Cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad have widened divide between Islamic world, West

Richard Vara
Worldwide Muslim protests over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad demonstrate the widening chasm between the religious and cultural values of the East and the West.

"The cartoons have been truly despicable," said Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, who was in Houston for an energy conference this week.

"In portraying the Prophet Muhammad on a bomb — as a Muslim I can tell you the sense of hurt that someone should depict him in such a manner," the prince said, referring to a cartoon depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

Rodwan Saleh, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, will not look at the cartoons, which are accessible on the Internet.

"I actually went out of my way not to look at them," Saleh said. "Any depiction of the prophet is considered to be blasphemous."

The outrage and, in many cases, violence over cartoons originally printed in a Danish newspaper and reprinted in other European publications has surprised Westerners who have a tradition of freedom of expression and are more tolerant of tasteless art and writings.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this is the beginning of a long ideological battle," said Garth Jowett, professor of communications at the University of Houston. Jowett said the turmoil portends "the enormous clash of cultures" between the West and the East in a shrinking world.

Islamic law prohibits images of Muhammad, who is revered by Muslims as a saintly messenger of divine revelations. They believe the Archangel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Muhammad beginning in A.D. 610.

Saleh said the ban's intent is to prevent idolatry. According to Islamic interpretation, those who make images will be asked to make them come to life on the Day of Judgment. Those who cannot will be punished.

The 12 cartoons originally were published in September after Danish editor Fleming Rose asked newspaper cartoonists to draw the prophet to protest what he considered self-censorship and deference to Islam by publications and artists.

"We have a tradition of satire in Denmark," Rose told the Washington Post. "We do the same with the royal family, politicians, anyone. In a modern secular society, nobody can impose their religious taboos in the public domain."

To Saleh, such views show ignorance of Islam and the spiritual bankruptcy of Europe. But he does not think Rose acted out of hatred or malice.

"What he miscalculated was what this would do to the Muslim world and we have seen the results," Saleh said. "This shows the absence of any spirituality left in Europe. Europe is turning to be a very, very secular if not an atheist kind of society."

Mehdi Noorbaksh, professor at the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas, said the publication undercut the moderate, centrist voices in Islam and helped the extremists.

"Any disturbance in Islam today just plays into the hands of the radicals, unfortunately," said Noorbaksh, a Muslim originally from Iran. "This is the tragedy of the whole thing because a lot of moderate Muslims are trying to say that terrorism is not part of Islam, violence is not part of Islam."

The cartoons, especially the one with the bomb, reinforce the stereotype of Islam as a "fanatical religion, a terrorist organization," he said. The cartoons angered all Muslims, including moderates, he said.

Muslim outrage, especially in the Middle East, is further aggravated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ever volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Noorbaksh said.

The publication of the images has sparked riots, attacks on Danish embassies and boycotts of Danish products.

Noorbaksh said there is a battle within Islam between what he calls conservative "puritanists" and more democratic-minded reformists, he said.

"You have the First Amendment (freedom of the press) in this country, but you cannot impose the First Amendment on the Muslim world," Noorbaksh said. "It is a different culture, different values.

"The way Muslims interact with religion is very different from the way Christians interact with religion," he said. "Islam in the Middle East is not just a faith, it is a culture, too."

Noorbaksh and Saleh say Muslims in the East have responded emotionally to the cartoons. U.S. Muslims, on the other hand, are more accustomed to free-speech and open societies comprised of numerous ethnic groups, Saleh said. They know how to address issues without resorting to violence, he said.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., believes the publication of the cartoons was meant to test, if not offend, Muslims.

"We believe in the freedom of the press and we believe freedom of the press goes hand in hand with responsibility, good judgment and respect for others," Hooper said.

CAIR has condemned the violent reactions to the cartoons.

"The mainstreams in the West and the Muslim world need to marginalize extremists on both sides," Hooper said. "People of good will, common sense and mutual respect need to take the high ground and cool the situation down."

CAIR also will condemn a proposed cartoon competition in Iran seeking humorous depictions of the Holocaust, Hooper said. Saleh also is opposed to the contest.

"It will be a grave mistake on part of the Iranians," Saleh said. "It would absolutely backfire on Islam and the Islamic world."

Jowett believes more cultural clashes are in the offing.

"I don't see this as something that can be resolved unless we are willing to give up our fundamental freedom of speech," Jowett said. "That is not going to happen in the West."

But he noted that freedom of the press is not absolute in all Western countries.

"Freedom of the press does not exist for certain kinds of topics that are deemed to be hate speech," he said, explaining that in Germany, Britain and Canada it is unlawful to publish anti-Semitic or other forms of hate speech or images.

Published February 10, 2006, Chron

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