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Islam vs tolerance debated in Prophet film's wake

world Updated: Sep 21, 2012 15:13 IST

Behind the anger over a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad, public protest is giving way to measured debate over free speech in the new Muslim world.

But while many crave more openness, few if any will go so far as to say that includes the right to blaspheme.

Angry shouts of "No, no to America!" and "No to Israel!" have been balanced by voices condemning the weeklong violence that has targeted US and other Western embassies and left more than 30 dead in seven countries, including Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

"Muslims should know that Islamic extremist groups bear some responsibility for the uproar taking place now, and for the collision of the world cultures," said Sheik Hameed Marouf, a Sunni cleric in Baghdad.

"The moderate people and clerics in the Islamic world should do their best to isolate and stop such groups that do not represent the true moderate values of our religion."

Religious extremists — whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian — "will lead only to more killings and more blasphemous acts," he said.

Anger is still palpable over the anti-Islam video made in California, as well as French political cartoons that denigrate Muhammad, but most of the Arab world has not seen protests for much of this week.

The streets around the US Embassy in Cairo, where clashes raged for days, were relatively quiet Thursday. Egyptian security forces patrolling the area casually leaned their rifles against the same compound walls that were scaled by angry protesters just last week.

Malaysian Muslims hold placards and shout anti-American slogans during a protest against the low-budget US film the 'Innocence of Muslims' and the cartoon of Prophet Mohammad in a French weekly in Kuala Lumpur. AFP

The easing of the violence reflects the balance that Egypt and other Islamic nations are trying to find as they work to nourish democracy in societies where blasphemy is a crime.

"There is no doubt that most Muslims take offense at anyone mocking the prophet," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. "The great divide is over the response. The vast majority of Muslims understand that the world is now interconnected and all kinds of material — good or offensive — pours in."

"What we see now is a rage against both the film and, indirectly, the interconnected world," he said.

The violent backlash stretched from Indonesia to Morocco, but nowhere did Muslims take to the streets en masse to protest the film.

Islamic party activists set fire to a US flag during a protest against an internet film mocking Islam in Dhaka. AFP/Munir uz Zaman

In Cairo, there were never more than 2,000 demonstrators outside the US Embassy at any point during four days of protests. And most were believed to be ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis, although U.S. officials say the crowd shifted over time and eventually was galvanized by gangs of rowdy teenagers. Salafis are seeking the creation of an Islamic state founded on a strict interpretation of Shariah law.

"The whole thing, our reaction, was way, way over the top," said Ali Abdel-Halim, a 22-year-old business graduate from Cairo, who did not participate in the clashes but said he visited the area around the embassy to watch them.

"I think the film is meant to provoke us as Muslims," he said. "My personal view is that we should have ignored it. It received much more attention than it deserves. Really, it was not worth people dying for."

Over the last decade, dictators have been toppled in four Mideast countries — Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — and a fifth is threatened in Syria. With that has come a widespread embrace of assembly and religious freedoms that had been held in check by authoritative regimes for decades.

Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements, predicted it will take a generation or more for Mideast nations to fully develop a working democracy that respects individual rights and Muslim values.