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Mohammad cartoon protests aren't unique to Islam

By Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The violence linked to cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad is not unique to Islam, experts say, and the protests reflect political and cultural passions more than the faith's core values.

Looking for distinct features that would make Islam liable for the cartoon-related violence around the world does little to explain it, said the Rev. Patrick Gaffney, an anthropologist and expert on Islam at the University of Notre Dame.

"There are parallel behaviors in every tradition," he said. "Buddhism has a violent strain despite its pacifism ... You think about Hinduism and nonviolence but (Mohandas) Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu."

Other examples of religious violence involving various faiths abound in recent and past history. But attention has focused on Muslims this year as at least 11 people have been killed in protests in the Middle East, Asia and Africa after the publication of cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammad in newspapers in Denmark and elsewhere.

"You can't say Islam has a gene for violence," Gaffney said. "It has to do with the dynamics, political and economic, that are at play right now," especially in Europe where there has been a long history of anti-Islamic prejudice that represents "an underlying kind of powder keg."


While Muslims account for only 5 percent of the  European Union's population generally, their numbers are much higher in certain countries. Worldwide there are estimated to be 1.3 billion Muslims, or 21 percent of the global population, surpassed only by Christians, who account for 2.1 billion, or 33 percent, according to the Web site

Ruediger Seesemann, a professor of religion at Northwestern University, said the present situation has exploded because beyond whatever offense the cartoons carry, "Muslims feel under siege."

On top of the "physical occupation of  Iraq," he said, the cartoon controversy came "at a moment of time when it's the straw that broke the camel's back."

"It is often said in the media that Islam prohibits images of the Prophet," Seesemann said. "This is not correct. Muslims themselves have portrayed the Prophet.

"The problem here is not the image but the way it has been published -- as a terrorist with a turban shaped like a bomb. This is what Muslims direct their outrage against."

Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, said in a commentary on his Web site that the current controversy "must be understood in historical context."

"Most Muslim societies have spent the past two centuries either under European rule or heavy European influence and most colonial masters and their helpmates among the missionaries were not shy about letting local people know exactly how barbaric they thought the Muslim faith was," he wrote.


"Indeed, the same themes of Aryan superiority and Semitic backwardness in the European 'scientific racism' of the 19th and early 20th centuries ... led to the Holocaust against the Jews. ... A caricature of a Semitic prophet like Mohammad with a bomb in his turban replicates these racist themes ...

"Semites were depicted as violent and irrational and therefore as needing a firm white colonial master for their own good," Cole wrote.

John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and author of "What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam and Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam," agrees that there is nothing in the faith that makes its adherents prone to reacting differently to ridicule.

Martin Luther King Jr., he said, once called riots the voice of the voiceless.

"From my point of view this is a lot more about the context in which this is occurring than about the blasphemy," he said in an interview.

"It's a European context in which you have a growing right wing that is anti-immigrant and a global situation in which mainstream Muslims feel there is a war against Islam," Esposito said.

At the same time many Muslims around the world feel "a sense of powerlessness both within their own countries and, as well, in the international community that exacerbates the situation," he said."


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