Cartoon row draws from well of discontent

Simon Tisdall
Tuesday February 21, 2006
The Guardian

Palestinian students burn a Danish flag
Palestinian students burn a Danish flag. Photograph: Hazem Bader/Getty

The Danish cartoons row refuses to go away, reverberating with sound and fury at different levels across the Islamic world. That primarily reflects the deep affront felt by many Muslims. But it is clear that the uproar has deeper causes which westerners, struggling to fathom the rage sparked by Jyllands-Posten’s crude caricatures, and Muslims, fearing a growing clash of cultures, ignore at their peril.Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, an influential spiritual leader and scholar, was not alone in characterising the controversy as integral to an ongoing, unifying pan-Islamic revolt against oppression. “The nation must rage in anger,” he told Qatar television. “Whoever was angered and did not rage is a jackass. We are not a nation of jackasses for riding, but lions that roar.”

From a less impassioned, secular standpoint, aspects of the row recalled Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. “It is scandalous – an horrific carnival of stupidity, hypocrisy and manipulated outrage celebrated with equal enthusiasm in the Muslim world and in ‘liberal’ Europe,” said journalist and author Neal Ascherson.

But it was also “a storm signal of worse to come”, he warned on the openDemocracy website. Europeans had been left wondering whether compromise was possible with a minority’s religious dogmatism while “millions of peaceful Muslims … are now inclined to listen more respectfully to those who tell them that the west and its leaders intend to exterminate Islam by slander and humiliation as preludes to war”.

As the row has spread, more recent protests, sometimes turning into riots, have broadened the sense of confrontation while blurring its original focus. A protest in northern Nigeria morphed into lethal assaults on Christians. Militant Afghans tried to turn protests yesterday into an al-Qaida recruitment drive. In Pakistan, the evolving target of rallies is not Denmark (or the cartoonists on whose heads a $1m bounty has been placed) but the unelected president, Pervez Musharraf, and his US alliance.

In Beirut, the destruction of the Danish embassy was widely blamed on Syrian agents more interested in destabilising Lebanon than punishing blasphemy. Predictably, hardliners in Iran and the US have used the fracas to justify their mutual antipathy. Even remote Fiji has not escaped. This month a Sunday paper republished all 12 cartoons – not in the cause of free expression but reportedly in support of Methodist fundamentalists unsympathetic to Muslim Indo-Fijians.

And intimidation is taking a toll. A world away from Suva, a public debate organised by the International Affairs Society at the University of Bristol proceeded only in circumscribed format last week after the authorities got cold feet over security. Retaliatory threats against newspapers that published the cartoons have proliferated. On all sides, motives often appeared questionable.

Parallel controversies have kept the issue hot, ranging from the latest allegations of Iraqi prisoner abuse by British and US troops to attempted international ostracism of Hamas, Palestine’s new rulers. The attendant clamour has tended to drown out “mainstream” western Muslims, such as those who marched in London on February 11, and moderate Islamist voices. One such leader, Nasharudin Mat Isa of the Islamic party of Malaysia, condemned the caricatures – but confined criticism to “provocateurs” in “certain sections of the western world”, rather than the west as a whole. By belatedly calling for calm yesterday, Iran reflected concern that lawless streets may threaten “lawful” authority.

Analysts such as Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment thinktank have suggested western opinion is failing to grasp the ramifications of a developing, pan-Islamic political intifada.

Rooted in poverty, poor education and lack of democracy, it is driven by Palestine, Iraq, oil politics, and the thoughtless demonisation of all Muslims in the post-9/11 “war on terror”. It increasingly challenges established regimes. It has growing access to uncontrolled media – media that also publicised last year’s Qur’an desecration scandal. The revolt’s unifying banner is Islam. And more than ever before, Islam can freely talk to itself.

Among other things, that meant the west must learn to engage with opposition forces and end support for authoritarian governments, said David Mepham of the Institute for Public Policy Research in a new report, Changing States. “There is a critical need … to draw attention to the very real diversity and popularity of Islamist groups [which] constitute the main bulk of the opposition to existing regimes.

“Those groups that renounce violence and commit to democratic politics should be potential recipients of practical support,” he said. But engagement could not stop there. Formal talks between the US and Europe and the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah might be required – and unavoidable – if the extremists’ grip was to be loosened and mutual repulsion rechannelled into collaborative reform.


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