Muslim Americans split on cartoons

Foreign reaction to drawings of Muhammad is overblown, some US Muslims say. Others call for peaceful protests.

Muhammed Zahny is upset - and not about the cold wind that is keeping customers away from his store on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue.

"If I lose money, I don't care," says Mr. Zahny, who owns "Islamic Fashions." "But if I lose respect, then I have nothing left."

Zahny, originally from Egypt, says the recent republication of Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad, the messenger of Islam, as a terrorist is a sign of great disrespect for Muslims that's caused him pain. "There is no joke to be made about prophet Muhammad," he says.

But other American Muslims say their fellow adherents are overreacting. "When can we begin a civilized conversation, instead of this undignified and sometimes violent answer to what was quite simply an insult?" a member of the Progressive Muslim Union asked on an online forum.

The two sides illustrate the diversity of American Muslim opinion about the simmering global controversy. But they also dramatize a larger divide within the community about Islam's attitude about free expression. Many of America's estimated 2 to 3 million Muslims are angry, but instead of throwing stones, they are calling for American-style protests, such as boycotts of Danish products like cheese and yogurt.

Still, some fear that the violent demonstrations against the cartoons in Arab and European countries could spread here.

In Brooklyn, Mustapha Amir's desk is piled high with Arab newspapers. One headline urged Muslims to unite against the cartoons. After reading aloud part of the article, Mr. Amir puts down the paper. Muslims' strong devotion, he says, may impel them to take action, including martyrdom, to protect Muhammad's reputation.

What would Muhammad do?

Such views concern Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

"We are concerned that people are not responding the way the prophet Muhammed would want," says Ms. Ahmed. "He was the kind of person who would turn the other cheek if someone slapped him. He preached love and tolerance."

According to Islamic tradition, pictures of Muhammad are generally considered sacrilegious. But Jonathan Bloom, a historian of Islamic art at Boston College, says it wasn't always so. "There were times when images of Muhammad were not forbidden," he says. "In Iran in the 14th century and during the time of the Ottoman Empire, manuscripts often contained illustrations of him." The modern prohibition, he says, probably derive from the strict teachings of Wahabi Islam.

Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary, says Muslims aren't upset because the cartoons mock their beliefs. "These are racist depictions," she says. "They are deliberately offensive and are aimed at a minority that is already feeling marginalized."

The Philadelphia Inquirer stirred passions in America when, in an effort to illustrate the debate, it decided to publish one of the offending images last Saturday. "We're running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy's about, not to titillate," wrote executive editor Amanda Bennett.

This week, a group of 30 Muslims protested outside the Inquirer's office, displaying signs that read, "No to Hate" and "Islam = Nonviolence." The Majlis ash-Shura, an umbrella group for mosques in the Delaware Valley, has called for another protest Friday.

"This is just not right," says Asim Abdur Rasheed, an imam with Majlis ash-Shura. "The newspaper should apologize to the Muslims."

Philadelphia Inquirer under fire

Most Muslims in Pennsylvania have cancelled their subscriptions, says Iqbal Baqai, the state representative of the Islamic Circle of North America. "We are going to keep protesting till they say they are sorry," he says. "Muslims are very angry and the Inquirer offices could even be attacked."

The Inquirer's decision has sparked criticism from inside journalism circles. "The publishing of the political cartoons may be outweighed by the scope and intensity of the harm such an action could lead to," says Robert Steele, a scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Words, he says, may have served the story better than the image.

The publication of the cartoons around the world has convinced Imam Abdul Ghani Radwan of the Al-Farouq mosque in Brooklyn to join with other New York area imams to persuade their congregants to boycott Danish products. "Muslims want no connections with such people," he says.

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