Caricatures Roil Muslim World
Beirut Embassy Torched
Iraq Demonstrations, Threats against Danish Troops
Before I launch into this report, I want to underline that few places in the Muslim world have seen violence over the caricatures, so far mainly Damascus and Beirut (which are unexpected in this regard.) Protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere have been nonviolent. This is not to play down the seriousness of what happened in Damascus and Beirut over the weekend–acts which can only inspire horror and condemnation–only to set it in context. There are 1.5 billion Muslims. A lot of Muslim countries saw no protests at all. In some places, as in Pakistan, they were anemic. The caricature protests are resonating with local politics and anti-imperialism in ways distinctive to each Muslim country. The protests therefore are probably not mostly purely about religion.
Beirut’s Daily Star reports that he Sunni Muslim clerics of Lebanon intended to call a peaceful demonstration in downtown Beirut on Sunday. It began that way as 20,000 protesters gathered, but spiralled out of control when a small group of militants set fire to the Danish embassy and then attacked a church in Ashrafiyah. The Sunni clerics were seen attempting to head the crowd off from the church, shouting that the issue had nothing to do with Christians. They were drowned out by gunfire from the Lebanese security forces.
Sectarian tensions have risen dramatically in Lebanon, as the society has been polarized over relations with Syria and intervention in local affairs by the Bush administration. The Sunni Muslims themselves have been divided, between those who suspect Syria of assassinating Sunni former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and those who support Syria. Anger at the Bush administration over the ongoing occupation of Iraq also fuelled some of the protesters’ anger, according to handbills circulating in Beirut before the demonstrations. Al-Sharq al-Awsat says that Saad Hariri, the leading Sunni politician, condemned the attacks from Paris, saying that an attack on churches is an attack on Muslims.
Lebanon is probably about 45 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni, 5 percent Druze, and 30 percent Christian, if we count the entire population (among adults, Christians are more like 40 percent). In reaction to the on-going dispossession of the Palestinians in Lebanon, and to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a few Sunni Lebanese and Palestinians have joined radical jihadi currents. The assassin of Rafiq Hariri was from this group, though he may have been working for someone else, and it is likely a handful of jihadis who pushed the mob toward violence on Sunday.
The Beirut violence follows that of Damascus on Saturday, where a mob attacked the Danish and Norwegian embassies and attempted to go after the Swedish and French embassies. The Baath government in Syria is secular, and normally rules with a heavy hand. But the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is extremely powerful among the 80 percent of the population that is Sunni Muslim, and it forms an underground dissident opposition. It seems to me more likely that Muslim radicals took advantage of the protest to incite a mob than that the Syrian Baath deliberately unleashed arsons on the Danes. Washington and other anti-Syrian Western powers cynically played power politics with the incident, accusing the Syrian government of having the embassies torched, something that seems unlikely and for which there is no proof.
Reuters reports, ‘ Syria’s grand Mufti Badr Eddine Hassoun, told government newspaper al-Thawra that the attackers did their country harm. “We feel sorrow that these people who were driven by passion reached the stage where they have undermined our dialogue with the Norwegian and Danes,” he said. ‘
The Grand Mufti is the country’s chief religious authority on Islamic law.
In Afghanistan the main protest was by 800 villagers in an obscure town outside Kabul. President Karzai called for calm. Since Kabul, a city of 2 million, is full of Muslims, that the demonstration happened in some small town suggests that local dynamics were at play.
In Pakistan, the Jama’at-i Islami called for nationwide protests, but few Pakistanis seem interested.
About 1,000 demonstrators came out in Ramadi in Western Iraq to protest the Danish caricatures. Leaflets circulated among Sunni Muslim militants calling for attacks on the Danish troops in south Iraq.
They weren’t covered in the US press very much, but there were lots of small demonstrations over the caricatures throughout Iraq last Friday.
The Iraq Transportation Ministry has cancelled contracts with Denmark. The country has 500 troops in Iraq. Iraqi press reaction to the issue is appended below.
Some 3,000 protesters gathered in Cairo on Sunday to demand that Egypt break diplomatic relations with Denmark and Norway. The Egyptian foreign minister has been an important player in creating the crisis, I believe in order to take pressure off his secular government at home by wrapping it in the mantle of defender of the Prophet abroad. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is eager not to leave the field to him. Most of the caricature protests are a mixture of local politics and standard post-colonial anti-imperialism.
Evidence for my theory of the Muslim protests over the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, published in the Jyllands-Posten daily last Sept. 30 is offered by Iran, which has been remarkably calm. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called for a continued calm reaction. The Iranian public does not feel itself under neocolonial domination, and many Iranian young people are not interested in Islam, since it has become associated in their minds with a hopelessly fuddy-duddy mulla-dominated Establishment.
The controversy has provoked lively debates on freedom of expression versus restrictions on hate speech throughout the world, especially in multi-cultural, partly Muslim societies such as South Africa.
In Jordan, an editor who published the caricature of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban in a weekly tabloid was fired and has now been jailed.
I wish Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had said this last October (see the fact file below). He went on Arab satellite television to give a statement:
‘ “I have a very important message for you: the Danish people have defended freedom of expression and religious freedom for generations. We deeply respect all religions including Islam and it is important for me to tell you that the Danish people have no intention to offend Muslims.
“On the contrary we will do our utmost to continue our historic tradition of dialogue and mutual respect. And therefore I am deeply distressed that many Muslims have seen the drawings in a Danish newspaper as a defamation of the Prophet Mohammed,” Rasmussen said.
