Muslim Anger Builds over Newspaper Cartoons

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Outrage over the publication in the European press of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad continues to escalate. The cartoons were first published last fall in a Danish newspaper and have since been reprinted in several European papers. Linda Wertheimer talks to Ramez Maluf, professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.


Outrage over the publication in the European Press of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad continues to escalate. Today, in Jakarta, several hundred protesters went on a rampage in a building housing the Danish embassy, smashing furniture and destroying Danish symbols.

There have also been protests in Pakistan, and the Gaza Strip, and in other parts of the Muslim world. A Danish newspaper was the first to publish the cartoons last fall. Since then, they've been reprinted in several European papers.

We go now to Ramez Maluf. He is a professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Professor Maluf, welcome.

Mr. RAMEZ MALUF (Professor of Journalism at the Lebanese American University, Beirut): My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you could explain why some Muslims apparently find these cartoons so very offensive.

MALUF: Well, I think the vast majority of Muslims find it offensive, some more than others. The main reason I suggest is, you have to keep in mind that, even picturing a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden in this land. I mean, there are no pictures of him, no drawings of any kind. It's something that is just not done, I mean, even when there's a movie on the history of Islam, there's no actor that appears in the movie. So, just picturing him benignly would have been considered an offense.

WERTHEIMER: The cartoons were published in the Danish press months ago. Why are the protests sort of lagging behind?

MALUF: Well, I think the best explanation for that is the Danish press is not widely read anywhere outside of Denmark; certainly not in the Arab world. Nobody can even pronounce the name of the newspaper where the cartoons were published. And I think when this issue brought up in Denmark initially and then in a wider, international contacts, until it filtered down the masses of the Arab and Islamic world. It took awhile.

WERTHEIMER: A Frankfurt newspaper editorialized that religious fundamentalists who don't respect the difference between satire and blasphemy have a problem not only with Denmark but with the rest of the Western world. Do you think that's true? Is there a larger question here whether Islam is compatible with secular Western societies that are accustomed to joking about everything, including religion?

MALUF: I think that there is a problem, of course. I mean, the Muslim world is very religious. It's probably as religious as the United States. I mean, we cannot compare it to Europe, where secularism is much stronger. I think, you know, a caricature of Jesus Christ in a Midwestern publication showing him as the Devil would probably draw a lot of ire on the part of the local citizens, and I think that's also true of the Arab world. Unfortunately this kind of, you know, intolerance for satire exists among very religious people.

But let me say something here. There's a vote today that I just watched, on the website. They always ask people to vote on issues of the day. And the vote, out of 77,000 people, 68,500 said that the apology that the newspaper had presented was enough, and that the issue should be put to bed, 8,500 said not, that the apology was not enough. So I think that maybe there is, you know, a lot of "much ado about nothing" among some segments of Islamic society, and other people just want to forget this incident.

WERTHEIMER: Ramez Maluf is a professor of journalism at Lebanese American University. He joined me this morning from Beirut. Professor Maluf, thank you so much.

MALUF: My pleasure.


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