PROVO — Brigham Young University geography professor Chad Emmett learned a strong lesson about Muslim sensitivities early in his LDS Church mission to Indonesia.
Emmett used a flip chart provided by his church as he and another missionary taught a Muslim man. The chart included drawings of God, Jesus Christ and LDS prophets Joseph Smith and Moroni.
By the time Emmett flipped to an image of John the Baptist, the Muslim man said, "Stop, this is enough. It is offensive to my religion for you to show me pictures of God and prophets."
Emmett's experience illustrated why Muslims, including those in BYU's Arabic club who sponsored a panel discussion at the university Wednesday, are deeply offended by 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper in September.
"We respect all prophets," said Ahmad Salah, president of the Arabic club and a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering. "We do not use prophets in drawings or movies."
The tragedy of the controversy, which has spurred everything from peaceful protests to riots and deaths, is that it damages efforts by moderate Muslims to bridge the gap between Western culture and Islamic culture, said BYU political science professor Donna Lee Bowen.
"I would suggest the victims are the moderate Muslims," Bowen said, "the Muslims who are trying to lay out a very different idea of Islam, who are trying to make themselves at home not just in their home culture but in a foreign culture like the United States or Europe."
Usama Baioumy, a Muslim leader in the Provo/Orem area, said moderates are trying hard to prove that most Muslims are peace-loving people who co-exist well with any culture.
"We're struggling with media and government depictions of Muslims as only terrorists," Baioumy said.
There are LDS parallels to the flap over the cartoons, Bowen said. Four years ago, before outreach efforts spurred in part by BYU religion faculty, some faiths circulated anti-LDS literature that included what some could have considered offensive depictions of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.
"I can't repeat what was said," Bowen added, "but it had sexual content, it had scatological content and it was truly disgusting. President Hinckley is a trigger point for many people in the world who don't like what Mormons do, just as the prophet Joseph Smith was. And the prophet Joseph Smith was depicted as a demon and as a devil."
Mormons aren't as offended by demeaning portrayals of their prophets because there is no prohibition against depictions of prophets in LDS scripture, as there is in the Koran, Bowen said.
Other things bother LDS Church members more, Emmett said. In April 2003, two members were arrested near the faith's Salt Lake Temple after they snatched sacred LDS temple garments from street preachers who were desecrating the garments in front of hundreds walking to a session of the church's semiannual General Conference.
"When it comes to religion, we should respect other people's wishes," Emmett said, adding that the prohibition against depicting Muhammad is "something the world needs to respect."
Baioumy, a native Egyptian who is an American citizen, and Bowen said the United States is now a more welcoming place to Muslims than Europe, a development that surprises Muslims.
"I have more freedom for my religion here than in Europe," Baioumy said.
The Arabic club president, Salah, said the gap between the cultures can only be closed by people on both sides educating themselves. He isn't sure if a new law in Europe banning the depiction of Muhammad is the best solution for the current conflagration or if it could be solved by a rule of thumb at newspapers, but he does know what is most important to him.
"I live in Provo and I study at BYU," he said. "I'm a great fan of the Cougs. But Muhammad is more important than that or the national (soccer) team of Egypt. He is more important than my work, more important than my family, more important than myself."