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Respecting both free speech and Muslims' faith can bring peace

We must resolve the cartoon conflict through respectful dialogue.

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From northern Europe to Afghanistan and beyond, the row over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad has escalated. Four anticartoon demonstrators were killed in Afghanistan, Monday; others have died in Lebanon and Somalia. Protesters in Syria and Lebanon burned the embassies of Denmark and Norway. Feelings of fear and victimization on this issue remain raw.

How welcome, then, is a call for calm issued jointly by the prime ministers of predominantly Christian Spain and predominantly Muslim Turkey, Feb. 5.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero wrote in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune that, "We shall all be the losers if we fail to immediately defuse this situation.... Therefore, it is necessary to make an appeal for respect and calm, and let the voice of reason be heard."

The two men - one a socialist, the other the leader of a moderate Islamist party - pointed out quite rightly that in today's interconnected world, "a local incident may have worldwide repercussions." Recalling the role their countries historically played at the "crossroads between East and West," they have called for strengthening the Alliance of Civilizations project that was established last year.

Because of the huge escalatory potential of this issue, it's helpful to step back a bit and recall how the current situation developed. We also need to "unpack" what is at stake for advocates of the different viewpoints.

The cartoons in question were published last September by Denmark's largest daily newspaper. The newspaper's cultural editor had invited cartoonists to submit for publication drawings of the prophet Muhammad. He knew full well that nearly all the world's 1.3 billion Muslims consider pictorial representations of the prophet sacrilegious - but he wanted to test the social limits, in ultra-liberal Denmark, around that taboo. Twelve cartoonists submitted pictures, and all were published. At least one represented the prophet (and, by extension, his followers) as a very violent personality.

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