BEIRUT, Lebanon – Many Arab governments, Muslim religious leaders and newspapers have been calling for calm in the protests over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, fearing the violence of the past weeks has only reinforced Islam's negative image in the West.
No major demonstrations took place in Mideast and North African cities, suggesting the fervor was easing. But it wasn't clear whether the calm would last. A test may come after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday, when at least one large protest is planned, in Morocco.
The drawings, first published in a Danish newspaper then reprinted in other European publications, sparked outrage across the Islamic world. Protests turned violent in recent weeks in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
But many in the Middle East watched the stone-throwing, flag burnings and embassy attacks with sorrow. Some — including governments, religious leaders and newspaper writers — are trying to put on the brakes on the outrage, even if they feel Muslims are right to be angry.
"They committed a crime when they violated our prophet's sanctity," Mohammed Abdel-Qaddous, a prominent Egyptian writer on Islamic issues, said Wednesday at a forum organized by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.
"But if we set their embassy on fire, as happened in Syria or Lebanon, we will then be responding to their crime with another crime," he said.
Kuwait's parliament has urged restraint, saying "irresponsible acts" make the outpouring of emotions Muslims have shown for their religion and prophet "look like aggressiveness and destructiveness."
Iraq's top Shiite political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, said only peaceful protests should be held. And the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, told The Associated Press in Dallas that the violence is "unhelpful and in many cases unnecessary."
"Our prophet himself was insulted, violence was inflicted upon him when he preached his message to the idolators and nonbelievers, and he met that violence with forgiveness," Turki said.
Some of those calling for calm said they have been put in the position of trying to balance out extremists who may be using the outrage as an opportunity to serve their own agendas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday accused Iran and Syria of fanning the violence to rally support amid their own political confrontations with the West.
Laura Bush, who met Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, said they briefly discussed the violence over the drawings. The first lady said she understood the offense Muslims around the world feel about the publication in European newspapers of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
"On the other hand, I don't think violence is the answer. I think that everyone around the world needs to speak out and say 'Let's stop the violence.' It's really not necessary to get the point across that they were offended by those cartoons."
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller appealed on Lebanon's Al Hayat-LBC satellite TV for the Arab world to try to defuse the issue, not inflame it.
"You were shocked by these drawings. We were shocked by the attacks on our embassies. Let us now stop the violence, the misunderstanding and the deception," he said in comments that were translated into Arabic by the station.
"We want to avoid a clash between civilizations because what is happening today on the street is not beneficial for you or for us," he said.
While no major demonstrations were held over the drawings Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, speaking in Beirut at a religious ceremony for the Muslim celebration of Ashoura, urged Muslims to keep demonstrating until there is an apology.
"Defending the prophet should continue all over the world. Let Condoleezza Rice and Bush and all the tyrants shut up. We are an Islamic nation that cannot tolerate, be silent or be lax when they insult our prophet and sanctities," said the leader of Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria.
Even moderates say Muslims had every right to feel outrage over the 12 drawings, which include an image of their revered prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.
But they fear the violent reaction in some quarters only worsens the clash of civilizations that many in the Mideast dread as much as the West.
"This time, Arabs and Muslims have entered a just war ... but emerged from it with ruinous results that have led to a new distortion of Islam in the West," Saleh al-Qallab, a former Jordanian minister, wrote in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat.
"We should be brave enough to admit that attempts to deepen the gap between the Christian West and the Muslim East have led to an Arab and Muslim defeat in this round," he added.
Ghassan Salame, a former Lebanese minister of culture, said the reaction was "disproportionate to the offense."
"I'm not sure this episode has done good for those who have called for mutual understanding and respect and did not do much to help moderate Islam market itself all over the world," he told The Associated Press.
It was a sentiment shared by many in the public.
"Those who use violence are overreacting," said Saleh al-Igrazi, a 35-year-old Iraqi dentist. "They give a bad impression of Muslims, who are shown to the world to be troublemakers and even terrorists."
Some believe autocratic regimes have kept the issue alive for political reasons — to redirect their citizens' anger, to burnish governments' Islamic credentials or to undermine reformists, whose quest for democracy is often identified with Western calls for change.
"There's also a clear attempt to exploit that anger for political purposes almost everywhere, either to legitimize authoritarian regimes or to delegitimize calls for democratization," Salame said.
Samir Atallah, a Lebanese commentator, borrowed from Hamlet to express his rejection of the violence.
"Five centuries ago, Shakespeare said: 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,"' he said. "There's something even more rotten in other states."
Denmark said that it had temporarily closed its diplomatic mission in Beirut after rioters set fire to the building. It said all Danish diplomats had left Lebanon for fear of further violence.