Deep anger, not cartoons, spurred Muslim protests

Analysts see frustration with West, thirst for change

February 09, 2006|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

Even as protests intensified yesterday against the publication of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, scholars who study the Muslim world caution that the cartoons themselves are almost unimportant.

What matters more, they say, is a store of frustration and anger among Muslims that was ready to be ignited, if not by cartoons originally published in a Danish newspaper then by some other image or event that in the West would first seem unremarkable.

Citizens of many Middle Eastern countries are aggrieved by corruption and lack of democracy, and eager to express their fury, said Sanam Vakil, assistant professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Wary governments, meanwhile, have seized on the cartoon controversy to deflect that frustration.

"They are allowing people to unleash their anger on foreigners rather than on their leaders," Vakil said. "You have to understand that many of these protests are sanctioned by their governments, and many of these governments are autocratic dictatorships."

The editor of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper where the cartoons first appeared, has said that Danish Muslims worked with clerics in the Middle East to publicize the images, including some never published by the paper, and launch the protests that have continued for a second week.

But the gulf between Islam and the West is not wholly the result of efforts by radicals, some researchers say. It is also a product of grievances that range from discrimination against Muslim immigrants in Europe to the perception of bias in the West's handling of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The divide has been aggravated, many say, by the occasional failure of the United States and the European Union to distinguish between extremist and moderate Islam in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the bombings in London and Madrid.

"The Islamic world is mad at the West, they are furious at the West," said William O. Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University who has worked extensively in Iran. "For people in the Muslim world, it seems like we're condemning all Muslims. And most Muslims don't feel that they deserve it."

And Westerners do not appreciate how shocking it is for some Muslims to see those outside the faith drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad, since any representation of the prophet is considered blasphemous.

"To change that image, and make it into a mocking or hateful depiction of the prophet, that further compounds the problem," Beeman said.

"One can insult an individual, a clergyman even, but one cannot criticize the prophet," said Marius Deeb, a professor of Islamic studies at the School of Advanced International Studies. "This is unacceptable."

Lebanon, which suffered a 15-year civil war fought among the country's Christians, Druze and Sunni and Shiite Muslims, learned the high price of offending religious sensibilities. Those lessons, Deeb said, may now apply on a global scale as the world becomes more interconnected.

"Maybe it's a wake-up call that we have to understand others, that the Muslim world has to be treated with respect, that we can live peacefully together by respecting each other," he said.

Several analysts pointed out that only a minority have taken to the streets in protest. But many who remain on the sidelines have also been shaken by the cartoons, and by the perception that they are under siege by the West.

An Iranian blogger, Yasser, a 21-year-old microbiology student at Azad University in Tehran, has written about his admiration for Western freedoms but recently posted an entry about the Danish cartoons under the title "Because of freedom you can insult me."

"I really bewildered when I see these paradoxes," he wrote in his blog, Under Underground. "If newspapers reprint these offensive cartoons about Prophet Muhammad for insisting that they have freedom of speech so could you [print] an offensive cartoon about Jesus?" A short while later, he wrote that he was "really embarrassed" by an attack on the Danish Embassy in Iran.

Another Iranian blogger, calling himself Mr. Behi, wrote that the Danish newspaper should have hesitated before publishing the cartoons.

"But even if we suppose that the newspaper wanted to show the `ugly face of intolerant hard-line Muslims of our time' it was easier to symbolize them in better ways without ... offending the entire race of the believers," he wrote. "Be aware that the hard-line Muslim leaders around the world are doing their best to prove that [the] `west is trying to destroy Islam' and that this is the first line of the Terrorism 101 that young Muslims get brainwashed with."

Not all of the protests have occurred under totalitarian regimes. Demonstrations erupted throughout Afghanistan after imams began to denounce the cartoons in local mosques, and police killed protesters in clashes there yesterday.

Further protests are expected over the next few days, as worshipers pack mosques for the religious holiday of Maharam today and the traditional day of worship tomorrow, said Qais Asimy, an Afghan television reporter, in a phone interview from Kabul.

The cartoons have bolstered support for al-Qaida and weakened sympathy for the West, he added, because many Afghans have come to believe that "democracy means to insult religion, to do whatever you want to do."

"It's not the entire population that's pouring onto the streets; it's a small percentage," Vakil said. "Perhaps this might lead, maybe in the distant future, to a dialogue about the religion of Islam itself, and how the Muslim population in general expresses itself over such issues. Most importantly, it shows a frustration about their lives and an inherent desire for change."

douglas.birch@baltsun.com

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