Educating non-Muslims about the prophet Mohammed may be the best way to make them understand why cartoons portraying him as a terrorist are evoking such a violent response worldwide, local religious leaders say.
A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, first printed the caricatures in September. The newspaper has since apologized to Muslims for the cartoons, one of which shows Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban, according to the Associated Press. Other newspapers, mostly in Europe, have reprinted the cartoons, which have caused violent protests in Muslim countries.
Dr. Adel Eldin, a well-known Brooksville cardiologist and a spokesman for Hernando's Muslim community, was a guest speaker recently at the local mosque.
"We would be just as offended if someone did the same to the prophet Moses or Jesus Christ or (the Virgin) Mary," Eldin said, "and I don't feel it falls under freedom of speech because it promotes hate."
Mohammad Sultan, Tampa Bay imam, describes the cartoons as hate speech and says their publication should not be protected.
"There are some things people believe in and hold in value and it's not for others to make fun of or be belligerent," he said. "Freedom of speech means expressing an opinion, but there is a limit, and mocking other beliefs does not fall under the realm of freedom of speech. It's not to make fun of God and it's not subject to jokes."
Sultan, 55, who has been an imam for 15 years, says he hopes teachings of Mohammad and Islam will be effective in revealing the truth about the peaceful prophet.
"We have to reach out and communicate in an effective way to bring understanding to the people," he said.
Ahmed Bedier, director of the Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agrees with Sultan.
Much of the ensuing turmoil could have been avoided, Bedier said, "but the editors (of Jyllands-Posten) had an arrogant attitude which escalated the problem."
The 32-year-old said the situation was exacerbated by other European newspapers publishing the cartoons. "Islamophobia is the label for this type of anti-Muslim rhetoric, like anti-Jewish cartoons in Nazi Germany."
The way to combat such stereotypes is through dialogue, he said.
"We must show the comparison of how Muslims throughout the world have reacted and how Muslims in the United States have reacted," he said. "There is a difference."