BEIRUT, Lebanon—A Muslim protest over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad turned into a rampage that injured at least 30 people in Beirut on Sunday, as outrage over the drawings spread across continents and widened the rift between Islam and the West.
Protesters in the Lebanese capital torched the Danish embassy, clashed with police and stoned a church—the most violent reaction yet to 12 cartoons lampooning the prophet that first appeared in a Danish newspaper and were reprinted in other media this month.
Muslims in several cities throughout the Middle East and Europe have stormed foreign embassies, burned Danish flags, staged massive demonstrations and launched a boycott that's costing Danish firms an estimated $2 million a day.
The fierce reaction to the cartoons reflects not just anger over Europeans poking fun at the revered prophet, but years of pent-up fury by Muslims who feel alienated in the West and oppressed in their home countries, according to Muslims in several nations.
In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, the timing and subject matter of the cartoons were just enough to push already volatile populations over the edge.
"There's a widespread feeling of humiliation," said Abdul Sattar Kassem, a specialist in Islamic Studies at a university in Palestinian City of Nablus, where gunmen briefly kidnapped a German in protest of the cartoons. "People think they have been targeted by the West for more than 100 years. The West created Israel and has supported the dictators of the Arab regimes. They have robbed the wealth of the Arabs. That's what people think. That's why they react."
Islam's strict ban on idolatry prohibits any representation of Muhammad or other religious figures. Muslims were outraged not only by Danish cartoonists giving a face to the prophet, but also by the depiction of him as a terrorist. One of the sketches showed the prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban.
The cartoons caused a minor uproar in Denmark when they were first published in September, but the reprinting of the images this month by French, Norwegian, Austrian and other newspapers quickly fueled the controversy. While European editors cast the debate as free speech versus religious tolerance, many Muslims said the roots of the problem go much deeper.
"People were reacting not only to the Danish newspaper drawings—there is something inside the people," said Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University in Syria. "They tried to express their anger against something else—Western double standards in dealing with democracy, the economic situation—and they took it out on the embassies in Damascus."
In several cases, gatherings that began as protests against the cartoons instead exposed an accumulation of Muslim anger over the U.S.-led war in Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the racial profiling of Muslims in the war on terror and the simmering sectarian tensions found in Iraq, Lebanon and other restive states.
In Damascus, Syrians burned a building that houses the Danish, Swedish and Chilean embassies after receiving text messages calling on them to defend their prophet. The crowds were stopped en route to the French embassy.
"I don't like that it resulted in a fire—that's not a part of our religion and our prophet. But we also have to admit to the fact that we are under so much pressure," said Fouad Tarabeine, a Syrian businessman. "The political situation, the pressure we have from the state. So, this was a kind of release. This was the straw that broke the camel's back."
The violence in Beirut started when thousands of Muslims gathered near the Danish embassy, which is located in the Christian area of Ashrafieh. A small group of demonstrators pushed through cordons and set fire to the embassy, overturned cars and broke the windows of a Maronite Catholic church. Lebanese forces used tear gas and water cannons to beat back the crowds.
The event quickly took on ugly sectarian undertones in a capital still scarred by Lebanon's bloody, 15-year civil war. Unknown Christian militants sent text messages to cell phones that read, "Launch the Christian nation of Lebanon. It is never going to end unless you prepare your weapons." Muslims, meanwhile, rolled out their prayer carpets on the streets of the mostly Christian neighborhood in an act viewed as a provocation.
"There were infiltrators among the demonstrators who do not express the opinions of the thousands of Muslims who participated in the peaceful protest to slam the Danish cartoons," said Asaad Harmoush, the head of an Islamic group that organized the demonstration in Beirut.
The Lebanese government called an emergency cabinet meeting Sunday night, while both Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders condemned the violence. Senior Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah issued a religious order banning flag burnings and attacks on embassies, and urged Muslims to show their outrage by joining the boycott of Danish exports.
"They are free to print what they want to print, but we are also free to believe what we want to believe," said Khaled Mustafa, an Egyptian pursuing his doctorate at a university in Belgium, where a petition circulated against the cartoons. "Now is not the time for something like this. The media is already focused on the troubles of the Muslim world. All we see on TV is Iraq and Palestine. I don't feel we need this kind of trouble now."
Muslims also took to the streets in Afghanistan, the West Bank, Iraq and New Zealand on Sunday. The most violent protests occurred in Asian and Middle Eastern capitals, though Muslims also converged on Danish embassies in several European cities over the weekend. In London, some protesters carried placards warning that those who defame Islam would pay with their blood.
"Now it has become more than a case about the drawings. Now there are forces that want a confrontation between our cultures," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said in a radio address. "It is in no one's interest."
Fawzi al-Jasem, Kuwait's ambassador to Austria, said Arab envoys throughout Europe will meet this week to find a solution to a crisis that now threatens their diplomatic missions abroad and is stoking unrest at home.
"At first it was just Denmark, but it keeps spreading," al-Jasem said. "Up to now, we don't know what we can do to stop this."
Links to the controversial cartoons:
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Rhonda Roumani in Damascus and correspondent Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem contributed to this report. Allam reported from Vienna, Raad from Beirut.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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