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Cartoons story uses a tired script


WASHINGTON -- Americans are thoroughly comfortable with what we know well, such as in thinking that the enlightened West basks in the doctrine of free speech while pious Muslims condemn hate-filled cartoons with violent demonstrations.

In our post-9/11 world, all is well.

But something is amiss.

As a person of faith, I found the cartoons published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten to be racist, base and grossly offensive.

I was again distressed by the level to which anti-Islamic dogma has grown, and kept asking myself the same questions: Why did this paper publish these vile cartoons, and why did some Muslims respond with disturbing violence?

According to Jyllands-Posten, it printed the cartoons in September in defense of freedom of speech under assault from a Muslim community demanding "special treatment."

When Danish writer Kare Bluitgen could not find an illustrator willing to draw the prophet Muhammad for his children's book, the paper invited 40 editorial cartoonists to present the prophet "as they see him."

Twelve artists made submissions, and Jyllands-Posten, seeing a grave injustice playing out, printed the cartoons.

After protests ensued, newspapers throughout Europe reprinted the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten and its campaign against intolerance.

This seems plausible, but questionable after considering the political bent of Denmark's largest daily.

In the marketplace of ideas, Jyllands-Posten's editorial sympathy played an important role in the victory of Danish conservatives in the parliamentary election of 2001.

That election focused on immigration, and newly elected Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen hired some of the paper's staff in his new administration.

Fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment can be a successful strategy, and one cannot politically fault Jyllands-Posten for using it in 2001 and running these inflammatory cartoons today. Indeed, if you seek to make the case that Muslims are incompatible with secular, free societies, this crisis has generated just the right images - "fanatical" Muslims in the streets in the seemingly eternal role of "the other."

While this may address the domestic-consumption motives of the paper for sparking this controversy, that still leaves us with why some elements of the Muslim world reacted the way they did.

As a Muslim, I find this question much more difficult to address.

Is my faith so weak that it cannot withstand a vile attack couched in satire on our prophet?

The answer is no.

But in an environment in which the Muslim community feels besieged by the very real Islamophobia that exists today, Muslim extremists have an incentive to inspire hate, and the Muslim masses sometimes join in the us-vs.-them struggle. They may find it easier to take to the streets in a rarely allowed public expression of their anger - justifiable anger that loses its ground when it manifests itself in violent attacks.

The vast majority of the approximately 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide take great exception with the intimidation, the violence and the very intolerance we are confronted with that has surfaced in response to these cartoons. Further, the calls to incite violence are serious, and one need only remember the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 to understand the potential danger we are dealing with.

Like the rest of the world, Muslims reject this extremism and are challenging it; it is just that these Muslims don't resonate in today's media.

Right now, the story remains about those seeking to incite hatred by either publishing the cartoons or by calling for violence against those who did. It is simply familiar terrain we all seem to be more comfortable with.

I look forward to a time when we can all move beyond this tired script. That day cannot come soon enough.

Maya M. Berry is a co-founder of the MidAmr Group, which works to improve U.S.-Arab relations. Her e-mail is

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