National

Japan’s Muslims dismayed by latest Charlie cover but united against violence

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writers

Satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo’s decision to place a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover of its latest issue in response to the massacre of its staff in Paris last week by Islamic extremists has upset Japan’s Muslim community, which also condemned the terrorist attack.

The Tokyo Camii & Turkish Culture Center in Shibuya Ward, the largest mosque in Tokyo and famed for its Ottoman architecture and intricate Arabic reliefs, was packed with about 600 followers Friday for its weekly noon prayer session.

A 48-year-old Japanese follower, who asked to be identified only by his Muslim name Abdullar, criticized Charlie Hebdo for using the “fundamentalism of ‘freedom of expression’ ” to justify its repeated use of the prophet’s image in cartoons, which is considered sacrilegious by Muslims.

“The essence of justice is to show compassion for others,” and the extremists’ violent acts and the massive protests that followed are both escalating the situation, he said.

Haroon Qureshi, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Japan Islamic Trust, said he was “deeply disappointed” when he saw the satirical cartoons.

“Freedom of journalism shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of someone’s feelings,” said Qureshi, a Pakistani, but he also believes the massacre of magazine’s staff was “unforgivable.”

Shigeru Shimoyama, a public relations representative for Tokyo Camii, said caricatures are supposed to criticize authorities or powerful public figures, such as politicians.

“But when it starts to poke fun at the weak or a religion, I don’t think it can be called a caricature anymore,” said Shimoyama, a Japanese who has been a Muslim for about 30 years.

He slammed the newspaper’s decision to satirize Muhammad in Wednesday’s issue as a “publicity stunt” meant to capitalize on surging public interest in the paper. The issue, the first since the horrific attack in Paris, reportedly had a print run of 5 million copies, compared with its usual 60,000.

“The paper says it caricatured (the prophet) again to claim its right to freedom of expression and show its determination not to succumb to terrorism, but I think it was just to pursue sales,” he said.

That being said, Shimoyama, 65, said the terrorist attack was unequivocally wrong. The shooting spree, he said, goes against the idea of cherishing human lives that is at the crux of the Muslim ethos.

Qureshi of the Japan Islamic Trust said that the French incident will inevitably exacerbate what he described as the long-standing prejudice in Japan against Muslims.

He said that this has been especially troublesome since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. He said that he is particularly worried about sentiment against Muslims among people in the countryside.

“People in urban areas have more opportunities to communicate with Muslims (nowadays), as we have more mosques and more Muslim tourists visiting the country,” Qureshi said.

“But it’s the people in rural areas I’m concerned about, since their perception of Muslims is often shaped by media reports,” which can be misleading.

The Charlie Hebdo attack came at a time when Japan is trumpeting its “Muslim-friendly” policies, with the nation’s international airports scrambling to set up prayer rooms and serve halal meals to lure more Muslim travelers here.

But Qureshi said he remains optimistic that the news of the attack alone won’t affect the overall growth of Muslim-friendly policies here.

“There are both good and bad people in every religion. Muslims are no exception. They shouldn’t all be lumped together,” he said.

Meanwhile, Iroda Sodikova, an exchange student from Uzbekistan who was praying at Tokyo Camii on Thursday evening, said she disagrees with what the Kouachi brothers did in slaughtering the cartoonists and said a more level-headed approach is needed to resolve conflicts.

“As a Muslim follower, if you encounter someone caricaturing (Muhammad), you shouldn’t resort to violence, but calmly explain to them that such an act is considered intolerable under the Muslim ideology. Peaceful dialogue and mutual understanding are the best way to go,” the 25-year-old student said.

According to Shimoyama from Tokyo Camii, there are now about 80 mosques across Japan. While no official count exists on the number of Muslim followers, the total is estimated at around 100,000, including both Japanese and foreigners, he said.

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