Tension Rises Over Cartoons of Muhammad

By Molly Moore and Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 3, 2006

PARIS, Feb. 2 -- Protests against European newspapers' publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad gained momentum across the Islamic world Thursday as Pakistani schoolchildren burned French and Danish flags and Muslim presidents denounced the drawings. At the same time, more European news organizations printed or broadcast the caricatures, citing a need to defend freedom of expression.

In another day of confrontation between the largely secular nations of Europe and Muslim countries where religion remains a strong force in daily life, Islamic activists threatened more widespread protests and boycotts of European businesses. While some European officials sought to defuse the crisis, many journalists insisted that despite Islamic outrage, religious sensibilities should not result in censorship.

"We would have done exactly the same thing if it had been a pope, rabbi or priest caricature," wrote Editor in Chief Serge Faubert in Thursday's editions of France Soir, one of the newspapers that printed the cartoons.

Mahmoud A. Hashem, a businessman in Saudi Arabia reflecting broad sentiment in Muslim societies, called the cartoons just another example of a "sport to insult Islam and Muslims" after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Under Islamic teachings, any depiction of Muhammad, the faith's founder and messenger of God, is blasphemy, including depictions that are not negative. The cartoons violated that dictum, and many of them also ridiculed the prophet. In one, he is depicted as a terrorist, with his turban holding a bomb with a burning fuse.

Political analysts from both sides described the newspapers' printing of the cartoons as a dangerous incitement in a conflict that has already alienated the growing Muslim populations of West European nations and hardened extremists in both camps.

Alexandre Adler, author of "Rendez-vous With Islam," criticized the newspapers. "We're at war," he said, citing the Iraq insurgency and the electoral victories of the radical Palestinian group Hamas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "And sometimes war demands censorship. In this context, anything that might strengthen the hate of the West is irresponsible."

The European Union's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said the continued printing of the cartoons was "throwing petrol onto the flames." Acknowledging the desire to stand up for press freedom, he said newspapers must understand "the offense that is caused by publishing cartoons of this nature."

But more news organizations continued to display the cartoons Thursday, including the BBC, which said it hoped to "give audiences an understanding of the strong feelings evoked by the story."

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian gunmen kidnapped a German citizen from a hotel restaurant and threatened to seize more foreigners. The German was later released, Palestinian security officials said.

Many Europeans left the Gaza Strip as a precaution Thursday. The E.U. shuttered its office there after warnings that staff members would be kidnapped. About a dozen gunmen briefly surrounded the empty building, firing their weapons. Some European countries warned citizens against travel in the Middle East.

In the city of Multan in central Pakistan, several hundred students from Islamic schools burned French and Danish flags in protest. Boycotts of Danish grocery products expanded across the Middle East

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