“What is allowed for Jews is not allowed for Muslims,” Muhammed Al Musfir, the former chief editor of Qatar’s al Rayah newspaper told the al-Jazeera conference, referring to Western media “anger” over Hamas’ election triumph in Palestine and media “celebration” of earlier Likud victories. “It’s a double-standard,” said another reporter in the audience, referring to the cartoons. “If this is freedom of expression, why can’t the same standard be applied to the Holocaust?”

Many Arab journalists I spoke to have little doubt that extremist Muslim forces are exploiting the cartoon controversy for their own ends at a time when Islamist parties are flexing their muscles after election victories in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. That’s what makes what one called the “stupidity” of those papers that republished the cartoons so chilling. Western reporters are already fair game for the most extreme elements, as the kidnapping of reporter Jill Carroll in Iraq demonstrates. The cartoon controversy could make things even worse.

“If Muslims had executed Salman Rushdie, others would not dare insult Islam,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah told a rally in Beirut, referring to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against the British writer for his novel Satanic Verses. Even the Chechen rebel leader responsible for the massacre of children at Beslan has weighed in, calling for a meeting of mujahideen to “study the measures that must be taken.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders have warned that by publishing the cartoons, the Western media is playing into the hands of the extremists, “providing further excuses to the forces of radicalism and terrorism.” Unlike many people on the street here, most Arab journalists recognize that the Western media as a whole should not be condemned for the decision by a few newspapers to run the offensive cartoons. But they, too, fear everyone will pay. As al-Ahram’s Salama told me, “We have a saying in Arabic. Children make it and grownups fall in it.”

Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo. His new book, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas, is being published this month.

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Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.