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Assimilation, tolerance mark U.S. Muslims' reaction to cartoons



NEWARK, N.J., AP -- While satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist have drawn violent responses overseas leading to rioting and deaths, American Muslims say the more muted response in this country is due to a combination of factors, including greater assimilation and familiarity with western concepts of free speech - even when it offends.

The drawings, first published in a Danish newspaper in September, included one that depicts the Prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. Islamic tradition widely holds that representations of the prophet are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry, and disparagement of Mohammed is considered one of the most grave offenses under Islam.

But while many American Muslims share their overseas brethren's outrage over the drawings, they have not responded with violence.

"After 9/11, we learned in this country that you can't respond to an insult with an insult," said Sohail Mohammed, a Clifton immigration lawyer who represented scores of detainees caught up in the government's dragnet after the attacks. "The best way to combat this is through greater understanding and tolerance."

He said the fact that few U.S. media outlets have published the cartoons, coupled with condemnations by the Bush administration of the cartoons as needlessly provocative, creates quite a different scenario in this country. The cartoons met with violent protests in countries including Pakistan and Iran.

"What you're seeing people here say is that we understand this is hurtful, but look at the response of the American administration and media, which has been supportive of Muslims," Mohammed said. "When's the last time that happened?"

Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News in Dearborn, Mich., said U.S. Muslims feel they are being listened to and their feelings taken into consideration by government and the media, at least regarding the Prophet cartoons.

"The feelings are the same, here or anywhere else: Muslims believe these cartoons are an insult to their religion," he said. "But in the U.S., the president has issued a statement criticizing the cartoons, and that speaks volumes to American Muslims. It gives Muslims here a feeling that their fellow Americans understand their feelings and respect their religion. Therefore, they don't feel a need to go to the streets and protest."

Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America, said American Muslims are more secure here than elsewhere about their place in society.

"The day I stepped foot in this country and put my citizenship here, my rights are the same as your rights," he said. "There's no difference based on who came from where and when. That's not true in Europe. Marginalization of Muslims in France, Belgium, Denmark and other countries is very pronounced.

"As Americans, we should congratulate ourselves that it was not just an accident that American media did not publish these caricatures," he said. "The American media has come to terms with pluralism, and doesn't publish something that is offensive to a large group of people just because they can."

Aref Assaf, president of the Paterson-based American Arab Forum, agreed that the cultural landscape for American Muslims is much different from those in other countries.

"Unlike their U.S. counterparts, who entered a gigantic country built on immigration, most Muslim newcomers to western Europe started arriving only after World War II, crowding into small, culturally homogenous nations," he said. "Unlike the jumble of nationalities that make up the American Latino community, the Muslims of western Europe are likely to be distinct, cohesive and bitter."

The controversy is also spurring American Muslims to action. The Council on American-Islamic Relations is to unveil a campaign on Tuesday in which local Islamic congregations will hold events to educate Americans about the life and legacy of Mohammed. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Muslim civil rights group, said such events give U.S. Muslims a constructive outlet for their grievances.

Some are already acting. Members of the Masjid Al-Taqwa mosque in Atlantic City have written more than 1,300 letters to the Danish embassy in Washington protesting the cartoons.

Yaser El-Menshawy, chairman of Majlis Ash-Shura of New Jersey, the state's council of mosques, said most U.S. Muslims are steeped in the tradition of free speech.

"We understand the concept a little better," he said. "We understand that just because The Philadelphia Inquirer publishes the drawings, that is not an indication that the United States supports it.

"The other issue is the pent-up anger in the Middle East that needs a vessel or a target," he said. "The very oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Middle East will not allow people to blow off steam against them, but they will against someone else."

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