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Iraq: Cartoon Protests Spur Wider Debate

Protests in Ba'qubah on 8 February (epa) Like Muslims around the world, Iraqis have condemned the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were originally published in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" in September and subsequently reprinted around the globe. Several demonstrations against the newspaper broke out across Iraq over the past two weeks, as Iraqis vented their fury against the West, including the United States.

But few Muslims have stopped to ask if they themselves bear any responsibility for allowing terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda to create the widespread impression that associates Islam with terrorism.

Iraq-based Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani addressed this issue in a statement recently posted to his website. In a thinly veiled reference to Al-Qaeda, al-Sistani wrote: "The unjust and stray faction that has misinterpreted and manipulated the values and sacred meanings of the noble faith changed [the reputation of Islam] and devastated the earth with injustice and [moral] corruption, choosing the path of extremism.... This has reflected a gloomy picture of the religion of love, justice, and brotherhood, which has led elements hostile [to Muslims] to exploit this dangerous flaw, disseminate their malice, and revive old hatreds through newmethods -- the latest being a pathetic attempt by a Danish newspaper, and then a Norwegian one, to insult the sanctity and the divine status of the holy Prophet."

While al-Sistani's assessment that the newspapers --and by extension the West -- are hostile to Islam seems an inaccurate generalization, his point about the perversion of Islam by extremists is well taken.

The fact that protests in Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world have morphed into demonstrations against broader issues of concern to Muslims says much about Muslim perceptions of the state of relations with the West -- perceptions that have been adversely affected in recent decades by international political developments.

Today, many Muslims feel under attack from the West, just as many in the West feel under threat of attack from Islamic extremists.The argument that both sides have politicized the cartoon issue -- with some Europeans arguing that freedom of the press justifies the publication of such cartoons, despite the offense they cause, and some Muslims linking the cartoons to Israeli and American designs against the Islamic world -- warrants consideration.

Al-Sadr Foundation Organizes Demonstrations

Many of the demonstrations that sprouted up in cities and towns across Iraq over the past two weeks were sponsored by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Sadr Foundation. Demonstrators at an 8 February march in Ba'qubah shouted: "No, no to America! No, no to Israel! No, no to Denmark! No, no to Norway!" "Our people are angry at all Danish people, at Israel, and everybody who is with them," a participant told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI).

Hasan al-Kindi, director of the Ba'qubah bureau of the Martyr (al-Sadr) Office described the al-Sadrist response to RFI: "We are the followers [of the Prophet Muhammad]; we are his mobilized army. This [demonstration] is a cry in the face of tyrants and wrongdoers [who think] there is discord among Muslims. We are telling them: Listen! Even though all those united to cause disunity among Muslims, God has turned it into unity among Muslims, whose slogan is there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

In Al-Hillah, south of Baghdad, another demonstration on 8 February broke out among Shi'a taking part in a mourning procession marking the Ashura festival. A co-organizer of the march was Babil Governorate Council member Kazim Majid Tuman, who told RFI, "All of us are ready to find martyrdom in defending the honor of the Messenger of God."

Sayyid Sa'd al-Musawi, a preacher from the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf, was on hand at the demonstration but called for calm."All the nations, countries, and people must hear that the personalities of prophets, peace be upon them, must not be attacked," he told RFI. "Evidence of that is that we, the Islamic community, have not attacked any prophet, be it a prophet of Jews or Christians. So they too must respect our prophets and the things holy to other peoples."

Calls For Calm

Other Shi'ite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, have called for peaceful protests against the cartoons. Al-Sistani, in a statement posted to his website, called on "freedom lovers in the world and the Islamic nation with its scholars, intellectuals, and academics to stand up against all forms of practices that undermine religious values." Al-Hakim, in a nationally televised speech on 8 February, also called for peaceful protests. "We are against the idea of attacking embassies and other official sites," he said.

Meanwhile, non-Muslim Iraqis expressed fears ofincreased interconfessional violence as a result of the cartoons.

Pir Khidr Sulayman, president of the Lalish Social and Cultural Center, a Yezidi organization, condemned the cartoons, telling RFI on 7 February that they would have "very negative and grave ramifications." Sulayman said the cartoons come at a time when people are fighting for tolerance and dialogue. "The pictures...have irritated over1.4 billion Muslims, thus igniting religious strife and encouraging the terrorist current around the world. I must ask, 'What is the purpose behind publishing such items?'" Sulayman said. "Muslims calling for peace have been put in an unsustainable position, in which they cannot last long against the obstinacy of the terrorist segment."

