Thursday, February 09, 2006 'It is not what I want to happen'
By DOUG SAUNDERS
Toronto Globe and Mail
COPENHAGEN, Denmark - In late December, a young Danish man flew to
Beirut. In his suitcase was a package of spiral-bound booklets in green
covers, neatly compiled using a color photocopier. Their contents
consisted mainly of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.
He was unlikely to have stood out. A short man of 31 who could have
passed for half that age, he had a feminine voice and soft hands and
was somewhat toughened by his struggling beard and an air of calm
Ahmed Akkari, a young Islamic scholar and Danish activist, was on a
mission. Having failed to get the prime minister to take action over
the cartoons' perceived slight to Islam, he had sought help from
esteemed figures in the Muslim world, he says.
Over the next few weeks, he would hand copies of his green booklet to
the grand mufti of Egypt, the chief cleric of the Sunni faith, leaders
of the Arab League, the top official of the Lebanese Christian church
They stared in amazement at the images in the book, he remembered
during an interview, and vowed to take action to help him.
"They said to me, 'Do they really say this is the prophet Mohammed?
They must really have no respect for religion up there in Denmark.' And
they said they would make it known."
Akkari now finds himself regretting the results of his brief journey,
the somewhat distorted message of which flashed around the Muslim world
by Internet, newspaper and text message, and caused millions of Muslims
to believe that Denmark and the Nordic countries had become home to
While the Koran does not forbid depictions of Mohammed, the prohibition
stems from concerns the prophet expressed that even well-intentioned
images could lead to idolatry or show disrespect for Islam's founder.
As he sat in one of Copenhagen's neat brown stone buildings this week
and gazed at the melting snow, Akkari grappled awkwardly with the
global emergency that has sprung from his mission. Friends, strangers
and close family members are now blaming him for exactly the thing he
says he was trying to prevent: the caricaturing of Muslims as violent
The riots, he acknowledged, have placed his fellow European Muslims in
a far worse position than they had previously known.
"Yeah, it has been more violent than I expected," he said. "I had no
interest in any violence. ... It is bad for our case because it's
turning the picture completely from what this should be about, to
something else - and this is a dangerous change now."
This has led to a dramatic switch in his tone: While he still expresses
anger at the media for glibly printing images considered offensive to
his faith, Akkari was eager to find a way to quickly resolve the crisis
- and to send a message to the violent Muslim protesters that might
cause them to cease and desist. He suggested a joint news conference
with the Danish prime minister or with the editor of the newspaper that
first printed the images in which both sides would demand that their
communities cease their most offensive activities.
Such a ditente now seems unlikely.
For his booklet contained not only the 12 depictions of the prophet
Mohammed that had appeared in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in
September. He also filled it with hideous, amateur images of the
prophet as a pig, a dog, a woman and a child-sodomizing madman.
Flipping through the book, he explained that these images had been
items of hate mail sent to his colleagues by right-wing extremists who
disapproved of their activism. These images, he insistently
demonstrated, were separated from the newspaper cartoons by several
pages of letters. "How could anyone mistake these for the newspaper
images?" he asked. "It cannot be that anyone would make this mistake."
But protesters in Lebanon and elsewhere have cited these images in
their actions. So have the organizers of a worldwide boycott campaign
against Danish products, which is costing the country's economy.
"You should understand," he said, "that the boycott was more widespread
than we thought it could ever be. In fact, we didn't ask for it."
He even seemed embroiled in the same fear that has gripped most Danes
this week. "This could get a lot worse, and it could make life worse
for Muslims here. If we can sort it out, if we can do something to
help, make people take responsibility - all the people involved - then
we have a chance of this violence not happening any more."
He had never meant this to be more than an internal Danish conflict, he
says. It was meant to be a technical matter: How to get the government
to acknowledge that something had gone wrong in this close-knit
society, something that had caused its largest newspaper to ignore the
feelings of a minority whose members number 180,000 in a country of 5.4
His circle of Muslim leaders planned the overseas trip only after the
domestic campaign had run aground. The newspaper had apologized for any
offense the cartoons caused, but stood by the decision to publish them.
