The Chicago chapter of a prominent Islamic civil-rights group tackled the controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad on Saturday night at a town hall meeting as part of a yearlong campaign to educate the public.
The educational initiative, announced Tuesday by the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, features a Web site-- www.exploremuhammad.com --that offers visitors a free book or DVD on the prophet.
Saturday night, Muslim activists held a news conference at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park to introduce the Explore the Life of Muhammad campaign.
"We are embarking on this new education initiative because we Muslims haven't done enough to teach Westerners about the peaceful teachings of Muhammad," said Ahmed Rehab, spokesman for the Chicago chapter of the council.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons Sept. 30. One caricature portrayed the prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. As the cartoons have circulated, rage has led to protests and violence.
About 1,000 Muslim leaders and other residents attended the town hall meeting. Rehab pointed out that the majority of Muslims around the world have acted peacefully concerning the cartoons. Many in the audience echoed Rehab's remarks, saying Muslims should promote peace and not violence.
In the U.S., most news organizations, including the Tribune, have decided against publishing the images.
But two local universities, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northern Illinois University, have sparked anger and debate by publishing the cartoons in their daily student newspapers. The publisher of the Daily Illini suspended student editor Acton Gorton after the cartoons were published. On Wednesday Gorton said he had hired a Chicago-based Muslim civil rights attorney, Junaid Afeef, to defend him.
Rehab said the controversy surrounding the cartoons is not about freedom of speech. Muslims know the importance of that freedom, he said. The key issue is what Muhammad means to Muslims.
"It wasn't just a cartoon," Rehab said. "Imagine if a group of vandals defaced the Statue of Liberty. People would be very upset. It's a symbol of America. That's how Muslims felt after Muhammad was depicted as a terrorist."
After international protests over claims that American guards had desecrated the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, the Council on American-Islamic Relations launched an Explore the Koran campaign offering free copies of the holy text to Americans of all faiths. More than 27,000 Korans have been requested, officials said.