Muhammad Cartoons Prompt Growing Protests

A violent reaction continues across the Muslim world to the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. A Jordanian newspaper editor was arrested for reprinting the Danish caricatures.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliot.

In Damascus, Syria today, protestors set fire to the Danish Embassy.

(Soundbite of protest)

The Syrian protestors were among the thousands who've taken to the streets across the Muslim world to denounce Danish and other European newspapers for publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. One caricature shows Muhammad with his turban in the shape of a bomb. Another shows him at the gates of heaven, speaking to men who have explosives strapped to their backs. He's waving his arms and saying, stop, we've run out of virgins.

Islam bans any depiction of Muhammad, even positive, but after the initial publication by a Danish paper last fall sparked outrage and threats, other European papers reprinted the cartoons to stress their commitment to freedom of the press. The protests are spreading from Turkey and Egypt to Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

(Soundbite of protest)

In Gaza City today, Palestinian children chanted in protest, crowds stoned a European commission building and stormed a German cultural center. They burned German and Danish flags and called for a boycott of Danish products. Some Muslim countries have already introduced a boycott, including Jordan. Kristen Gillespie reports from Amman on the growing anger and the arrest of a Jordanian newspaper editor who dared to reprint the cartoons.

KRISTEN GILLESPIE reporting:

A sign taped over the empty shelves at the sea town supermarket in Amman explains that because of a mockery of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, the supermarket is taking part in a regional boycott against Danish products that mainly include butter, cheese and milk. Store manager Ibrahim Decargian(ph) says his clients are pleased.

Mr. IBRAHIM DECARGIAN (Manager of supermarket in Amman): They really like it and they sent us too many appreciation letters about our demand to stop sell all the Danish products.

GILLESPIE: A veiled woman who gave her name as Mae(ph) is happy to buy butter made in Saudi Arabia.

MAE (Supermarket customer): I will never buy Danish products again. And there are substitutes. They should have realized that because in the international market now you have so many choices so why should I buy their products again ever in my life.

GILLESPIE: Mae says she doesn't understand why the Danish newspaper would attacked the Muslim prophet.

MAE: We never did anything to them, particularly the Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark, all the people they used to love them because they vote for the human rights and all of a sudden we find them-human rights does not include Muslims or Arabs.

GILLESPIE: In an editorial on Thursday in a weekly paper called al-Shihan, Editor Jihad Momani took a bold stand. He questioned the timing of the outrage, considering the cartoons were originally published five months ago. And, Momani posed a rhetorical question, what is harming Islam more: cartoons or the beheading of hostages with a sword? But he went even further. He actually published the cartoons showing the face of Muhammad. In an interview, just before his arrest, Momani explained his decision.

Mr. JIHAD MOMANI (Editor, al-Shihan): Actually I didn't publish these cartoons because I like them or because I am promoting them. Showing our people why they are uprising, why they are demonstrating and this is the main object.

GILLESPIE: As Momani spoke, he was wearing a navy blazer and sitting in his living room under a portrait of Jordan's King Abdullah. He served as a member of the upper house of parliament, appointed by the King. Momani said he himself was curious to see the cartoons and thought others might feel the same.

Mr. MOMANI: I was satisfied to see, to know and to build my reaction on what I see not what I hear. I can't react like, without knowing this, without knowing the thing.

GILLESPIE: Momani's tabloid paper is the only one in the Arab world to reprint the cartoons. His decision to publish them baffled a fellow editor, Emon Sufodi(ph) of the daily newspaper Alzad(ph).

Mr. EMON SUFODI (Editor, Alzad): A lot of people see it as an attack on one of their most sacred symbols so I think there was no reason to publish that picture and the argument that people needed to see what the controversy was all about is something that would not be accepted by people here as was evidenced by their action.

GILLESPIE: And, Emon Sufodi notes, Jihad Momani was treading on dangerous legal ground.

Mr. SUFODI: He did break the law in a way because the law does state that freedom of expression does not include attacks on religion and religious symbols and whatever the justification he's tried to say, I mean some of the arguments he's put forward is that he just wanted people to see what the cartons were all about.

GILLESPIE: Momani issued a public apology and his paper recalled the controversial edition with the cartoon. Late into last Thursday night, vans pulled up to the office of al-Shihan newspaper, unloading stacks of paper they had retrieved from newsstands around Amman. The publishers also decided to fire Jihad Momani and tonight he was taken into custody and is being held pending an investigation. For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie in Amman.

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