LONDON — 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.
"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.
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 thisissyria.net, a Syrian opposition website. "There is a feeling that Europeans secretly hate Muslims."
As a result, the controversy has allowed fringe organizations like Al-Ghurabaa to present themselves as defenders of Islam.
"People feel targeted because they are Muslims," says Shehadi. "The only people they see standing up for Islam are the radicals."
Across Europe, Muslims are reacting to the cartoons in many ways, their perceptions shaped by local coverage and their experiences living in Europe.
In France, France Soir reprinted all 12 cartoons. For the country's 5 million Muslims, the gesture added to concerns raised by the government's banning of the hijab, or head scarf, in government buildings, some say.
"These caricatures of the prophet, that's more serious. Things could go farther. Yes, I'm angry - everybody's angry," says Hassan Defi, an unemployed handyman in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where fierce rioting occurred last year. "One should have the right to express oneself, but in a way that doesn't attack any religion."
In the neighboring suburb of Bondy, the director of the local mosque, Mohamed Meniri, concurs. "Freedom of expression must exist - it's necessary," he says, shivering outside his mosque as snow swirls around his shoulders. "But if [non-Muslims] are allowed to express themselves in their way, then we must be allowed to express ourselves in our way. We at our mosque advise calmness. We must do all that is possible to make ourselves heard, and to say that we must live together."
The manner in which the protests were carried out around the Muslim world often reflected the prevailing political environment in each country. In the Gulf, the protests have been few and peaceful, with anger manifested in a boycott of Danish and Norwegian goods. But the protests have taken on a more violent edge in the increasingly lawless Gaza Strip.
In Syria, the tense struggle with the West - chiefly over Iraq and its support for alleged terrorist groups - shaped the rare outburst of violence in Damascus on Saturday. Street demonstrations there tend to be organized by the authorities rather than spontaneous manifestations.
Lingering problems between Syria and Lebanon also provided context for Sunday's demonstration in Lebanon, with some Lebanese saying that the instigators of the violence were pro-Syrian activists.
"It's very hard to separate the local motivation from the global motivation," says Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based syndicated columnist.
Mr. Nahas, of thisissyria.net, hopes that dialogue will emerge from the violence. "In a way these events may have brought people together," he says. "My European friends want to know more and I want to explain how we feel. And this same freedom of expression is, after all, what we are calling for in the Arab world."
• Nicholas Blanford in Beirut and John Thorne in Paris contributed to this report.
• Sept. 30, 2005: Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishes 12 cartoons of Muhammad.
• January 2006: Norwegian publication reprints cartoons. Boycotts, diplomatic protests intensify against Denmark.
• Jan. 30: Gunmen storm EU offices in the Gaza Strip. The Danish paper apologizes.
• Feb. 1: Papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain run reprints.
• Feb. 4: Mobs burn the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chilean embassies in Syria. Protests in Denmark turn violent.
• Feb. 5: Danish Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, is torched.
Source: Compiled from wires.