The uproar in the Islamic world over Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad reminds us that much of that world misunderstands what democracy means.

A Danish paper published the 12 cartoons in September. One showed the Prophet with a turban made of explosives; in another, he greets a line of suicide bombers in heaven with the words “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins.” The drawings have inspired protests from Muslim presidents, Arab boycotts of Danish goods, Pakistani demonstrations that torched the Danish flag, and calls by Gaza imams to sever the hands of the artists.

In the Muslim world, where physical depictions of the Prophet are blasphemous, the drawings were viewed as a Western attack on Islam. But elsewhere in Europe newspapers have reprinted the cartoons in defense of freedom of speech.

The whole episode is a classic case of cultural collision. Yes, these images are insensitive and heighten tensions between the West and Islamic countries. It might have been better had they never surfaced.

But the assumption by many ordinary Muslims – and even Muslim leaders – that Western governments should censor such drawings is a nonstarter. As the newspaper France Soir, which reprinted the cartoons, wrote: “We had no desire to add oil to the fires as some may think. A fundamental principle of democracy and secularism is being threatened.” This is a principle many Muslims apparently don’t understand.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, perhaps reflecting the sentiment of angry constituents at home, reportedly called for a limit on press freedom. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai said that “an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated.” And, according to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister Prince Nayef suggested the Vatican should intervene to stop the spread of the cartoons. Apparently, the prince thinks the Pope can dictate personal behavior in the manner of the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa condemning novelist Salman Rushdie for blasphemy.

Sorry, Prince Nayef. Sharia does not apply in the West, where freedom of speech is a right protected by law and constitutions. The exercise of that right aggravates Western leaders, including President Bush. And Western media are more likely to insult their own religious icons than they are those of Islam.

Remember Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ”? Or the infamous New York exhibition that included Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photo of a cross dipped in urine? Both were widely condemned by America’s religious leaders.

Such protest is totally legitimate, and part of Western tradition. If Muslims want to picket newspapers that publish the cartoons, more power to them. What’s not legitimate in democratic society is death threats against artists or demands to curb free speech.

This point must be emphasized over and over, as Europe struggles to better integrate its 15 million Muslim citizens. European leaders can soothe hurt Muslim feelings but shouldn’t apologize for free speech.

Many Muslims view Western freedoms as license. But those freedoms offer Muslims the opportunity to practice their religion freely in Europe, despite the growing social tensions between them and the non-Muslim majority. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, Christians aren’t permitted to worship openly or carry a bible in public. And one sees no outrage in Muslim countries when cartoons defame Jews, or newspapers quote the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious forgery claiming Jews want to take over the world.

Respect for another faith’s core religious values can’t be a one-way street.

Nor is it sufficient to explain the flare-up as a reflection of deeper Muslim grievances against the West. “This (protest) reflects a collective frustration building up about the way Muslims feel they have been treated,” says New York’s Imam Faisal Abdul Raouf, a noted interfaith activist. “There is a perception on the street that the war on terror is a war on Islam.”

True, but Western leaders have gone out of the way to debunk that canard. Surely the way to bury it is not to threaten Western cartoonists with violence, or stay silent when fundamentalists do so. Challenge the cartoons, yes, point out the Prophet never condoned suicide, decry the misuse of Islamic rhetoric by terrorists. Use Western freedoms to make these points, but don’t blow the episode into a war of civilizations.

As one gutsy Jordanian newspaper editor named Jihad Momani asked: “What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber. … ?” Momani was fired by his editors for daring to challenge conventional wisdom. But his question rings true.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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