Zied Mhrisi went to Beirut to get a master’s in public health. But now the 28-year-old Tunisian has found himself drafted as a diplomat in the culture war that has erupted over the publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.
Instead of discussing HIV policy during classes at American University of Beirut, the young doctor, who was raised Muslim but is secular, is busy explaining the Western concept of freedom of speech to his Arab classmates.
And rather than treating his Danish and German roommates to drinks at Beirut’s Prague nightclub, he is giving them serious lectures about Muslim sensibilities. “The cartoons for them were just something OK,” he said in a telephone interview. “I tell them the prophet is a highly sanctified person in the Muslim world.”
The cartoon controversy has been dominating discourse across the Middle East -- in strident speeches by political and religious leaders, classroom discussions and chats in cafes.
Liberal and nonpracticing Muslims have been searching for a silver lining in the dispute over the caricatures of Muhammad that were published last fall by a Danish newspaper and reprinted this month in other European papers. They are angry at images they consider revolting, but they are also attached to freedoms they value.
They engage in impromptu debates. They vent their dismay at both sanctimonious Muslims and insensitive Westerners in online forums such as blogs. But they’ve been mostly frustrated as they struggle to explain the complicated religious and political sensibilities of East and West amid rising tensions and occasional violence over the cartoons.
“The problem is there is no respect of differences,” said Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi Palestinian architect who recently immigrated to Richmond, Calif., and runs a blog called Raed in the Middle.
“There are many unresolved issues between the West and the Islamic world. When the space is opened for expression, the expression is exaggerated,” he said.
In Jordan, everywhere Isam Bayazidi, 27, turns, there is discussion about the cartoons. He has found himself in an uncomfortable minority -- unable to support the strident reaction of his more self-righteous friends and family.
“I think as much as the cartoons have been insulting, the reaction has been wrong,” said Bayazidi, who works in the computer trade. “It started with the boycott calls and ended up with attacking embassies.”
His friends and family have derided him as being too tolerant, but he thinks they’re too emotional. Even the boycott of Danish goods, he said, hurts private companies, many of them in the Arab world, that had nothing to do with the cartoons.
“There’s no message to deliver through this boycott,” he said. “The only message is that we’re unreasonable people.”
Many Muslims fear that the hostile reaction to the cartoons will only reinforce stereotypical images of the Islamic world held by Westerners.
“They saw a childish, stupid reaction coming out of us,” said Gali Nasr, a 26-year-old Cairo business analyst. “Westerners are used to seeing cartoons mocking Jesus, mocking Moses. But we don’t get it. We see everything through the prism of religion, and this is drawing us backward.”
But if there is anger among liberal Muslims toward their own people, there is also resentment toward newspapers that have published the cartoons and those in the West who just don’t seem to understand what the dispute is all about.
“This controversy is about power,” Maher Mughrabi, a member of Australia’s Muslim immigrant community, wrote in the Feb. 7 issue of the Age, a Melbourne newspaper. “Muslim communities in the West feel under suspicion and under siege through the mere fact of their faith. Muslims in the Muslim world feel war has been declared on them by an adversary who controls the world. In such circumstances, the one power people feel they have left is to insist on their dignity.”
Massoud A. Derhally, an editor at the Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based weekly Arabian Business, said he was miffed that some Western friends “seemed to feel it is up to the Arabs and Muslims to change the way they feel” about the political and religious issues raised in the cartoon controversy.
“I find that line of argument utterly ludicrous,” said Derhally, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent.
“There are plenty of limitations on freedom of speech in the West, for instance [against] denial of the Holocaust, but somehow these are not met with the same level of education.”
It wasn’t the mere act of drawing Muhammad that angers Muslims. Persian miniature paintings have been depicting the prophet and scenes from the Koran for centuries. Jarrar, the Bay Area architect, said he watched with glee an episode of the animated comedy “South Park” that depicted Muhammad as well as Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Krishna as superheroes rushing in to save the world.
Rather, the caricatures are widely seen as a deliberate act of trying to incite Muslims, as if trying to goad them into a reaction.
“There is no attempt at humor, but at derogation, at slander, at depicting a whole religion in a negative fashion,” said Hassan Husseini, 60, an oil industry analyst and journalist who once worked as an editor at the Columbus Post-Dispatch.
The cartoons, while they were meant to poke fun at the most reactionary elements of Muslim society, may have hurt the most liberal more. Widespread protests called for by hard-line clerics and political leaders have served to silence those who call for better ties with the West.
In Baghdad, political cartoonists whose pens were unleashed with the fall of Saddam Hussein say they have been told indirectly by authorities to watch what they draw. In Amman, Jordan, two journalists were arrested for publishing some of the cartoons.
Still, some Muslims have tried to use their knowledge of East and West to squeeze something good out of the trauma.
Rami Abdelrahman, a 24-year-old Jordanian studying journalism in Sweden, said a stranger approached him on a train and asked about the cartoons.
“He was very friendly. He asked, ‘Why is there so much rage?’ ” Abdelrahman recalled. “I told him [that] Muslims are very connected to their prophet.
“I told him there’s this inferiority problem, where people in the Middle East feel like the West just doesn’t like them, as if the whole world was against them.”
The stranger nodded in understanding, Abdelrahman said, and blamed the media for focusing on extremists. The two men shook hands and parted ways.
“It made me sort of want to talk about it in the most public way,” Abdelrahman said. “That’s why I went home and went online and wrote about it.”