Muslim Americans Split on Cartoons ; Foreign Reaction to Drawings of Muhammad Is Overblown, Some US Muslims Say. Others Call for Peaceful Protests

Article excerpt

Muhammed Zahny is upset - and not about the cold wind that is keeping customers away from his store on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue.

"If I lose money, I don't care," says Mr. Zahny, who owns "Islamic Fashions." "But if I lose respect, then I have nothing left."

Zahny, originally from Egypt, says the recent republication of Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad, the messenger of Islam, as a terrorist is a sign of great disrespect for Muslims that's caused him pain. "There is no joke to be made about prophet Muhammad," he says.

But other American Muslims say their fellow adherents are overreacting. "When can we begin a civilized conversation, instead of this undignified and sometimes violent answer to what was quite simply an insult?" a member of the Progressive Muslim Union asked on an online forum.

The two sides illustrate the diversity of American Muslim opinion about the simmering global controversy. But they also dramatize a larger divide within the community about Islam's attitude about free expression. Many of America's estimated 2 to 3 million Muslims are angry, but instead of throwing stones, they are calling for American- style protests, such as boycotts of Danish products like cheese and yogurt.

Still, some fear that the violent demonstrations against the cartoons in Arab and European countries could spread here.

In Brooklyn, Mustapha Amir's desk is piled high with Arab newspapers. One headline urged Muslims to unite against the cartoons. After reading aloud part of the article, Mr. Amir puts down the paper. Muslims' strong devotion, he says, may impel them to take action, including martyrdom, to protect Muhammad's reputation.

What would Muhammad do?

Such views concern Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

"We are concerned that people are not responding the way the prophet Muhammed would want," says Ms. Ahmed. "He was the kind of person who would turn the other cheek if someone slapped him. He preached love and tolerance."

According to Islamic tradition, pictures of Muhammad are generally considered sacrilegious. But Jonathan Bloom, a historian of Islamic art at Boston College, says it wasn't always so. "There were times when images of Muhammad were not forbidden," he says. …