Chaldean Democratic Party Political Bureau Secretary Ro'el Dawud said the cartoons are an insult to all religions, RFI reported on 7 February. "The insults to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, that have been published in the Danish newspaper have riled not only the feelings of Muslims but [the feelings of the followers] of all religions," he said. "This act was intentional because the same newspaper had earlier publishedpictures insulting Jesus. At that time, our people in Denmark and other countries protested against these pictures. It must not happen that, under the name of the freedom of expression and the like, people are insulted. Every freedom stops where the freedom of others begins."

The Cartoon Controversy

The Cartoon Controversy

Islamabad residents protesting against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on February 15 (epa)

An Unfolding Conflict

19 February 2006: A full-page apology by "Jyllands-Posten," dated 5 February, appears in papers in Saudi Arabia. Churches in Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan are attacked, as too is the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.

18 February: Forty-five die in Nigeria as churches, hotels, and shops are torched in a predominantly Muslim northern state. Roberto Calderoli resigns from the Italian cabinet after being blamed for riots in Libya that ended with the destruction of the Italian Embassy and the loss of 10 lives. The Libyan interior minister and local police chiefs are sacked for using disproportionate force to quell the riots.

17 February: Ten Libyan protestors are killed during a demonstration that culminates with the burning of the Italian Embassy in Tripoli. Protestors link the demonstrations to the decision of an Italian minister to wear T-shirts showing the cartoons.

16 February: The Russian media watchdog pledges to take a tough line against any organization accused of "insulting religious feelings."

15 February: The Danish government says the Iraqi government wants Danish troops to remain. A far-right Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, says he plans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with some of the "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons. In Pakistan, three more protestors are killed, one in Lahore and two in Peshawar, as tens of thousands demonstrate.

14 February: Pakistani police shoot dead two protesters in Lahore. In Iran, crowds attack the British and German embassies. Political leaders in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah call for Danish troops to leave the country. In Israel, a cartoonist launches a competition for the best anti-Semitic cartoons by Jews themselves. In Europe, the Portugese president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, promises support for Denmark and the democratic system in a dispute that reminds him of his country's dictatorial past.

13 February: A leading Iranian newspaper, "Hamshahri," invites cartoons about the Holocaust in a competition aimed at testing the limits of free speech in the West.

12 February: Intelligence reports suggest Danes in Indonesia are under threat. Denmark urges its nationals to leave the country. It had previously made similar appeals to Danes in many Muslim countries.

10 February: Thousands of Malayans protest, as Western and Muslim political, cultural, and religious leaders gather to discuss differences between the Western and Muslim worlds.

9 February: The Swedish government forces offline a website that asked readers to submit their own cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

8 February: Security forces open fire on protestors in the Afghan city of Qalat, killing four, on a day of angry and sometimes violent scenes around the world. Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of inciting violence.

7 February: Iran's largest newspaper invites cartoons of the Holocaust, saying it wants to test the limits of Western freedom of expression.

6 February: Widespread unrest over the cartoons reported in Afghanistan. One person was reported killed and four wounded in Laghman Province.

6 February: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expresses "distress" over the publication of the cartoons, but condemns the violent reactions in the Muslim world.

5 February: The Danish Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, is torched.

4 February: Mobs burn the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chilean embassies in Syria. Protests in Denmark turn violent.

1 February: Papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain run reprints of the cartoons in a show of solidarity.

30 January: The EU says it will take World Trade Organization (WTO) action if the boycott persists. Several Islamic groups, including Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, call for a worldwide boycott of Danish products. Masked gunmen in storm EU office in Gaza. The Danish paper apologizes.

29 January: "Jyllands-Posten" prints a statement in Arabic saying the drawings were published in line with freedom of expression and not a campaign against Islam. Palestinians burn Danish flags and Libya announces it will close its embassy in Denmark.

28 January: The Danish company Arla places advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers to try to stop boycott of its products.

27 January: Thousands denounce the cartoons during Friday prayers in Iraq.

26 January: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador to Denmark and initiates a boycott of Danish goods.

10 January 2006: The cartoons are reprinted by the Norwegian newspaper "Magazinet."

14 November: Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan-based group, protests in Islamabad.

20 October: Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries complain to Danish Prime Minister. "Jyllands-Posten" reports that illustrators have received death threats.

30 September 2005: The Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" publishes 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Calming The Storm

Former Jailed Iranian Cartoonist Discusses Muhammad Caricatures

Western, Eastern Media View Cartoon Crisis As Test Of Values