Cartoon anger unabated

Guled Mohamed

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan police opened fire at hundreds of people demonstrating against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Friday, wounding at least one, as protests across the Muslim world showed no sign of abating.

Police in Bangladesh beat back about 10,000 people marching on the Danish embassy in Dhaka and demonstrators took to the streets in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and, for the first time, Latin America.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which has carried out several suicide bombings in Israel, threatened more violence and a leading Saudi Muslim cleric called for no mercy in punishing anyone mocking the Prophet.

"So far we have demanded an apology from the governments. But if they continue their assault on our dear Prophet Mohammad, we will burn the ground underneath their feet," Islamic Jihad leader Khader Habib told supporters after Friday prayers.

Riot police in Kenya, where about six percent of the population are Muslim, fired live rounds and tear gas to prevent hundreds of stone-throwing protesters from reaching the Danish embassy. One man was shot in the thigh, a witness said.

In Morocco a government-sponsored march attracted tens of thousands of people while around 200 people burnt Danish and American flags in the Venezuelan capital.

At least 11 people have been killed this year in protests over the cartoons, one of which showed the Prophet Mohammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban. They were first published in Denmark and then in other European countries and elsewhere.

Muslims consider any portrayal of the Prophet blasphemous, let alone one showing him as a terrorist.

"We demand stiff penalties without leniency against those who deride the Prophet Mohammad," Abdel-Rahman al-Sudeis, a prominent Saudi Arabian cleric in Islam's holiest city of Mecca, told worshippers. "With one voice, millions of Muslims around the world are defending the Prophet of God."

"PRETEXT FOR VIOLENCE"

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said both religious sensitivities and freedom of speech needed to be respected and the violent reaction was not justified.

"I do think that, unfortunately, these cartoons have been used as a pretext for violence and for showing that some Arabic countries could be manipulated or at least the radical parts there could be manipulated," she told journalists in London.

With tensions running high and copies of the cartoons cropping up in newspapers around the world, some tried to calm believers as authorities moved to clamp down on the media.

The imam at the heart of the row appeared to backtrack, saying Denmark was a tolerant country after helping organise a delegation to the Middle East last year which presented a dossier of alleged Danish insults to Muslims.

"As a Muslim I am heavily indebted to this country," Imam Abu Laban told worshippers at his Copenhagen mosque.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, police were questioning an editor after his tabloid, Peta, published a caricature of the Prophet and Malaysia slapped a ban on circulating or possessing cartoons of the Prophet.

The Danish newspaper editor who commissioned the cartoons was sent on holiday after suggesting he would print Iranian cartoons on the Holocaust.

And a source from France's Muslim Council said it would take legal action against a French satirical weekly that reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and ran one of its own.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia demanded an apology from the Danish government, but urged protesters to refrain from violence.

In Tehran, where protesters threw petrol bombs at the French embassy and stones at the Danish and British missions, a senior cleric said Iran's arch enemy the United States was responsible.

"The anger shown by Muslims is a holy anger," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Friday prayers, while also urging worshippers not to attack embassies.

MISUNDERSTANDING

The Danish government has expressed regret over the publication of the cartoons, but has refused to apologise saying that is a matter for the newspaper.

As well as worldwide protests, the cartoons have ignited a debate over the limits of freedom of speech and exposed a gulf of misunderstanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

"We're dealing with two types of ignorance, about Islam and about the freedom of speech," said Sohaib Bencheikh, a prominent Islamic theologian in France.

"We're paying the bill for September 11 and all the tension and misunderstanding that arose after it," complained Mohammad Bechari, head of the National Federation of French Muslims.

He criticised protesters who demanded the Danish government apologise for the cartoons. "Frankly, that shows that the idea of genuine free speech has not taken root in Muslim countries."

Published February 11, 2006, Reuters

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