The violent and now deadly protests rippling through Asia and the Middle East over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad reflects a larger schism and lack of understanding between traditional Western cultures and Islam, experts said Monday.
In the secular world, the debate is about freedom of the press, but to Muslims worldwide, the images are offensive not only because they depict Muhammad as a promoter of terrorism but also because their very existence violates the Islamic tradition forbidding visual depictions of the Prophet.
As European diplomats urged calm and restraint, the violence that already led to the burning of Danish and Norwegian embassies over the weekend turned fatal Monday. Afghan troops killed four protesters, including two outside the U.S. military base near Bagram, and a teenage boy was trampled in Somalia.
The Bush administration called on Saudi Arabia to work with other Arab nations to calm the violence, which erupted last week after months of simmering tensions between Europe and the Middle East over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper in September.
In Tehran, hundreds of Iranians hurled stones and firebombs at the Danish Embassy and pelted the Austrian Embassy with rocks. Those protests followed weekend violence in Beirut and Damascus, Syria.
The anger, according to experts, stems from long-held and deep beliefs. The Koran, Islam’s sacred book, does not contain an explicit ban on images of Allah or Muhammad. But visual depictions of Muhammad or other prophets such as Moses or Abraham are traditionally eschewed in order to discourage idolatry, or worship of an object as a god.
“It’s very offensive on many levels and for many reasons, but mainly because it’s an attack on the sense of what is most sacred and which cannot be ridiculed,” said Inamul Haq, adjunct professor of Islam at Benedictine University in Lisle.
That the cartoons also portray the prophet as a terrorist only increases that anger, the experts said. Many Muslims have expressed dismay over the violence, however.
“Exercising your speech this way in a violent manner is not helping anyone,” Haq said. “It is also not prudent to express anger in this way.”
“When the press decided to make a big deal of it, some people in the Muslim world did something that the Prophet would not be proud of,” said Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “I’m not proud of it.”
Much of the anger stems from a feeling among Muslims that their religion is under attack by the Western world, said John Woods, Islamic history professor at the University of Chicago.
“It’s not only that the Prophet is shown, but it’s how he’s shown,” Woods said. “He’s shown as a terrorist and there is the insinuation that this is the religion of terrorists. Ten years ago, this might have caused a minor stir. But, in the aftermath of 9/11, Iraq and the Mideast conflict, this came too close for comfort.”
While the cartoon has sparked violence overseas, the reaction in the U.S. has been tempered.
Ahmed Rehab, director of communications for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he is working to organize a town hall meeting of Muslim leaders to discuss the caricatures and how they could be used to educate the public.
Mujahid said the group is calling on 89 mosques in the Chicago area to focus Friday sermons on respect for others and how to conquer the fear of Islam.
“These cartoons are part and parcel of Islamophobia,” Mujahid said. “On both sides of the Atlantic we find that problem. I think Islamophobia is just as harmful to society in general as anti-Semitism.”
The cartoons were published in late September by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten as part of an examination of whether the media were being too careful in covering Islam. The paper’s editor in chief has said he would have not published the cartoons had he known what would follow.
At first the protests were peaceful. Diplomats from Muslim countries demanded meetings with the Danish prime minister and were rebuffed, as was a group of Danish Muslims who filed a criminal complaint against the newspaper.
The Danish Muslims then sought the support of Arab leaders in the Middle East. By the end of January, Saudi Arabia and Libya had recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen, and many Arabs began to boycott Danish products.
Publications across Europe reprinted at least some of the cartoons beginning in January, partly in a show of solidarity for media freedom. Most major U.S. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, have not published the cartoons. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran one cartoon in Saturday’s editions and was picketed by about two dozen protesters Monday.
The Tribune chose not to publish the cartoons because editors decided the images inaccurately depicted Islam as a violent religion, and that it was not necessary to print the cartoons in order to explain them to readers.
One of the two most controversial cartoons depicts Muhammad wearing a bomb with a lighted fuse as a turban. The other shows the Prophet turning suicide bombers away from paradise because, he says, heaven has run out of virgins to be given to martyrs.
On Jan. 30, as protests began to spread, Jyllands-Posten apologized for offending Muslims but not for publishing the cartoons, saying the newspaper was within its rights under Denmark’s laws. The next day, an Internet statement attributed to Iraq insurgents called for attacks in Denmark and Norway, and the paper received a bomb threat.
Since then, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller have met with ambassadors and diplomats from more than 70 countries in an attempt to defuse the crisis.
On Thursday, protests erupted across the Muslim world, with angry demonstrations reported in the Gaza Strip and Indonesia, among other places. Protesters in Damascus torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies Saturday, and a similar protest Sunday damaged the building housing the Danish Embassy in Beirut.
European governments have been measured in their responses, trying to balance their long traditions of media freedom with concerns about spurring more violence. “All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, come with responsibility,” said Terry Davis, the head of the Council of Europe, a human-rights advocacy group.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that a free press must respect religious beliefs, while the French foreign minister said that while media liberty “cannot be questioned,” it must be followed “within the spirit of tolerance and the respect of faiths and religions.”
The Bush administration Friday denounced the cartoons as “offensive” and also criticized European newspapers’ decision to respond to the protests by reprinting the images.
Scott Alexander, a professor of Islamic studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the controversy underscores a disconnect between the West and Islam.
“Many people in the West have lost a sense of the sacred and, therefore, have lost a sense of sacrilege,” Alexander said. “I think there’s a real lack of understanding as to how people can be so deeply offended by a cartoon such as this.
“In the West we’re used to kind of being critical about religions and critical about religious beliefs. It’s part of the enlightenment rational heritage. In Muslim culture, there is a very strong sense of the sacred and a strong sense of the sacrilege.”
Tribune news services contributed to this report.
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