The leaders wanted a response from the Danish state. Akkari took part
in efforts to bring legal action against the newspaper under
hate-crimes laws, and to arrange a meeting between ambassadors from
Muslim countries and the Danish prime minister. When these efforts were
rebuffed, help was sought abroad.
But he had not intended his protest to go global. And he is horrified
to find that the Danish people - and he proudly considers himself a
Dane - have been demonized.
A gap has also emerged between Akkari and his family, who are secular
Danes of Lebanese descent. He was born in Lebanon to a non-religious
Muslim family. His father was forced to flee, as a political refugee,
during the war in the 1980s.
"Maybe you could say I am more religious than he is," Akkari, who
studied sociology at a Copenhagen university, said of his father. "But
I don't think either he or I are on the extremes. Some people think I
am very moderate, some think I am only a cultural Muslim, some think I
am a fundamentalist."
Having provoked a deadly global confrontation between these poles, he
said that he wasn't quite sure where to place himself.
Thursday, February 09, 2006 The Cartoon Backlash: Redefining
By George Friedman
There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. We just couldn't
help but open with that -- with apologies to Shakespeare. Nonetheless,
there is something exceedingly odd in the notion that Denmark -- which
has made a national religion of not being offensive to anyone -- could
become the focal point of Muslim rage. The sight of the Danish and
Norwegian embassies being burned in Damascus -- and Scandinavians in
general being warned to leave Islamic countries -- has an aura of the
surreal: Nobody gets mad at Denmark or Norway. Yet, death threats are
now being hurled against the Danes and Norwegians as though they were
mad-dog friends of Dick Cheney. History has its interesting moments.
At the same time, the matter is not to be dismissed lightly. The
explosion in the Muslim world over the publication of 12 cartoons by a
minor Danish newspaper -- cartoons that first appeared back in
September -- has, remarkably, redefined the geopolitical matrix of the
U.S.-jihadist war. Or, to be more precise, it has set in motion
something that appears to be redefining that matrix. We do not mean
here simply a clash of civilizations, although that is undoubtedly part
of it. Rather, we mean that alignments within the Islamic world and
within the West appear to be in flux in some very important ways.
Let's begin with the obvious: the debate over the cartoons. There is a
prohibition in Islam against making images of the Prophet Mohammed.
There also is a prohibition against ridiculing the Prophet. Thus, a
cartoon that ridicules the Prophet violates two fundamental rules
simultaneously. Muslims around the world were deeply offended by these
It must be emphatically pointed out that the Muslim rejection of the
cartoons does not derive from a universalistic view that one should
respect religions. The criticism does not derive from a secularist view
that holds all religions in equal indifference and requires
"sensitivity" not on account of theologies, but in order to avoid
hurting anyone's feelings. The Muslim view is theological: The Prophet
Mohammed is not to be ridiculed or portrayed. But violating the
sensibilities of other religions is not taboo. Therefore, Muslims
frequently, in action, print and speech, do and say things about other
religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism -- that followers of these
religions would find defamatory. The Taliban, for example, were not
concerned about the views among other religions when they destroyed the
famous Buddhas in Bamiyan. The Muslim demand is honest and authentic:
It is for respect for Islam, not a general secular respect for all
beliefs as if they were all equal.
The response from the West, and from Europe in particular, has been to
frame the question as a matter of free speech. European newspapers,
wishing to show solidarity with the Danes, have reprinted the cartoons,
further infuriating the Muslims. European liberalism has a more complex
profile than Islamic rage over insults. In many countries, it is
illegal to incite racial hatred. It is difficult to imagine that the
defenders of these cartoons would sit by quietly if a racially
defamatory cartoon were published. Or, imagine the reception among
liberal Europeans -- or on any American campus -- if a professor
published a book purporting to prove that women were intellectually
inferior to men. (The mere suggestion of such a thing, by the president
of Harvard in a recent speech, led to calls for his resignation.)
