Muslim Crowds Decry Cartoons, Violent Retort

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 12, 2006

LONDON, Feb. 11 -- Thousands of Muslims in London and other European cities rallied peacefully Saturday to condemn both published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the violent reactions to them.

Men and women, some pushing babies in strollers, crowded into Trafalgar Square as speakers not only denounced the cartoons as an unacceptable insult to the holiest figure in Islam, but also condemned the burning of embassies in Syria and Lebanon, deaths in Afghanistan and other violence that has come in response.

"We want to move on to positive dialogue," said Anas Altikriti, a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, which helped organize the rally. Police estimated the crowd at 5,000.

Peaceful crowds of Muslims also gathered in Paris, Berlin and other European cities with the aim of lowering global tension over the controversy, but anger still simmered in the Middle East and Africa.

Most notably, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, addressing tens of thousands of people in Tehran celebrating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, said the United States and Europe should pay a heavy price for publication of the cartoons, according to the Associated Press. The caricatures of Muhammad were first printed in a newspaper in Denmark and have been reprinted in many European papers.

"Now in the West, insulting the prophet is allowed, but questioning the Holocaust is considered a crime," the Iranian president said. "We ask, 'Why do you insult the prophet?' The response is that it is a matter of freedom, while in fact they are hostages of the Zionists. And the people of the U.S. and Europe should pay a heavy price for becoming hostages to Zionists."

In France, where thousands of people peacefully demonstrated in Paris and in Strasbourg, a poll published Friday showed that 54 percent of those surveyed said they disagreed with the decision of French newspapers to publish the caricatures and felt that doing so amounted to useless provocation.

Abderrahmane Morabet came to the Paris rally with his 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. He said he was frustrated that only extremists seem to be shown on the evening news: "When we protest like this, nobody listens to us. They only do when embassies burn."

Mindful of a recent London rally where a small group of radicals held placards that urged beheadings and death for those who insulted Islam, police officers were stationed at subway stations looking for people who might disrupt the rally. Organizers said they were pleased that moderates -- at least for a day -- had grabbed the headlines from radicals. The Islam Channel, which also supported the Trafalgar rally, broadcast the event to hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world, organizers said.

"The benefit of today is to let the world know that people in Europe appreciate peaceful rallies," said Dilowar Hussain Khan, the director of the East London Mosque. Khan, whose mosque routinely attracts 5,000 people for Friday prayers, said he hoped the controversy would have another benefit: raising awareness among non-Muslims of the importance of Muhammad, the "messenger of God."

Kamran Safdar, 19, said he and 40 other Muslims traveled two hours by bus from Birmingham for the rally because they were tired of the images of Islam they see portrayed. "We don't want to be labeled as terrorists. We promote peace."

Mohammad Abdullah, 34, a London businessman, said he came simply to say that in Britain, "we respect the queen, we should also respect the prophet."

In Denmark, the epicenter of the debate, the Foreign Ministry said that it had temporarily withdrawn its ambassadors from Syria, Iran and Indonesia because of security concerns. But there was also movement to find a middle ground. The office of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that he planned to meet Monday with a new organization of moderates called Democratic Muslims, headed by Naser Khader, a Syrian-born member of parliament.

The European Union's senior foreign policy official, Javier Solana, is also scheduled to meet Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia on Monday in an attempt to defuse the crisis.

Correspondent Kevin Sullivan in Copenhagen and special correspondent Marie Valla in Paris contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company