Muslim Fury Over Danish Cartoons Spurs Riots Across The Globe — Why?

The cartoons strike at a core issue of Islamic law, which forbids depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The furor over a Danish cartoons that caricatured the Islamic prophet Muhammad continued to rage into this week, with the violence turning deadly as protests in Asia, Europe and the Middle East escalated on Monday and Tuesday (February 7).

The protests are in response to 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were first published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten in September and then reprinted in papers across Europe over the past week. In one of them, Muhammad is depicted wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.

According to The Associated Press, the cartoons came about when the Danish paper asked cartoonists to draw the pictures because members of its staff felt the media was practicing self-censorship when it came to Muslim issues: The comics were reportedly solicited by an editor at the paper after he read a story about Danish illustrators refusing to do the artwork for a children's book about Muhammad. The illustrators were apprehensive, in part, because they feared reprisals in light of the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was killed by an Islamic extremist upset over his direction of a film that was perceived as being critical of Muslim attitudes toward women.

In reaction to that explanation, on Tuesday, Hamshahri, the best-selling newspaper in Iran, launched a contest to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust in retaliation, according to a Reuters report. The daily said the contest was intended to test the boundaries of free speech. The 12 winners of the contest will have their cartoons published and receive two gold coins worth about $140 each as a prize.

Iran has announced its government will suspend economic and diplomatic ties with Denmark over the controversy.

While many Westerners understand the sensitivity of the issue for Muslims, many more have been astounded that the cartoons could produce such a visceral, violent reaction.

But they strike at an issue that is at the core of Muslim beliefs — Islamic law forbids depictions of Muhammad — according to University of Michigan assistant professor Evelyn Alsultany, who will be teaching Arab-American Studies and Race in Media courses at the university in the fall.

"The reason there has been such a strong reaction to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad is because in Islam there are no representations of the Prophet," she said. "Muslims believe that depicting prophets — Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad — can lead to worshipping those prophets as opposed to worshipping God, for whom there is no visual depiction either.

"My take on the cartoon controversy is that it is unfortunately becoming a missed opportunity to educate the public about Islam," she added.

According to Islamic tradition, Alsuntany said, the Prophet Muhammad was sent with a message in the 7th century because Christians were worshiping the man Jesus and his image, instead of God. As a result, Muhammad refused to have his image recorded because he did not want people to worship him, but rather pay attention to his message and worship God. "Given this background, it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet Muhammad, and it is beyond disrespect to not just depict the Prophet, but to depict him as a terrorist," she said.

While the White House has sympathized with Muslim anger over the cartoons, it condemned the sometimes anti-Semitic and anti-Christian tenor of some of the protests. "We would ... urge people who are criticizing these cartoons to speak out forcefully against all forms of hate speech, including cartoons and articles throughout parts of the Arab world which frequently espouse anti-Semitic and anti-Christian views," spokesperson Scott McClellan said Monday.

The violence over the cartoons has been raging since Saturday, when thousands of protesters in the Syrian capital of Damascus set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies. On Sunday, protesters set fire to a building housing the Danish embassy in Lebanon and burned Danish flags.

The AP reported that thousands took part in the Lebanese protest, with a small group of extremists breaking through the security barrier while some attacked police with stones and set fire to fire engines; troops fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. At least 18 people were injured in the violence. In Indonesia on Monday, warning shots were fired outside the U.S. consulate to disperse an angry crowd.

Six people have died so far in the violence in Afghanistan, with two killed as part of a fierce demonstration outside the Bagram air base, when police began firing on more than 2,000 protesters who tried to break into the heavily fortified facility. Four others were killed elsewhere in Afghanistan on Monday during protests, and in Somalia a teenage boy was trampled to death in a stampede of protesters. In Lebanon, a demonstrator who took part in the attacks on the Danish consulate in Beirut on Sunday died from injuries.

Protests have also taken place outside the Austrian embassy in Tehran, which was pelted with stones, firecrackers and eggs; and the Danish embassy for a second day on Tuesday, which was hit with firebombs and stones.

The Bush administration accused the Syrian government of playing a role in Saturday's attacks in Damascus, according to the Los Angeles Times, and urged the country's government to condemn the violence. "Syria is a country where protests don't just occur spontaneously, certainly not of this sort, and not without the knowledge and support of the government," State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said.

On Monday, protesters again filled the streets in Turkey, Indonesia, India, Thailand and New Zealand, where newspapers recently reprinted the cartoons, according to The New York Times. Thousands of also marched in the streets of Cairo on Monday in solidarity.

The riots continued in Pakistan on Tuesday, as the AP reported that 5,000 people burned effigies of the Danish prime minister in the capital of the North West Frontier province of Peshawar, chanting, "Hang the man who insulted the prophet" and "God is great." The rally was led by Akram Durrani, chief minister of the province, who was joined by other members of his Cabinet in the provincial government.