In terms of the dialogue over the cartoons, there is enough to amuse
even the most jaded observers. The sight of Muslims arguing the need
for greater sensitivity among others, and of advocates of laws against
racial hatred demanding absolute free speech, is truly marvelous to
behold. There is, of course, one minor difference between the two
sides: The Muslims are threatening to kill people who offend them and
are burning embassies -- in essence, holding entire nations responsible
for the actions of a few of their citizens. The European liberals are
merely making speeches. They are not threatening to kill critics of the
modern secular state. That also distinguishes the Muslims from, say,
Christians in the United States who have been affronted by National
Endowment for the Arts grants.
These are not trivial distinctions. But what is important is this: The
controversy over the cartoons involves issues so fundamental to the two
sides that neither can give in. The Muslims cannot accept visual satire
involving the Prophet. Nor can the Europeans accept that Muslims can,
using the threat of force, dictate what can be published. Core values
are at stake, and that translates into geopolitics.
In one sense, there is nothing new or interesting in intellectual
inconsistency or dishonesty. Nor is there very much new about Muslims
-- or at least radical ones -- threatening to kill people who offend
them. What is new is the breadth of the Muslim response and the fact
that it is directed obsessively not against the United States, but
against European states.
One of the primary features of the U.S.-jihadist war has been that each
side has tried to divide the other along a pre-existing fault line. For
the United States, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the manipulation of
Sunni-Shiite tensions has been evident. For the jihadists, and even
more for non-jihadist Muslims caught up in the war, the tension between
the United States and Europe has been a critical fault line to
manipulate. It is significant, then, that the cartoon affair threatens
to overwhelm both the Euro-American split and the Sunni-Shiite split.
It is, paradoxically, an affair that unifies as well as divides.
The Fissures in the West
It is dangerous and difficult to speak of the "European position" --
there really isn't one. But there is a Franco-German position that
generally has been taken to be the European position. More precisely,
there is the elite Franco-German position that The New York Times
refers to whenever it mentions "Europe." That is the Europe that we
In the European view, then, the United States massively overreacted to
9/11. Apart from the criticism of Iraq, the Europeans believe that the
United States failed to appreciate al Qaeda's relative isolation within
the Islamic world and, by reshaping its relations with the Islamic
world over 9/11, caused more damage. Indeed, this view goes, the United
States increased the power of al Qaeda and added unnecessarily to the
threat it presents. Implicit in the European criticisms -- particularly
from the French -- was the view that American cowboy insensitivity to
the Muslim world not only increased the danger after 9/11, but
effectively precipitated 9/11. From excessive support for Israel to
support for Egypt and Jordan, the United States alienated the Muslims.
In other words, 9/11 was the result of a lack of sophistication and
poor policy decisions by the United States -- and the response to the
9/11 attacks was simply over the top.
Now an affair has blown up that not only did not involve the United
States, but also did not involve a state decision. The decision to
publish the offending cartoons was that of a Danish private citizen.
The Islamic response has been to hold the entire state responsible. As
the cartoons were republished, it was not the publications printing
them that were viewed as responsible, but the states in which they were
published. There were attacks on embassies, gunmen in EU offices at
Gaza, threats of another 9/11 in Europe.
>From a psychological standpoint, this drives home to the Europeans an argument that the Bush administration has been making from the beginning -- that the threat from Muslim extremists is not really a response to anything, but a constantly present danger that can be triggered by anything or nothing. European states cannot control what private publications publish. That means that, like it or not, they are hostage to Islamic perceptions. The threat, therefore, is not under their control. And thus, even if the actions or policies of the United States did precipitate 9/11, the Europeans are no more immune to the threat than the Americans are.
This combines with the Paris riots last November and the generally
deteriorating relationships between Muslims in Europe and the dominant
populations. The pictures of demonstrators in London, threatening the
city with another 9/11, touch extremely sensitive nerves. It becomes
increasingly difficult for Europeans to distinguish between their own
relationship with the Islamic world and the American relationship with
the Islamic world. A sense of shared fate emerges, driving the
Americans and Europeans closer together. At a time when pressing issues
like Iranian nuclear weapons are on the table, this increases
Washington's freedom of action. Put another way, the Muslim strategy of
splitting the United States and Europe -- and using Europe to constrain
the United States -- was heavily damaged by the Muslim response to the
The Intra-Ummah Divide
But so too was the split between Sunni and Shia. Tensions between these
two communities have always been substantial. Theological differences
aside, both international friction and internal friction have been
severe. The Iran-Iraq war, current near-civil war in Iraq, tensions
between Sunnis and Shia in the Gulf states, all point to the obvious:
These two communities are, while both Muslim, mistrustful of one
another. Shiite Iran has long viewed Sunni Saudi Arabia as the corrupt
tool of the United States, while radical Sunnis saw Iran as
collaborating with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cartoons are the one thing that both communities -- not only in the
Middle East but also in the wider Muslim world -- must agree about.
