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Protests express frustration with the West, cleric says

COPENHAGEN, Denmark—The Muslim cleric blamed for instigating protests over a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad said Tuesday that he never intended for rioters to attack Danish embassies and businesses in the Middle East and that he was crying for Denmark.

But Ahmed Abu-Laban, who leads a mosque in Copenhagen's Muslim neighborhood, also said Danish officials brought the crisis on themselves by not responding to initial protests and that he didn't feel responsible for the way the dispute had developed.

"People credit me with far more power than I have," Abu-Laban said. "The people rioting are not rioting in my name. They've never heard of me. They are furious because of the insult to Muhammad."

The cartoons, which were first published in Denmark in September, have led to angry demonstrations in the Middle East and Asia and a commercial boycott of Danish products in several Middle Eastern countries. The demonstrators say the cartoons violate Muslim prohibitions against creating images of Muhammad.

Last weekend, protesters set fire to the Danish embassies in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon. Demonstrations continued Tuesday in Afghanistan, where U.N. peacekeepers killed five protesters, and Iran, where demonstrators stormed the Danish embassy in Tehran.

President Bush called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday "to express support and solidarity with Denmark," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. The protests haven't targeted the United States. Last Friday, the White House said the cartoons shouldn't have been published.

McClellan said Bush and Rasmussen "reiterated the importance of tolerance and respect for religions of all faith, and freedom of press."

In a wide-ranging two-hour interview with Knight Ridder, Abu-Laban acknowledged that he began contacting Muslims in the Middle East late last year in an effort to build pressure on the Danish government to condemn the cartoons.

"European politicians want Muslim votes," he said. "We were running a campaign, trying to create pressure."

Abu-Laban said he'd helped organize visits to Egypt and Lebanon, where he and other Muslims from Denmark displayed the cartoons. He said the visits were aimed at garnering political support, not inciting riots.

"We did not go to incite people," he said. "We did not go to the cafes to whip up support. We targeted rectors, scholars, mufti (experts in Islamic law), learned men of Islam who could help us to make heard our point in a place where officials have little time for religion."

When the protests turned violent, he said, he felt sympathy for Denmark.

"I cry for Denmark. I cry for the Danish people," he said.

But he was unrepentant, and blamed the West's view of Islam as the primary cause of the violence.

"This protest is not about the cartoons, offensive as they are," he said. "The cartoons are merely the final drop that caused the cup to overflow. The Muslim faith has been under attack for years. There has been intense psychological pressure on Muslims. We have heard Western politicians relate our faith to terrorism, over and over again, and it is too much. This was the response."

Many here accuse Abu-Laban of extremism and describe the mosque he leads, the Danish Islamic Community, as a center of radical Islam.

But Abu-Laban, whose mosque complex is in an old factory in the largely Muslim Noerrbro neighborhood, rejected those labels. He called suggestions that he supports Osama bin Laden insulting and said those who linked him to al-Qaida were looking for easy answers to difficult problems between Muslims and Europeans.

"Islam does not spread by the sword," he said. "There is no al-Qaida connection here. We are Danish, and we are Muslim."

Abu-Laban conducted the interview in fluent English while sitting in the mosque's library. He said he was born in Cairo, Egypt, but had lived in Denmark for years.

He said he first became involved in the dispute even before the cartoons appeared in the influential Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September because he'd heard that the editors were seeking depictions of Muhammad.

Abu-Laban said he went to the paper's editors and warned them not to publish depictions of Muhammad. "Do not make fun of the Prophet," he said he told them. "Choose anyone else from the Muslim world. We can understand anyone else. Muhammad we cannot accept."

When the paper published the drawings, ranging from straightforward to joking—one shows Muhammad standing in clouds, calling out, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins"—Abu Laban asked for an apology. When none was forthcoming, he had 10 ambassadors from Islamic countries ask Rasmussen to get involved. In November, Abu-Laban began his tour of the Middle East with a 40-page dossier on what he calls the West's "Islamaphobia."

That led to the protests.

On Jan. 30, Carsten Juste, Jyllands-Posten's editor in chief, apologized for any offense the cartoons had given, though he defended the paper's right to print them. Tuesday, he declined to comment on Abu-Laban's statements. His office said he no longer was making media statements on the subject.

Abu-Laban predicted that the controversy won't be a permanent stumbling block to relations between Danes and Muslims, which he described as being "like a large lake."

"The surface shows many waves, but underneath life is calm," he said. "I believe with dialogue we can calm the surface as well."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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