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Theological Notebook: A Better-Than-Average Article on the Ongoing Madness

February 22, 2006

Furor Over Cartoons Pits Muslim Against Muslim

and HASSAN M. FATTAH for The New York Times

AMMAN, Jordan, Feb. 21 — In a direct challenge to the international uproar over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, the Jordanian journalist Jihad Momani wrote: "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras, or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony?"

In Yemen, an editorial by Muhammad al-Assadi condemned the cartoons but also lamented the way many Muslims reacted. "Muslims had an opportunity to educate the world about the merits of the Prophet Muhammad and the peacefulness of the religion he had come with," Mr. Assadi wrote. He added, "Muslims know how to lose, better than how to use, opportunities."

To illustrate their points, both editors published selections of the drawings — and for that they were arrested and threatened with prison.

Mr. Momani and Mr. Assadi are among 11 journalists in five countries facing prosecution for printing some of the cartoons. Their cases illustrate another side of this conflict, the intra-Muslim side, in what has typically been defined as a struggle between Islam and the West.

The flare-up over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper, has magnified a fault line running through the Middle East, between those who want to engage their communities in a direct, introspective dialogue and those who focus on outside enemies.

But it has also underscored a political struggle involving emerging Islamic movements, like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Arab governments unsure of how to contain them.

"This has become a game between two sides, the extremists and the government," said Tawakkul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Constraints in Sana, Yemen. "They've made it so that if you stand up in this tidal wave, you have to face 1.5 billion Muslims."

The heated emotions, the violence surrounding protests and the arrests have sent a chill through people, mostly writers, who want to express ideas contrary to the prevailing sentiment. It has threatened those who contend that Islamic groups have manipulated the public to show their strength, and that governments have used the cartoons to establish their religious credentials.

"I keep hearing, 'Why are liberals silent?' " said Said al-Ashmawy, an Egyptian judge and author of books on political Islam. "How can we write? Who is going to protect me? Who is going to publish for me in the first place? With the Islamization of the society, the list of taboos has been increasing daily. You should not write about religion. You should not write about politics or women. Then what is left?"

While the cartoons have infuriated Muslims, the regional dynamics underlying the conflict have been evolving for decades, during which leaders have tried to stall the rise of Islamic political appeal by trying to establish themselves as guardians of the faith.

In the end, political analysts around the region say that governments have resorted to the very practices that helped the rise of Islamic political forces in the first place. They have placated the more extreme voices while arresting and silencing more moderate ones.

Jihad Khazen, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, said: "The Islamists wanted to prove their strength. The government replied in kind, saying that we are all Muslims and we care about our religion, and I think the truth was trampled on in the process."

In Jordan, King Abdullah II, who has been trying to control the most extreme religious forces in the region, came out with such a powerful condemnation of Shihan, the newspaper Mr. Momani edited, that even some of his allies were taken aback.

The newspaper printed three cartoons without obscuring them, including one depicting the prophet in a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. Many of the king's supporters said he felt the need to respond as firmly as he did partly because of the rise of Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in Gaza, and to strip the Islamists in Jordan of an issue to rally around.

"What Shihan did was a corruption on earth, which cannot be accepted or excused under any circumstances," the Royal Court said in a statement.

But now there seems to be a growing concern and in some circles a degree of regret for unleashing a wave of anger that has claimed lives. In Jordan, authorities moved quickly to release the journalists from detention. In Libya, where spontaneous protests are unheard of, allowing protests over the cartoons seemed a safe bet for the authorities — until protesters began criticizing the government. At least 11 people were killed in clashes with the police.

Some of the world's most renowned Islamic religious leaders and scholars recently issued a declaration that, though sharply critical of the drawings, sought to rein in the violence and cautioned Muslims against becoming international pariahs. In so doing, they have begun to echo the sentiments of the journalists facing criminal charges.

"We appeal to all Muslims to exercise self-restraint in accordance with the teachings of Islam," the statement said. It added that "violent reactions" can lead to "our isolation from the global dialogue."

To many journalists, proof that Mr. Momani and Mr. Assadi face charges because of the region's broader political dynamics — and not because of the nature of the cartoons — can be found in Egypt.

After all, Ahmed Abdel Maksoud and Youssra Zahran are free. They are journalists with the Egyptian weekly Al Fajr, one of the first Arab newspapers to publish the cartoons. They wrote a story about the caricatures and reprinted them in October — months before the conflict erupted — to condemn the drawings.