Neither side can afford to allow any give in this affair and still hope
to maintain any credibility in the Islamic world. Each community -- and
each state that is dominated by one community or another -- must work
to establish (or maintain) its Islamic credentials. A case in point is
the violence against Danish and Norwegian diplomatic offices in Syria
(and later, in Lebanon and Iran) -- which undoubtedly occurred with
Syrian government involvement. Syria is ruled by Alawites, a Shiite
sect. Syria -- aligned with Iran -- is home to a major Sunni community;
there is another in Lebanon. The cartoons provided what was essentially
a secular regime the opportunity to take the lead in a religious
matter, by permitting the attacks on the embassies. This helped
consolidate the regime's position, however temporarily.
Indeed, the Sunni and Shiite communities appear to be competing with
each other as to which is more offended. The Shiite Iranian-Syrian bloc
has taken the lead in violence, but the Sunni community has been quite
vigorous as well. The cartoons are being turned into a test of
authenticity for Muslims. To the degree that Muslims are prepared to
tolerate or even move past this issue, they are being attacked as being
willing to tolerate the Prophet's defamation. The cartoons are forcing
a radicalization of parts of the Muslim community that are uneasy with
the passions of the moment.
Beneficiaries on Both Sides
The processes under way in the West and within the Islamic world are
naturally interacting. The attacks on embassies, and threats against
lives, that are based on nationality alone are radicalizing the Western
perspective of Islam. The unwillingness of Western governments to
punish or curtail the distribution of the cartoons is taken as a sign
of the real feelings of the West. The situation is constantly
compressing each community, even as they are divided.
One might say that all this is inevitable. After all, what other
response would there be, on either side? But this is where the odd part
begins: The cartoons actually were published in September, and --
though they drew some complaints, even at the diplomatic level --
didn't come close to sparking riots. Events unfolded slowly: The
objections of a Muslim cleric in Denmark upon the initial publication
by Jyllands-Posten eventually prompted leaders of the Islamic Faith
Community to travel to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in December, purposely
"to stir up attitudes against Denmark and the Danes" in response to the
cartoons. As is now obvious, attitudes have certainly been stirred.
There are beneficiaries. It is important to note here that the fact
that someone benefits from something does not mean that he was
responsible for it. (We say this because in the past, when we have
noted the beneficiaries of an event or situation, the not-so-bright
bulbs in some quarters took to assuming that we meant the beneficiaries
deliberately engineered the event.)
Still, there are two clear beneficiaries. One is the United States: The
cartoon affair is serving to further narrow the rift between the Bush
administration's view of the Islamic world and that of many Europeans.
Between the Paris riots last year, the religiously motivated murder of
a Dutch filmmaker and the "blame Denmark" campaign, European patience
is wearing thin. The other beneficiary is Iran. As Iran moves toward a
confrontation with the United States over nuclear weapons, this helps
to rally the Muslim world to its side: Iran wants to be viewed as the
defender of Islam, and Sunnis who have raised questions about its
flirtations with the United States in Iraq are now seeing Iran as the
leader in outrage against Europe.
The cartoons have changed the dynamics both within Europe and the
Islamic world, and between them. That is not to say the furor will not
die down in due course, but it will take a long time for the bad
feelings to dissipate. This has created a serious barrier between
moderate Muslims and Europeans who were opposed to the United States.
They were the ones most likely to be willing to collaborate, and the
current uproar makes that collaboration much more difficult.
It's hard to believe that a few cartoons could be that significant, but