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Muslim Protests Against Prophet Cartoons Spreads


New protests erupted Tuesday across Asia and the Middle East over controversial cartoons that many Muslims see as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad . Meanwhile the prime minister of Denmark, where the cartoons were first published, has appealed for calm. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from the Syrian capital, Damascus, on the deeply held views and basic cultural misunderstanding surrounding this issue.

The series of 12 cartoons first appeared in a Danish newspaper last September. The editor in chief says that even though one cartoon depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a bomb carrying terrorist, the picture was not meant to insult Muslims, but rather to spark a debate about Islam inside Denmark.

The cartoons have sparked less debate, than outrage. Islamic tradition does not allow any depiction of the prophet and Muslims feel that to portray him as a terrorist is not only blasphemy, but defames their religion and culture.

Muhammad Habash, a professor at Damascus University and director of the Islamic Studies Center, and also a member of the Syrian parliament, tells VOA there is a very fundamental misunderstanding between Muslim countries and the West. He says in the West there is a long culture of separation of church and state, of faith and society. Not so, in the Islamic world.

"Here in the Middle East it is so different," noted Professor Habash. "We believe that religion is a part of our history, a part of our identity, a part of ours [us]."

He says people in the West simply do not understand that Muslims feel they must protect the image of the prophet and their religion with heart and soul.

Thousands of angry Muslims have taken to the streets in Arab capitals, in other Muslim countries and in Europe. Protests turned violent in Damascus last Saturday when angry mobs set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies. On Sunday in Beirut, demonstrators burned the Danish consulate and then attacked a nearby church, threatening briefly to turn the protest into a sectarian clash. In London, a protest by Muslims took on very strident tones, with calls for revenge and for beheading those responsible for printing the cartoons.

There is a widespread sense that the anger expressed in the streets goes well beyond protests over cartoons and also expresses a general feeling by Muslims that the West does not respect them, their religion or their concerns.

Mohammed Habash says there may be some pent up anger being expressed - not only against the West.

"Here in Syria, it is no secret, protests against anything, there is no chance. Maybe this is the first chance to launch these people into the streets to protest," he said.

Some analysts suggest the Syrian government, which normally controls any such action very tightly, may have been content to let the protesters vent anger and frustrations against outsiders, diverting attention away from its own internal problems.

Whatever the case, Habash says it does not take away from the very deep feelings here about just how offensive those cartoons are to Muslims. And that, he says is something the West must understand.