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Cartoon Controversy Over Prophet Muhammad has Deep Cultural and Religious Origins

Protests have continued throughout the Muslim world over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad . Although the drawings were first published in Denmark last September, several newspapers recently reprinted the cartoons, which renewed anger in Muslim communities.

Emotions run high in the Muslim world over cartoons that show a caricature: a distorted drawing or image ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic law forbids depictions of the prophet, even positive images, in order to prevent idolatry.

Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University in Washington, D.C. says the uproar highlights the tension between religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

"In a sense you 're seeing an irresistible force, the Muslims, and an immovable object, that is the principle of freedom of expression in the West. And these two are clashing. You saw it earlier with the Salman Rushdie crisis when he wrote the "Satanic Verses" over a decade ago and you had the reaction by the Muslims,” said the professor. “And in a sense you're seeing a resonance and echo of the same kind of crisis where two cultures, as it were, are in conflict and clash. And in some sense not understanding the sensitivities of each other. Muslims need to be much more sensitive to how the West functions. And the West must understand how Muslims responds to religiosity to the Devine and to theology itself."

The cartoons sparked threats of kidnapping against westerners in the Palestinian territories and the boycott of Danish products in parts of the Middle East.

On Friday, Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen hosted a meeting in Copenhagen with more than 70 ambassadors including those from predominately Muslim nations.

"The Danish government is taking the protests and the threats very seriously,” said the prime minister. “We are working with our friends and partners in the Muslim world and beyond to calm the situation."

Mr. Rasmussen fears tensions will grow as more newspapers reprint the cartoons. In the United States, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack defended freedom of expression, but condemned the publication of the cartoons.

"We find them offensive. We understand why others may find them offensive. We have urged tolerance and understanding. All of that said, the media organizations are going to have to make their own decisions concerning what is printed. It's not for the U.S. government to dictate what is printed."

Angry demonstrations were held in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and several other predominantly Muslim nations protesting the cartoons.

In Pakistan, President Musharraf expressed outrage, saying there was no way to justify the publication of the cartoons. In Pakistan, insulting the prophet Mohammed is punishable by death.

Professor Ahmed, who was the Pakistan Ambassador to the United Kingdom, called on Western and Muslim nations to be more sensitive to each other's cultures.

"Understanding that the world we're living in is a world which is mixed up, it's a kind of salad bowl of cultures. And if we are to live with some harmony, we need to respect each other. If we don't do this, then what you're going to see is emotional people, angry people, who will do something stupid, something violent and you'll have a chain reaction on both sides".

European leaders, hoping to calm anger throughout the continent have denounced the cartoons as tasteless and disrespectful. Some have also defended the right of free speech of the newspapers.