Malaysian leader warns of 'chasm' between Muslims and the West

Malaysia’s leader today warned of a “huge chasm” between Muslims and the West, as thousands of people took to the streets in Asia for the largest demonstrations yet in the Prophet Mohammed cartoons row.

Thousands of Muslims rallied in Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, while smaller demonstrations were held in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Protesters shouted anti-American and other slogans and burned Danish flags, but there were no immediate reports of violence.

The demonstrations grew out of traditional Friday prayers. Some were held outside mosques in some cities while in others protesters marched on the diplomatic missions of Denmark, which have sometimes been pelted with rocks, eggs and other missiles in previous demonstrations.

In Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur, about 3,000 protesters marched from a mosque to the high rise building housing the Danish Embassy shouting: “Long live Islam. Destroy Denmark. Destroy Israel. Destroy George Bush. Destroy America!”

Opening a conference at a nearby venue, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi talked of a “huge chasm that has emerged between the West and Islam,” particularly because of Muslim frustrations at Western policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinians.

He said many Westerners viewed a Muslim as “a congenital terrorist.”

“They think Osama bin Laden speaks for the religion and its followers,” Abdullah said in his speech. “The denomination of Islam and the vilification of Muslims, there is no denying, is widespread within mainstream Western society.”

He did not mention the prophet cartoons.

Abdullah, a Muslim scholar whose country heads the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference, also urged Muslims to oppose “sweeping denunciation of Christians, Jews and the West” as well as violence and terror perpetrated by fringe groups.

Denmark has been the main target of Muslim outrage because a newspaper there was the first to publish 12 cartoons of the prophet. Other media, mostly in non-Islamic countries, have reprinted the cartoons.

Many Muslims view the cartoons as sacrilegious because Islam is interpreted as banning depiction of the prophet to prevent idolatry. Proponents say publication of the cartoons is a free speech issue.

In Pakistan, about 5,000 supporters of radical Islamic groups demonstrated in the capital, Islamabad – the biggest turnout since protests against the cartoons began about a week ago.

In a fiery speech, Mian Aslam, a leader of a coalition of Islamic groups, urged Pakistan to sever ties with all those countries with newspapers that published the drawings.

In Bangladesh, more than 5,000 Muslims watched by hundreds of riot police marched on Denmark’s embassy in the capital, Dhaka, burning the country’s flag and shouting, “Death to those who degrade our beloved prophet!”

Small demonstrations were also held in Indonesia, where protesters burned tyres in one town.

About 175 students at an Islamic school in Surabaya, in East Java province, signed a pact saying they are “ready to die” for Prophet Muhammad, and would confront any Danes they met, said their headmaster, Yusuf Muhajir.

“The will ask Danish citizens wherever they meet to apologise,” Muhajir said. “They will be slapped if they refuse to apologise. The slap is a merely intended as a lesson, instead of hurting them.”

Denmark earlier this week advised its citizens to leave Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.

Hundreds of angry Muslims burned a mock Danish flag outside a mosque in the Philippine capital, Manila, demanding an apology from Denmark’s prime minister and punishment for the newspaper that first published the caricatures.

“Muslims love Prophet Mohammed. Peace be upon him,” read a banner carried by the protesters.

Malaysia’s Internal Security Ministry declared that it was an offence for anyone to publish, produce, import, circulate or possess the prophet caricatures.

It said the measure was ordered to curb the circulation of material that could cause disrupt public order in Malaysia. It did not specify what penalties offenders faced.

The ministry indefinitely closed a small newspaper, the Sarawak Tribune, yesterday after it reproduced one of the caricatures, despite an apology from the publishers for what they called an editorial oversight.

Malaysia’s newspapers operate under government licence.

Australian prime minister John Howard today said he considered the violent reactions to the cartoons “are completely disproportionate to the offence that could possibly have been given”.

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