"The feelings of the Muslims are being exploited for some purpose," said Adel Hammoude, editor in chief of Al Fajr. "Religion is the easiest thing to use in provoking the people. Egyptians will never go out on the street in protest about what happened in the case of the sinking ferry or against corruption or this or that."

That thinking is widespread in Yemen, where three journalists languished in a squalid cell, escorted to court by machine-gun toting police. It is echoed in Jordan as well, where two journalists await trial.

Mr. Momani appears in court on Wednesday, while two of the Yemeni journalists were released Tuesday pending their trial. The third begins his trial on Wednesday.

Government officials in both countries say the journalists were arrested for having printed blasphemous cartoons. In Jordan, a spokesman said the king felt especially obligated, because his family is a direct descendant of the prophet.

"If freedom of the press affects national unity in a tribal system with high levels of illiteracy, one has to consider how far it can go," said Yemen's foreign minister, Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. "All societies have red lines."

But in Yemen, with presidential elections scheduled for September, many see a more political motive.

"They've now found a good reason to put us here — they say the public demanded it," said Mr. Assadi in an interview in his jail cell. "The Yemeni government has many reasons to arrest Yemeni journalists. They want to keep people busy as long as they can, so that they can cover over issues like corruption."

Mr. Assadi, who once worked as a part-time correspondent for The New York Times, is the editor of The Yemen Observer, an English-language paper owned by an adviser to Yemen's president. Mr. Assadi has been sharing a prison cell with Abdulkarim Sabra, the managing editor of the weekly Al Hurriya, and Yehiya al-Abed, a reporter for that paper.

The three stand accused of insulting their faith by publishing the images, a crime approaching heresy. In each case the intention was to condemn the drawings, and The Observer obscured the image with a black X. A fourth man, Kamal al-Aalafi, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al Rai al Aam, became a fugitive after escaping arrest for similar charges.

"When I saw all the demonstrations, I thought that Muslims should be able to see what the fuss was all about," said Mr. Sabra during an interview in jail. "I condemned them; I said these drawings don't represent our prophet, burn them."

The Yemen Observer had called for Muslims to accept the apology of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first printed the caricatures, and urged Muslims to avoid violence. Mr. Assadi said that call was especially unpopular with the government and the Islamists. The Observer recalled its print run and republished a new issue just two days after the initial publication, but to no avail.

"Anyone who insults the prophet must face the sword," said one imam in a recent Friday sermon in Yemen. Another announced, "The government must execute them."

In Jordan, Mr. Momani is free from jail, but a prisoner in his home. He has no work, no immediate prospects, a criminal case against him and a lifetime of friends who privately support his message but say they dare not support him publicly.

Mr. Momani was not the first to print the cartoons in Jordan. Hisham Khalidi, whose newspaper, Al Mehwar, printed the cartoons a week earlier with a story condemning them, is awaiting trial.

But Mr. Momani's timing was particularly bad, just one week after the Hamas victory in Gaza, political analysts said. Jordanian officials expelled Hamas leaders years ago and saw their recent victory as a potential threat to national stability.

From the beginning, Mr. Momani felt the cartoon issue was being manipulated by Islamic groups eager to flex their muscles, and he asked his readers to consider why the protests began so many months after publication. He says he did not expect such a backlash, but that in hindsight, he understands why the authorities acted as they did.

"They wanted to show the Islamic movement that they are the defenders of the prophet" Mr. Momani said in an interview. "They used me."

Mr. Momani expressed exasperation when asked why he printed the cartoons. He insisted that it was the work of journalists to inform, and that he did so after speaking to many people who were outraged without ever seeing the cartoons.

"I am telling my people, 'Be rational, think before you go into the streets,' " he said. "Who harms Islam more? This European guy who paints Muhammad or the real Muslim guy who cuts a hostage's head off and says, 'Allah-u akbar?' Who insults our religion, this guy or the European guy?"

Michael Slackman reported from Amman for this article, and Hassan M. Fattah from Sana, Yemen. Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.

Jihad Momani, a Jordanian, is one of 11 journalists in five countries facing prosecution for reprinting cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, reflecting a battle among Muslims on how to respond to them.

Yehiya al-Abed, an Al Hurriya reporter in Yemen, pointing, with Abdulkarim Sabra, its managing editor. They were accused of insulting Islam.
Tags: cultural, ethical, islam, legal, media, political, theological notebook

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