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Cartoon furor deepens divisions

By James BrandonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2006


As controversy escalates over the publication in Europe of 12 controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims from Saudi Arabia to Britain are decrying what they see as but one more installment in a worldwide attack against Islam.

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"This is a revival of the Crusades of old," says Anjem Choudary, spokesman for Al-Ghurabaa, a radical Muslim group that organized protests in London this weekend.

"European nations are joining hands against Islam. We have seen the invasion of Iraq, the banning of the hijab in France, and now this." The cartoons were first published five months ago by a Danish newspaper to challenge a climate of fear and self-censorship. But Muslim anger escalated after numerous European newspapers republished the cartoons last week, threatening to make the issue a milestone in modern Muslim-Christian relations.

With Muslim anger still strong over the Iraq war, and Islamic radicals such as Hamas gaining strength, the cartoons - and the debate they have provoked about free speech versus respect for religious beliefs - have become fodder for those who say that a clash of civilizations is inevitable.

"The fundamentalists are jumping on this as an opportunity to mobilize people," says Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London. "The moderate voices who called for calm and reason are getting overwhelmed."

The newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which first published the cartoons - including one that showed the prophet wearing a turban that held a bomb - apologized last week, but the statement did little to appease Muslim ire. Saudi Arabia called for boycotts last week of Danish goods, and several Muslim nations recalled ambassadors from Denmark. Over the weekend, Muslims set fire to Denmark's embassies in Syria and Lebanon.

Advising moderation

Moderate voices have emerged amid the debate and the violence. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora said Sunday that "this is absolutely not the way we express our opinions." And Mohammad Rashid Qabani, Lebanon's top Sunni Muslim cleric, said Muslims must exercise restraint. "We don't want the expression of our condemnation [of the cartoons] to be used by some to portray a distorted image of Islam," he said.

The world's leading Islamic body also rejected the violence. "Overreactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts ... are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world," said the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Last week, the editor of a Jordanian newspaper chastized his fellow Muslims in an editorial. "What brings more prejudice against Islam? These caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" asked Jihad Momani.

But Mr. Momani has since been fired and arrested. The newspaper was removed from newsstands.

The outrage has grown from a base of preexisting issues, including frustration over perceived discrimination against Muslims in Europe, say some experts.

"This is not about the cartoons themselves. There was a lot of tension between the West and Muslims because of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine," says Mr. Shehadi. "This is just the spark that set it off."

While much attention has focused on the principle of free speech, the increasingly bitter dispute has raised questions about whether Europe is consistent in applying its aggressive hate-crimes laws.

"In the Arab world, there is a feeling that Europeans' freedom of expression is selective," explains Obeida Nahas, director of, a Syrian opposition website. "There is a feeling that Europeans secretly hate Muslims."