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European Muslims Offer Low-Key Response to Cartoons


As angry Muslims in the Middle East and Asia continue to protest Danish cartoons featuring their prophet, Muhammad, Europe's Islamic community has offered a low-key response to the images. Some analysts see this as a good sign for efforts to create a tolerant Islam of Europe.

Sitting at a Paris cafe, 55-year-old Algerian Sebhi Mennad says he has not seen the cartoons that have sparked so much anger in the Muslim world. But Mennad, who describes himself as a believing, but not a practicing Muslim, has his own opinions about the images - and Muslim reaction overseas.

Mennad criticizes the angry reaction of Muslims overseas over decisions by a number of European newspapers to reprint the cartoons. He says foreign Muslims should not meddle with Europe and what Europeans do. And he says Muslims here are proud of Europe.

Such sentiments are not universally shared by an estimated 15 to 20 million Muslims living in Europe. Nonetheless, the region has not witnessed anything like the anger against the cartoons unleashed in Islamic countries.

In some cases, European Muslims have expressed their anger over the Muhammad drawings through largely peaceful demonstrations. Others have used legal tools to register their discontent - such as filing charges of defamation against European newspapers who have reprinted the pictures, or seeking court injunctions to stop the images from being republished.

Many others have simply remained silent, and that, experts like International Study and Research Center Arab specialist Luis Martinez say, is also telling.

The Paris-based Martinez says the reactions indicate Muslims in Europe apparently do not find the cartoons particularly blasphemous. He says the anger over the images that is roiling the Islamic world is only touching the fringes of Muslim society in Europe.

He says that would be good news for efforts to reconcile Islam with largely secular European societies.

Some, like Martinez believe that European Muslims can play a role in bridging differences between the Islamic world and the West.

Martinez says building an Islam of Europe remains a challenge. But if it functions, it could be a model - reconciling free speech with religious values - that could be used in Arab countries.

But the various reactions by Muslims in Europe toward the Muhammad caricatures indicate it is not always easy for them to reconcile their faith with offensive examples of free speech.

The imam of the Islamic Cultural Center in Copenhagen, Khalil Jaffar Mushib, was born in Iraq, but he has lived most of his life in Denmark. He says he has never been discriminated against for being a Muslim in Denmark.

But Mushib says he has been hurt by both the cartoons and by angry reactions overseas against his adopted country.

"When I see some cartoon about our prophet I feel some bleeding in my heart," said Mushib. "Really. But at the same time I have the same feeling when I see the flag of Denmark burning outside. Because this is not our behavior as a Muslim. It is not our character. Really."

Mushib says its time to set aside differences, particularly among Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans. All of us are living in a single land, he says, and under a single sky.

But it may not be easy to heal the differences. Some experts note the cartoon controversy is only the latest issue creating friction between largely secular Europeans and the Muslim communities within their midst.

They point to a series of other events, including the Madrid and London terrorist bombings and the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, that has heightened tensions on both sides.

Although some see Europe's Muslims as helping bridge differences between the East and West, analyst Richard Whitman of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says that is only part of the picture.

"There is also, of course, another view which is one in which you have a home-grown problem," said Whitman. "And one of the things that the London tube bombings have brought home to people is that there is the potential for disaffected, young Muslim youth who feel they are not getting the benefits the society can offer them can turn against that society in a very violent way."

That view has also surfaced among some French, after angry, ethnic-immigrant youths staged countrywide riots last October and November. Many of these youths came from Muslim families.

French Muslim leader Lhaj Thami Breze says the cartoons have only deepened tensions that surfaced with the riots.

Breze, who is president of the conservative Union of French Islamic Organizations, describes the cartoons as an aggression against Islam. He says they have only intensified feelings of aggression and alienation sensed by members of France's estimated five million Muslims.

How Muslim societies fit into their European homes differs from country to country. Some European countries have very few Muslims. Others with large populations, like France, want Muslims to assimilate to French mores.

Britain, by contrast, has encouraged cultural diversity. Muslim Council of Britain Assistant Secretary General Daud Abdullah praises the British model.

But he warns that Europe, in general, needs to be more understanding of its islamic population.

"The fact is there are well over 15 million Muslims in Europe now," Abdullah said. "Many of them were born in European countries. They are citizens in these countries. But in some instances they do not enjoy equal rights of ordinary citizens. This has to change. These Muslim citizens are not returning anywhere - to any part of the Muslim world."

Giving Europe's Muslim citizens equal rights, Abdullah believes, also means treating their faith with respect.