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Thursday, February 9, 2006 - Page updated at 08:52 AM

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Why people are fighting and dying over cartoons

By seattletimes.com staff

Across the Muslim world, people are destroying Danish property, starting trade boycotts — and even dying — over a few political cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that some Muslims consider blasphemous.

This may seem bizarre in the American context, where there's a cartoon somewhere that offends someone daily. In one recent example, Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles drew this commentary on the state of the U.S. military late last month. Toles saw it as a comment on what he thinks are the failed the policies of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a letter to the Post that it was "beyond tasteless."

Whichever position you favor, this kind of give and take is an accepted feature of political life in Western nations. Political arguments, however, are more malleable that those about religion. Combine political cartooning with the ever-sensitive topic of religious belief, and you have the fuel for a potent social bomb—as we're seeing in the current uproar in the Muslim world.

The outrage built slowly after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons of Muhammad late last September. But in the last week it has mushroomed into what some are describing as an international crisis. Danish embassies have been burned. Cartoonists have been threatened with death. Some protesters have been killed. Most recently, Iran said today it would cut all commercial ties with Denmark. Jyllands-Posten has apologized for the hurt caused by the cartoons and Danish Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has appealed for calm and mutual understanding It hasn't been enough to allay Muslim rage. (Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has a detailed entry on the sequence of events. It includes a reproduction of the original Jyllands-Posten page..)

One explanation for the intensity of the Muslim reaction is the religion's prohibition of depictions of Muhammad. The Quran itself, scholars say, does not prohibit depiction of the human form, it condemns idolatry — a tradition shared with the Christian and Jewish faiths. The Muslim belief on this question has evolved over time. As the extensive archive at this site shows, Muhammad was frequently depicted in early Islamic art.. Clearly, though, there is a difference between those centuries-old paintings of the prophet, which are not widely circulated, and a cartoonist's depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, the most controversial of the images from Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons were widely reprinted — though not in the U.S., where their use has been rare — and are readily available on the Internet.

The online journal Slate has a good roundup of Arab journalist opinion (though it should be noted that outrage is by no means limited to Arabs and extends to other Muslims worldwide). Slate writes that,

"A persistent theme in the press's response was the gap between European concern over anti-Semitism and indifference to the denigration of Islam. Abdallah Bin Bakhit asked, "While the Danish government claims that the publication of the caricatures falls under freedom of opinion as guaranteed by the Danish Constitution, would it respond with the same claim if a researcher had published a report on the Holocaust challenging the official opinion imposed by Jewish organizations?"

Well, we'll find out soon. An Iranian newspaper has announced an international competition for the cartoons about the Holocaust.

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However, defamatory cartoons about Christianity and, especially, Judaism already are staple fare in some of the Arab press. Here are a few examples from a blog at the conservative National Review site.

In an article accompanying the Muhammad cartoons in September, Jylland-Posten's culture editor, Flemming Rose, wrote that, "The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. "

The Muslim reaction has turned the tables — and raised again question of whether the cultural divide that bedevils the relationship between the West and the Muslim world can be bridged.

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