BAGHDAD: Zied Mhrisi went to Beirut, Lebanon, to get a masters in public health. Instead the 28-year-old Tunisian found himself drafted as a diplomat in the culture war that has erupted over the publishing of a dozen cartoons of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).

Instead of discussing HIV policy during classes at the American University, the young doctor who was born a Muslim but is now secular found himself explaining the Western conception of freedom of speech to his Arab classmates. Instead of treating his Danish and German roommates to drinks at the city’s “Prague” nightclub, he handed out serious lectures about Muslim sensibilities.

“The cartoons for them were just something OK,” he said in a telephone interview. “I tell them the prophet is a highly sanctified person in the Muslim world.”

Balancing their anger at images they find revolting and their reverence for freedoms they value, moderate and non-practising Muslims search in vain for a silver lining to the controversy that has clouded East-West relations since the publication last fall in Denmark of cartoons blaspheming the holy prophet.

“The problem is there is no respect of differences,” he said Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi Palestinian architect who recently immigrated to Richmond, California, and runs a Web log called “Raed in the Middle.” “There are many unresolved issues between the West and the Islamic world. When the space is opened for expression, the expression is exaggerated.” Gali Nasr, a 26-year-old Cairo business analyst, who said the cartoons were needlessly provocative, added: “They saw a childish, stupid reaction coming out of us. Westerners are used to seeing cartoons mocking Jesus, mocking Moses. But we don’t get it. We see everything through the prism of religion, and this is drawing us backward.”

But if there is anger among moderate Muslims toward their own people, there is also resentment toward newspapers that have published the cartoons and those in the West who just don’t seem to get what the dispute is all about. “This controversy is about power,” wrote Maher Mugrhabi, a member of Australia’s Muslim immigrant community , in the Feb. 7 issue of the daily Australian Age. “Muslim communities in the West feel under suspicion and under siege through the mere fact of their faith. Muslims in the Muslim world feel war has been declared on them by an adversary who controls the world. In such circumstances, the one power people feel they have left is to insist on their dignity.”

Massoud Derhally, an editor at Dubai-based weekly Arabian Business, said he was miffed that some Western friends “seemed to feel it is up to the Arabs and Muslims to change the way they feel” about the political and religious issues raised in the cartoon flap.

“I find that line of argument utterly ludicrous,” said Derhally, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent. “There are plenty of limitations on freedom of speech in the West, for instance (against) denial of the Holocaust, but somehow these are not met with the same level of education.”

It wasn’t the mere act of drawing Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) that angers Muslims. Miniature paintings have been depicting the prophet and scenes from the Quran for centuries. Jarrar, the California architect, said he watched with glee an episode of the animated comedy show “South Park” that depicted the Holy Prophet (pbuh) as well as Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Krishna as superheroes rushing in to save the world.

Rather, the moderates say, the caricatures are widely seen as a deliberate act of trying to incite Muslims, as if trying to goad them into a reaction.

“There is no attempt at humour, but at derogation, at slander, at depicting a whole religion in a negative fashion,” said Hassan Husseini, 60, an oil industry analyst and journalist who once worked as an editor at the Columbus Post-Dispatch.

The cartoons, while they were meant to poke fun at the most reactionary elements of Muslim society, may have hurt the most progressive and open-minded more.

Widespread protests called for by Muslim clerics and political leaders from South Asia to North Africa have served to silence those who call for better ties with the West.

In Baghdad, irreverent political cartoonists whose pens were unleashed with the fall of Saddam Hussein say they have been told indirectly by authorities to watch what they draw. In Amman, Jordan, two journalists have been arrested for publishing some of the cartoons.

Despite such bleakness, some moderate Muslims have tried to use their knowledge of East and West to foster understanding, to squeeze something good out of the trauma. Rami Abdelrahman, a 24-year-old Jordanian studying journalism in Sweden, said a stranger approached him on a train and asked about the cartoon flap.

“He was very friendly. He asked, ‘Why is there so much rage?’ “ Abdelrahman recalled. “I told him Muslims are very connected to their prophet. It’s one of the fundamental things they believe in. I told him there’s this inferiority problem, where people in the Middle East feel like the West just don’t like them, as if the whole world was against them.”

The stranger nodded in understanding, Abdelrahman said, and blamed the media for focusing on extremists. The two men shook hands and parted ways.

“It made me sort of want to talk about it in the most public way,” Abdelrahman said. “That’s why I went home and went online and wrote about it.” —Dawn/Los Angeles Times News Service

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