GAZA CITY — Angry Muslims marched through cities across the Arab world on Friday, continuing angry protests against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in European papers.
In a Q&A, NBC News’ Charlene Gubash explains why people in the Palestinian-governed Gaza Strip and elsewhere in the Mideast are so offended by the cartoons, for which they are demanding an apology.
What is it about these cartoons that have outraged people in the Arab world, and in Gaza in particular?
First of all, it is against Islam to portray the Prophet Muhammad, or any pictures of what God might look like. Likewise, it is against their religion to portray any other prophet, including Jesus or Moses, because they also revere those religious figures as well.
Beyond that, they are very upset that the cartoons appeared to link the prophet to terrorism. They believe that the West is labeling all Arabs as terrorists after 9/11.
So these cartoons really hit a raw nerve as far as their religion is concerned. Most people in the Arab world are not necessarily very extreme in their religiosity, but they are religious people, so this totally goes against the grain of their beliefs. Religion is such a sensitive topic here, even more so than in the West.
What was the reaction on the street in Gaza today?
Right now, this is really a hot issue. That said, the cartoons came out two months ago and at that time, there was very little popular reaction and very little news coverage of it. To put things in perspective, there were no demonstrations in today in Egypt, the most populous Arab country.
And even with the demonstrations in Gaza today, at least the ones that I saw — in which there were thousands of people — a lot of them are supporters of extremist, militant Islamic groups. So, while although I think it has angered many people, it has not angered most of them to the point of demonstrating. I didn’t see the huge numbers of people on the streets in Gaza that I would have expected.
However, I did see one demonstration with a huge group of young girls demonstrating and shouting, but many of the demonstrators were obviously supporters of militant groups — seeing some demonstrators with weapons made that clear.
And there was violence attached to some of the demonstrations — on Thursday night where they threw an explosive at a French cultural center.
Aside from the large demonstrations today, what sort of reaction did you hear from more moderate Palestinians?
Surprising anger. We spoke today to Dr. Asad Abu Sharak, a professor of linguistics at Al Azhar University in Gaza. He is considered to be a moderate and belongs to a group that sponsors an interfaith dialog with Christian and Jews, called Sabel.
Sharak said that he believes that this is part of a conspiracy against the Muslim community and “this is a premeditated campaign against the Muslims on the part of the West.”
He says that the publication of these cartoons is causing “a clash of civilizations that it will widen the gap of misunderstanding between the West and the East.”
He said he believed that this was an example of a double standard, that when someone denigrates the Holocaust they throw them in jail. But when someone denigrates the religious figure that Muslims hold most dear, they call it freedom of speech. He believes that the publication of the cartoons is actually a “premeditated crime” against Muslims and that “those people who published those cartoons should be brought to court.”
And this is coming from someone who is considered to be very moderate, but this was his attitude. Sharak lived in Ireland eight years and lived and taught at the University of Michigan for a year.
He doesn’t see this as an isolated incident, but rather as a campaign against Islam, and he was very vehement about that.
Are the protests about this particular cartoon or are the cartoons more of a trigger for pent-up anti-Western sentiment?
The protesters are focused on these cartoons, but during the demonstrations they also were protesting against the United States and they were chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” So this is kind of a vehicle for anger. Activists are using the cartoon as a way to get people riled up
That was something that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said. He criticized the publications of the cartoons in the newspapers, saying that they should stay away from religion — acknowledging that there is freedom of speech, but it should stay away from religion. He warned that extremists would use this as a wave to ride.
And I think that was exactly what was happening in Gaza today — it wasn’t just the cartoons that were at issue, but that they were being used to whip people up into a frenzy and get them out into the street.
Is there any end in sight to these protests?
Not yet. In a written statement, Sheik Youseff Qaradawi, a very popular TV sheik who appears on Al-Jazeera and all over the Arab world on religious programming — and is considered semi-moderate — called for a "day of Muslim rage." I think that helped get people out into the street because he has a lot of support across the Arab world. He also asked people to boycott Danish products.
I know that the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is reaching out to diplomats and leaders in the Arab world to try to explain the situation, but reiterating that his government can not interfere with issues concerning the press.
Everybody in the Muslim world, though, wants a clear-cut apology. They don’t want the caveat of free speech, they want a clear-cut apology. So, maybe it won’t go away until they hear those words, “I’m sorry.”
Charlene Gubash is an NBC News Producer based in Cairo. She was on assignment in Gaza City.