Monday, February 06, 2006

What can Muslim reactions to the cartoons teach the West?

By John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor

Western embassies in Middle Eastern cities have been torched. Angry crowds have marched in the streets of London carrying placards calling for beheadings and massacres.
Yet despite how it looks on television news, the response to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad has mostly been non-violent so far.
There were no demonstrations at all in a sizeable number of Muslim countries. In Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq, the demonstrations passed off quietly.
There has been serious trouble in Gaza, Damascus and Beirut, but in each case, local tensions clearly boiled up and found their expression in this particular issue.
In Syria, such violence is so rare that some people have wondered whether the attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies might not have been provoked by government agents, in order to discredit the beleaguered Islamists there.
In Lebanon, the continuing tension between supporters of the Syrians and supporters of the Americans played a part in the violence in Beirut.
When a breakaway group started to attack a Christian church at Ashrafiya, a group of Muslim clerics did everything they could to stop them.

Delayed reaction
How did a series of not particularly well-drawn or funny cartoons, published on 30 September in a Danish newspaper, produce such anger in Europe and the Middle East four months later?
If anyone fanned the flames, it was not Osama Bin Laden.

Danish interests have been targeted across the world Instead, it was the mild, distinctly moderate figure of Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Foreign Minister of Egypt.
As early as November, he was protesting about the cartoons, and calling them an insult.
"Egypt," he said, "has confronted this disgraceful act and will continue to confront such insults."
Perhaps it was a convenient way for the Egyptian government to demonstrate some Islamic credentials while not attacking any of the countries which really matter to Egypt.
He raised the issue at various international meetings. Slowly the news filtered out to the streets.

Past reminders
There are various similarities with the case of Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses.
That also took months to come to general attention in 1989.
It was only when Ayatollah Khomeini was told about the way the book dealt with the Prophet Muhammad that he issued his condemnation of it and his threat to Rushdie's life.
The demonstrations became increasingly violent.
Much the same arguments were used then as now, about where freedom of speech ends and gratuitous insults begin.
Militant secularists clashed on air and in print with militant Islamists, each talking past each other.
At one point, Rushdie recanted and asked for forgiveness. At least one of the book's translators seems to have been murdered.
We wouldn't allow a deeply anti-Semitic book to be published, and we have made it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust
But The Satanic Verses continued to make good money, and the British government asked Rushdie to pay part of the high cost of his own protection.
Eventually the threat faded, and he went to live in America.

Double standards
In 1989, when the Satanic Verses demonstrations were at their height, I was making my way across Afghanistan to Kabul, which was still in the hands of the pro-Soviet Communists.
My guides came from a group of Islamic mujahideen.
In a cave in the mountains outside the city, I was invited to meet a number of local elders who wanted to know why Britain, or any other Western country, would allow a book which seemed to be so insulting to Islam to be published.
In the chilly gloom of the cave, with a glass of tea and a plate of sugared mulberries in front of me, the magnificent old men with their turbans and beards filed in and sat down on the carpets, their AK-47s beside them.
I began with the quote - attributed to Voltaire - about hating what other people say but fighting to the death for their right to say it.
I told them that the West wanted people to be free to express themselves as they wanted - this, I said, was why Europe and the US had supported the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet invaders.
They nodded politely, but I could see they were not convinced.
Why, one of the elders asked again and again, did we allow the Prophet Muhammad to be insulted when we knew how much distress it would cause individual Muslims?

He had a point; after all, a number of European countries would not allow a deeply anti-Semitic book to be published, and have made it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust.
Why should it not also be illegal to insult the Prophet?
Yet insulting and openly anti-Semitic cartoons and articles often appear in the press in Muslim countries, and we in the West rightly find that deeply offensive.
And when extremists march through the streets, applaud bloodthirsty crimes like the attacks of 11 September and 7 July, that is no less insulting than publishing unfunny and deliberately goading cartoons.
We must not imagine this has the support of the great mass of British Muslims.
Quite the contrary: the groups with their ill-spelt placards are just an unrepresentative, repudiated fringe.
In much the same way, we should not think the entire Muslim world is in flames about it.
But we must understand that many Muslims around the world feel increasingly beleaguered.
Increasing that sense will do nothing to help anyone.