The Danish leader said he would do his “utmost to solve that problem” and noted that the Danish newspaper had already apologized for the offence caused by the drawings.
But Rasmussen defended his country’s tradition of freedom, saying, “We have a free press and this freedom of expression is a vital and indispensable part of our democracy and this is the reason why I cannot control what is published in the media.
“But on the other hand neither the Danish government nor the Danish people can be held responsible for what is published in the media,” he said. ‘
BBC World Monitoring sums up the past week’s Iraqi press reaction to the Danish caricatures and other issues:
‘ BBC Monitoring Middle East – Political
Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring
February 5, 2006 Sunday
LENGTH: 1275 words
HEADLINE: BBC Monitoring weekly roundup of Iraqi press 30 Jan-5 Feb 06
Reactions to the European newspapers’ publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. First Bird Flu death announced in Kurdistan.
1- Reactions to the European newspapers’ publishing
of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad
The Iraqi newspapers’ reaction to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by Danish and Norwegian newspapers was varied. The Shi’i newspapers, while denouncing the publishing of the caricatures, condemned the burning of Iraqi Christian churches, whereas the Sunni papers concentrated on the calling for political and economic boycott and adding that “any insult directed at Israel is never seen as case of freedom of expression, and the perpetrator is usually punished for being anti-Semitic”. The independent newspapers, however, concentrated on the fact that “what has happened in Denmark could threaten the dialogue between civilizations project, which Islamic and Christian personalities who believed in dialogue worked together on”.
The Dar-al-Salam Sunni newspaper, in its 31 January edition, said that the Islamic Party, which it represents, and the endowment office have issued statements condemning the offence caused by the Danish and Norwegian newspapers The Islamic Party demanded the ambassadors of Denmark and Norway be declared personae non gratae, called on Iraqi political parties not to receive them and also called for a boycott of products, airlines and anything to do with the two countries, vowing to escalate the protests until those countries apologize to Arabs and Muslims, and promise not to insult Islam and its religious figures.
Another Sunni newspaper. Al-Basa’ir, in its 2 February edition issued an article by the Association of Muslim Scholars’ spokesman condemning the publishing of the caricatures and calling for a diplomatic and commercial boycott until an apology has been granted to Muslims. He added that “this is the west’s civilization and which they are proud of. It is, as you can see, a cause for ridicule and pity, and revulsion and disgust at the same time”.
Shi’i newspapers condemned the publishing of the caricatures and also condemned the attacks on Iraqi Christian Churches. The Al-Sadr Movement mouthpiece, Al-Hawzah, reported on Wednesday 1 February a demand made by the Movement’s leader Muqtada al-Sadr for the Pope to condemn the publishing of the caricatures. While condemning the publishing of the caricatures, Al-Hawzah reported that the followers of the Al-Sadr Movement “strongly condemned” the attacks which “targeted churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk” adding that “the Christians are our brothers and partners in this country. They coexist with us and any attack on them is seen as an attack on us”.
Al-Bayyinah which represents Shi’i Hezbollah Movement in Iraq [an Iraqi offshoot of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, unrelated to the Lebanese party of this name] said in its 1 February editorial that the calls for condemnation and political and economic boycott were a civilized way of dealing with this matter, unlike the “offence committed by the Danish newspaper against more than a billion Muslims”. The editorial added that it was also important to condemn the attacks on Christian churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk, likening the perpetrators of these attacks to those who published the caricatures in Danish newspapers.
The Al-Adalah, which represents the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, published on the same day a request made by prominent Shi’i cleric Al-Sistani to the Danish authorities to punish those who deliberately offended Prophet Muhammad. The paper added that Al-Sistani “instructed Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari (Shi’i) to summon the Danish ambassador in Baghdad to pass onto him the condemnation of the authority in Al-Najaf and that of the Iraqi people, for the offence caused to the Muslim Prophet” adding that the presence of the Danish forces in Iraq on the pretext that they were helping the Iraqi people is in contradiction with the insult directed at someone who is held in the highest regard by these people”.
The Al-Adalah, in its issue on Thursday 2 February, condemned the attacks on Churches in Iraq, saying that it was wrong to link the two issues together as Iraqi Christians had nothing to do with the Danish newspaper.
The independent newspapers concentrated on the effect of this scandal on the Dialogue of Civilizations. Al-Mada newspaper, in a 1 February opinion column, highlighted “the united Islamic and Christian stance in condemning the crime and considering it an act that should not go unpunished”. The writer called for looking closely at the great results achieved by the dialogue of civilizations and religions, especially between Muslims and Christian.
Another independent newspaper, Al-Zaman, said in a Saturday 4 February opinion column that the terrible position taken by the Danish media against the prophet was a negative position which came into conflict with the serious Arab Muslim call for dialogue between civilizations. The writer added that the media which was paid by known groups which opposed dialogue between East and West played a part in misleading the public and causing the conflict.
Al-Sabah al-Jadid independent newspaper, in the 5 February edition, published excerpts form a statement made by the Vatican spokesman, in which he said that “coexistence between humans requires a climate of mutual respect in order to encourage peace between people and states” adding that “the freedom of speech does not mean insulting the feelings of religious people”.
Al-Sabah newspaper which is government sponsored, said that “if the law in a country allowed a writer or an artist to express their opinion any way they liked, then there was an unwritten law which made it necessary to respect the feelings and beliefs of others, among many other things which may not be covered by the legal system, but should be understood under the moral system”. The writer added that “you may have the right to deny the existence of God, but you do not have the right, under any circumstances, to ridicule those who believe in Him”. ‘