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Violent Backlash Persists over Muhammad Cartoons

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Muslims held violent protests over the weekend in cities across Europe and the Middle East. They said they were enraged over newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The worst protest was in Beirut, Lebanon, where an early morning protest march led to an attack on a building housing the Danish mission. The protesters also ransacked a Christian neighborhood. The Danish government has urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

All this is over cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper four months ago. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

(Soundbite of sirens)

The protesters arrived in the Lebanese capital by the busloads, armed with Islamic banners and their anger. The police turned out in force, but were overwhelmed by a surging crowd determined to destroy the symbol of Denmark in the capital. Smoke billowed from the 10-story building that houses the Danish mission, broadcast live on television.

But the violence escalated into dangerous domestic territory. Muslim rioters turned on a nearby Christian neighborhood, stoning a church and rampaging through the streets, smashing parked cars and shop windows. Telephone text messages flashed through Lebanon's Christian communities, prompting young men to drive down from the mountains to the capital, as the riots threatened to revive deep sectarian tensions in a country that fought a 15-year civil war.

Many Lebanese were shocked by the violence. Muslim religious leaders on the streets appealed to militants to stop. Muhammad Duran from the Lebanese city of Tripoli came to the demonstration with his five sons.

Mr. MUHAMMAD DURAN (Muslim Religious Leader): (Arabic spoken)

AMOS: I'm against what happened, he says. We came here for a peaceful demonstration.

The head of the Islamic group that organized the demonstrations blamed outside agitators, and so did Lebanese politicians. Muhammad Duran says attacks on the Christian community are not justified.

Mr. DURAN: (Arabic spoken)

AMOS: We reject that, he says. We reject that. We reject the broken glass in the church and in the cars.

The protest in Lebanon was the most violent so far, with more than 30 people injured, mostly security police. It followed a similar demonstration in neighboring Syria on Saturday. Jan Nielsen(ph), the director of the Danish Institute in Damascus, evacuated to Beirut after the Danish and Norwegian Embassies were ransacked and burned. Those attacks were condemned by the U.S. and European governments, which accused Syria of condoning the violence. Nielsen says Syrian protesters organized through telephone text messages. The security police, he says, did little to stop them.

Mr. JAN NIELSEN (Director, Danish Institute): I don't think it was organized by the government. My reading of it is that the government decided, let them let off steam, and the cynic would say, why, if they burn off a couple of small-country embassies, it's not too much damage, as much where we certainly won't let them burn off big-country embassies.

AMOS: Nielsen, who's lived in the region for two decades, believes Arab governments are exploiting the issue at a time when Islamist political power is growing, after recent election victories in Gaza, Egypt and Iraq.

Mr. NIELSEN: And they're suddenly realizing that their own political Islamic oppositions are, shall we say, need to be distracted. That's the case in most of these places. Of course, there's lots of internal politics in it.

AMOS: The Danish newspaper that published the cartoons issued an apology, but defends publication as a Western value of free speech. The drawings have prompted a widespread boycott of Danish products, costing Denmark an estimated $2 million a day. But Jan Nielsen says the widening gap between the Muslim world and the West is about more than free speech.

Mr. NIELSEN: The cartoons that they always throw at you is the one where Muhammad is wearing a bomb as a hat. Now, that goes back to 9/11 and the whole war against terror, so-called, where Muslims feel that they across the board have been tarred with the brush of violence and terrorism. And here comes this cartoon which rubs their faces in it.

AMOS: The problem is, the reactions and rhetoric from some Muslim groups only confirms those attitudes. With violence escalating, Arab diplomats based in Europe are meeting this week to try to find a way out.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

INSKEEP: Besides the trouble in Lebanon, there was also violence in several parts of Afghanistan. At least four people were killed as protesters clashed with police in separate demonstrations in the Central and Eastern parts of the country. The worst violence, we're told, was near the Bagram Air Base, which is one of the major U.S. facilities there. Protests were also taking place in Kandahar, the major city in the South, and Mazari-Sharif, one of the major cities in the Northern part of the country. Now, in Indonesia, Muslims stage noisy but peaceful demonstrations in four cites, including the capital, Jakarta. And in London, Scotland Yard has been called in to consider charges against protesters who appeared on the streets last Friday carrying signs threatening suicide bombings and massacres.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.