Voltaire campaign. They drafted a letter to the mayor demanding the play be cancelled "in order to preserve peace."
Mr. Ouardiri, an Algerian-born former leftist radical, came to France in the 1960s and says he used to chant the 1968 student slogan, "It is forbidden to forbid." Now a devout Muslim, he says he champions "the need to forbid." Algeria and other Muslim countries, he says, were colonized by Europeans "nourished by Voltaire."
Mayor Bertrand considered dropping the play. But after talking to aides and voters, he decided to stand by Voltaire.
A meeting two days later to defuse the crisis got nowhere. Mr. Bertrand, flanked by officials from France's security service and other state bodies, quoted a section of France's constitution that guarantees free speech. Mr. Akhrouf and Mr. Ouardiri pleaded with authorities to try to understand Muslim feelings. Mr. Akhrouf broke down in tears. "I was very emotional," he says.
The night of the reading, riot police took up positions outside Saint-Genis-Pouilly's cultural center. An hour into the performance, the mayor got called out of the hall because of street disturbances. The mayor says the mood was "quasi-insurrectional," but damage was minor. Police chased Muslim youths through the streets.
Now that tempers have calmed, Mayor Bertrand says he is proud his town took a stand by refusing to cave in under pressure to call off the reading. Free speech is modern Europe's "foundation stone," he says. "For a long time we have not confirmed our convictions, so lots of people think they can contest them."
He does have one regret: He found the play, five acts in archaic verse, "deeply boring."