Washington – The United States backed Muslims on Friday against European newspapers that printed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a move that could help America’s battered image in the Islamic world.
Inserting itself into a dispute that has become a lightning rod for anti-European sentiment across the Muslim world, the United States sided with Muslims outraged that the publications put press freedom over respect for religion.
“These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims,” State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question.
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“We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”
The United States, seeking to strike a balance between competing rights, stopped short of urging US media not to republish the cartoons that include depicting Mohammad as a terrorist.
American Muslims welcomed the position despite some misgivings that unpopular US policies such as the Iraq war and perceived pro-Israeli stances in the Palestinian conflict meant there was little America could do to repair its image.
Cooper said he had no comment as to why the United States chose to pass judgment in a dispute that ostensibly does not involve America.
But the United States, which was founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution, has previously spoken out against publications offensive to believers of other faiths.
“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
The United States, which before the Sept. 11 attacks was criticized for insensitivity to the Islamic culture, has become more attuned to Muslim sensibilities.
Accusations last year that US officials desecrated the Koran sparked deadly riots in Asia and heightened that awareness.
DIFFERENT RESPONSE IN US AND EUROPE
Major US publications have not republished the cartoons.
In contrast, some European media responded to the criticism against the Danish newspaper that originally printed the caricatures by reproducing the images and fueled anger that has led to boycotts of Danish products and widespread protests.
The US response contrasted with European governments, which have tended to acknowledge the tension between free speech and respect for religion but have generally accepted the newspapers’ rights to print the cartoons.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, applauded the US position.
The State Department reaction “was a strong statement in support of Muslims around the world. It’s a reflection of the concern felt by millions of Muslims and I think it will be appreciated,” he said.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the United States avoided drawing the ire of Muslims in this dispute, but it would take an overhaul of its policies to begin to improve its image.
“It’s a sound response on this issue that escapes the fire. But repairing the US standing in the Muslim world is already so out of reach that this move can’t provide any help,” he said.
The US criticism of the newspapers also comes after the Pentagon complained over a Washington Post cartoon.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff sent an unusual letter to the editor that was published on Thursday, denouncing as “reprehensible” and “beyond tasteless” a cartoon earlier in the week portraying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as insensitive to US troop casualties.
The cartoon portrayed a soldier who had lost his arms and legs with Rumsfeld at his hospital bedside saying, “I’m listing your condition as ‘battle hardened.”‘