Muslim scholars gather to defend prophet after cartoon row

MANAMA (AFP) — Some 300 Muslim religious figures opened a two-day conference in Bahrain Wednesday in support of the Prophet Mohammad following the row over his depiction in cartoons in European papers. The scholars, preachers, heads of Islamic associations as well as Arab and Muslim community leaders from Europe will explore a strategy aimed at preventing a repeat of the crisis sparked by the publication of the cartoons.

The gathering opened with an address by its chairman, influential Egyptian-born cleric Sheikh Yussef Al Qaradawi, whose International Union of Muslim Ulema (religious scholars) is one of the conference’s organisers.

“It’s a war that has been waged against us for no other reason but to insult Islam,” said the hardline cleric who has opposed dialogue with Denmark before it issues an official apology for the cartoons. “The Islamic nation has the right to rise in defence of its prophet.”

The 12 drawings of Islam’s prophet, first published in Denmark in September and reprinted elsewhere since, provoked violent protests across the Muslim world where they were condemned as blasphemous.

They also triggered a boycott of Danish products in Muslim countries.

Muslims must work to improve the image of the prophet who is regarded in the West as “a man who goes after young girls to put in his harem,” said Qaradawi, referring to prophet’s polygamy. One of the gathering’s other organisers, popular Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman Al Odah, commended the boycott and said Muslims must now think of ways to reduce their dependence on the West. “We want to transform this anger into a productive force,” he said. The meeting comes the day after Britain’s Prince Charles criticised the cartoons furore and appealed to religious leaders to foster common values in a speech at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the oldest seat of Sunni learning. “Highest among those values of our common inheritance, and born of our love of God, must always come respect for each other, and for His creation,” the heir to Britain’s throne said.

“The recent ghastly strife and anger over the Danish cartoons shows the danger that comes of our failure to listen and to respect what is precious and sacred to others,” he said.

The Manama gathering is expected to debate “the roots of Western views of Islam” and the “greatness and sacred status of the prophet.”

Deliberations will go on until Thursday evening, when participants will announce a series of “recommendations” for an international campaign to defend Islam and its Prophet.

The participants include popular London-based Egyptian television preacher Amr Khaled, criticised by many Muslim scholars for attending a conference of Christian and Muslim experts in Copenhagen earlier this month despite Denmark’s refusal to apologise for the cartoons.

The Manama conference is meant to remind the world that the cartoons issue is still alive, conference spokesman Sheikh Adel Al Muawda told AFP. “We want to show those who hurt us that the Muslims have not forgotten, and will never forget, the offence caused to them,” he said.

“We also want to educate Muslims about ways of securing their rights while avoiding negative practices,” such as the violent cartoon protests,” he said. “The ulema attending the conference will underline that Sharia [Islamic law] bans such practices.”

The participants have set ambitious goals such as “regulating relations between Islam and the West” and “unifying the Muslims’ positions on religious issues.”

Qaradawi has opened a bank account to receive donations from Muslims to fund a website to defend the prophet.

Six imams from Denmark, where the controversy originated, will attend the conference.

But the sheikh of Egypt’s Al Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, will not attend due to “prior engagements.”

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