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Religion, free expression clash Angry protests over cartoons of prophet Muhammad pose problem, and opportunity, for local Muslims

Time after time, Muslims in Western New York have emphasized that their religion embraces peace over violence.

Now, they are struggling to explain violent protests by Muslims following the publication of political cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.

Protesters in Syria burned down the Danish and Norwegian embassies, and 11 people died in demonstrations sweeping across predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.

That reaction has confounded many Americans, including area Muslims -- and it has sparked a debate about whether respect for religion trumps free expression of ideas, or vice versa.

Western New York Muslims condemned the violent protests, but also questioned why the cartoons were published, first in a Danish newspaper, then in several other European newspapers that reprinted the drawings in a show of solidarity.

Bayram Arman of Grand Island said the Muslim reaction to the cartoons was "out of bounds."

"There's no excuse. I would never excuse it," he said.

Still, the protests and economic boycott of Danish goods could have been averted if the Danish newspaper apologized for publishing the cartoons, as several Muslim groups had been asking for months, said Arman.

One provocative cartoon depicts Muhammad, a beloved prophet in Islam, with a large, lighted bomb inside his turban, suggesting that the terrorist ways of some extremists extends to the roots of the religion.

Many Muslims view depictions of the prophet as sacrilegious, because Muhammad preached against it, saying that it encouraged idolatry.

The caricature struck at the "most respected symbol of Islam," said Dr. Othman Shibly, a periodontist and University at Buffalo faculty member. "They insulted every single Muslim on earth by doing what they did."

>'Don't mock' prophet

Few non-Muslims understand the significance of Muhammad to Muslims and the importance of Islam in their lives, said Ibrahim Zidan, imam of Masjid Alhuda, a mosque in Lackawanna.

Faced with a choice between being fatally shot and seeing Muhammad ridiculed, "a true Muslim would say, 'Shoot me to death, but don't mock the prophet in front of me,' " said Zidan. "The understanding or lack thereof is really what's bothersome to Muslims."

At the same time, Muslims here said they fully support free speech, as long as it is done responsibly.

"The freedom of expression has to have some boundary. What is that boundary? That isn't very clear, but where it ends is when you start to play with the emotions of others," said Dr. Nasir Khan, president of the Buffalo chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association. "This was not a factual display. This was a cartoon representing something which was supposed to sell, and it wasn't factual."

European newspapers and others have defended publication of the cartoons as the free expression of ideas in a democracy.

And free speech advocates said the newspapers have nothing for which to apologize.

"Is this what we're going to do, submit all of our newspapers to the Islamic world for approval?" said Ibn Warraq, senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst and author of several books critical of Islam and the Quran.

Warraq is concerned extremists will end up defining the world agenda, if "we have to check with the Muslims" before writing or saying anything critical of Islam.

"It is very, very dangerous, this giving in," he said.

Dr. Sam Jureyda of Amherst said he viewed the cartoons on the Internet and found them offensive and insulting.

"Even from an artistic point of view, the actual depiction of the facial features, gives you the impression that it was a malicious drawing," said Jureyda, an orthodontist who was born in Syria and has lived in Western New York for eight years. "I would have been as repulsed or as offended if it were the person of Jesus or Moses or any other prophet depicted in the cartoon."

The cartoons, he added, "were not sincerely satiric. They were politically charged."

But Warraq said the artistic value of a cartoon is subjective and irrelevant to the discussion.

"Who decides anyway what is a good cartoon or what is not?" he said.

Several groups also have weighed in on the debate, including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a frequent critic of media lampooning Catholicism or Catholic figures in artwork, cartoons, movies or television.

In a statement, Catholic League president Bill Donohue denounced the Danish cartoons as inflammatory, but also accused media outlets that have refused to reprint the cartoons as being "motivated by fear, not ethics."

Donohue said that when he objects to a controversial depiction of Christianity, he gets told that the Catholic League is intolerant and its protests chill-free speech.

"So why have Muslims been spared this lecture? Because the extremists in their ranks -- and they are not a tiny minority -- have shown they may respond with beheadings," he said. "Ethics, not fear, should guide the media. As for Muslims offended by the cartoons, they should learn what a civilized response entails."

Some Muslims are concerned that they are being doubly misrepresented -- first by the cartoons and now by the overwhelming media coverage of the violent reaction, which they say reinforces the distorted image portrayed in the cartoons.

The cartoons were not published in a vacuum, several Muslims pointed out.

>Iraq War a component

Worldwide, most Muslims oppose the war in Iraq and continue to be frustrated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- situations that make them feel as if Islam is under attack, said Mohammed T. Albanna, a member of the Lackawanna mosque.

Add a degrading cartoon to the mix and "you have this kind of explosion," said Albanna.

The European newspapers "didn't have to go too far to find out how Muslims would react to a caricature of Muhammad," said Khan. "Muslims don't have a right to dictate, 'Oh, you can do that and you can't do that.' [But] that was an irresponsible display of their power to publish. They won't be dictated to, but they should be cognizant of whatever they're publishing."

Muslims with whom The News spoke for this story said the violent responses to the cartoons were not justified.

"Such an approach to the cartoons is not constructive," said Jureyda. "We have a lot of channels of communications."

Muslims here maintain that most of their colleagues in faith worldwide expressed outrage at the publication of the cartoons in a peaceful fashion.

"People's reactions are something you cannot control in a lot of cases. This is seen all over the world," said Zidan.

Zidan encouraged worshippers during a service Friday at the mosque to take the cartoon controversy as an opportunity for spreading the word about Muhammad and explaining Islam to non-Muslims.

Shibly, who frequently gives presentations on Islam to community groups, churches and anyone else who will listen, addressed the adult education group of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst earlier in the week.

"It's a wake-up call to do something, seeing what we're seeing," he said. "Closing our eyes on this problem does not get us anywhere."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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