ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The storm over the caricature of Muhammad continues to sweep across Europe and Asia. In Indonesia, a crowd reported to be about 150 strong stormed the high rise that houses the Danish Embassy there, and then tore down and burnt the Danish flag. A Danish newspaper first published the image. The French foreign minister says he is shocked that French Islamic hardliners burnt the French flag there. There were demonstrations in Britain, Croatia, Baghdad, Tehran, countless other cities.
In Rome, meanwhile, two right-wing newspapers published the provocative cartoons and criticized other European media for what they called acceding to pressure. A State Department spokesman in Washington said of the entire affair, Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable. Muslim anger over a perceived blasphemy is evidently intense, and for some sense of what's at work here, we turn now to Reza Aslan, who is author of NO GOD BUT GOD and a research associate at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. Reza, what is the reaction of a devoted Muslim to a satiric cartoon of the Prophet?
Mr. REZA ASLAN (University of Southern California): Well, Muslim tradition has tended to forbid any depiction of either God or of the Prophet or really any of the patriarchs of Islam. But I think that you do see a number of cases both in South Asian Art and in Sophi (ph) Art and in Shiah Art of depictions of Muhammad and in fact you can go to any market in Tehran and find paintings of the Prophet Muhammad to buy.
SIEGEL: And people who sell them would be denounced by Sunni Muslims as idolaters.
Mr. ASLAN: Very likely so. I think the point of this is that while there is absolutely this prohibition against the depiction of Muhammad and it is seen as an offensive move. The real situation here is not just simply the fact that there were these cartoons of Muhammad but I think the deliberately offensive and provocative way in which Muhammad was depicted in these cartons, that's where I think a lot of the range and the anger in the Muslim world is coming from.
SIEGEL: In the original image, there is a depiction of Muhammad and the top of his turban is a firecracker, it's a bomb that is about to go off.
Mr. ASLAN: That's right and there is another one in which Muhammad is standing in front of two heavily veiled women. He has a menacing look on his face and he's unsheathing a sword. There is another one in which Muhammad is seen complaining about paradise running out of virgins. Quite frankly it is hard to see how these depictions could be meant in any other way but to offend.
SIEGEL: Well at such times one is tempted to traffic in analogies where the Vatican declaring Monty Python's Life of Brian blasphemous. But frankly the Swiss Guards at the Vatican City did not go storm the British Embassy at Rome. I mean, there is something else at work here.
Mr. ASLAN: That's right. I think a lot of this has to do with the ethnic and religious tensions that have been boiling over in Europe over the last decade or so and I think that's part of the real problem here is that this is becoming a discussion about press freedoms but of course we know in this country that press freedoms are not absolute. There must be some attempt to actually not provoke, not try to revive these kinds of tensions in European societies that both Muslims and non-Muslim leaders have been struggling to contain. But also we have to understand that there are plenty of people in the Muslim world who are perfectly willing to use an opportunity like this in order to inflame this Jihadist movement, this Jihadist propaganda, that somehow the Muslim world is under attack by the West or by Europe or by the Christian world and this really feeds right into their hands.
SIEGEL: Well this is a very personal question. You're an American of Iranian extraction and a Muslim. You're also an academic. I think you're a person who lives a largely secular life. No, Raza? You see an image, you see a satiric, insulting image of the Prophet. Does your blood boil or do you say, it's those crazy Danes.
Mr. ASLAN: Well my blood boils but not because I'm offended by the image. My blood boils because I feel as though the purpose of publishing these depictions was to deliberately provoke Muslim societies in Europe. So I'm angry that there wasn't more care and concern about trying to maintain a sense of reconciliation and unity. Not so much about the pictures themselves.
SIEGEL: It's the motive you infer from the publication.
Mr. ASLAN: Absolutely.
SIEGEL: Reza Aslan, thank you very much for talking with us again.
Mr. ASLAN: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
SIEGEL: Reza Aslan is a Research Associate at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. He is the author of NO GOD BUT GOD. He spoke with us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica.