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Lebanon Shaken by Cartoon Furor

A woman stands in the street by a car with a smashed windshield

A young woman in the Christian area of Achrafieh returns to her car, which was smashed along with hundreds of others during Muslim rioting.

It's not every day that bands of angry men waving green Islamic flags jog up my quiet Beirut street shouting "God is great." But the morning of Sunday, February 5, fifty or so men and a few women ran beneath my balcony, in this predominantly Christian neighborhood, past my local bar, and up to the main street, where I catch my taxis.

I had just woken up and was struggling to make sense of what I'd seen. Lebanon is a highly sectarian country and while Muslims and Christians mix, they certainly don't go running through each other's neighborhoods unless they are trying to provoke.

By the time I made it out of my house, the top of my street had transformed into a small battle zone. Trash bins had been overturned and vehicles smashed. A car had been set on fire and the air was acrid from smoke and tear gas.

Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators were converging on what I discovered was the Danish Consulate, one block away, to join the worldwide furor over the publication of 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Lebanese soldiers were firing shots in the air and using tear gas and water cannons to try to disperse them but they were clearly overwhelmed.

"I'm fed up with being represented as a terrorist. I'm not a terrorist. I wouldn't kill an animal; I'm a social worker."

I've reported solo at many anti-American demonstrations in Lebanon and usually feel fairly comfortable in the crowds, but not on that day. I was attracting many hostile looks. At one point, a group of men and women surrounded me and began to vent: "Respect the Prophet Mohammed," they screamed. "Don't insult Islam."

As Lebanese friends later pointed out, I am tall and blonde and could easily be mistaken for a Dane, many of whom have been ordered to leave the country by their government for security reasons. I took refuge on the sidewalk, close to my local ATM and began talking to some of the protestors.

They were largely working-class, but I met many professionals in the crowd who told me the march had been billed as a peaceful protest at Friday prayers and in flyers distributed around town. They said they were deeply offended by the cartoons, especially one that depicted the Prophet as a pig. I was surprised since I'd seen the cartoons, but hadn't remembered that one. It turned out to be a fake, one of three highly inflammatory cartoons that were circulated in the Arab world along with the 12 originally published in the Danish newspaper.

A man stands wrapped in a green Islamic flag watching a building burn

A protester draped in the green Islamic flag watches as the building housing the Danish Consulate in Beirut burns.

"Stop messing with our prophet," an English teacher at a religious school railed at me. "We don't insult Jesus."

Mohammed Abdel Rahman, an electrician in his 30s, told me that he respects European and American culture. He said he watches a lot of Western television, even loves McDonalds. But, he added, the West does not reciprocate.

"They hate us," said Rahman. "I see it on television and on the Internet. Everyone in Europe believes that we're all Osama Bin Ladens and that's just not true."

A student from the Lebanese American University, Ahmad Shabaan, echoed these sentiments.

"I'm fed up with being represented as a terrorist. I'm not a terrorist," he said, "I wouldn't kill an animal; I'm a social worker." Shabaan added that he was inspired by the crisis to study the Danish language and start a dialogue with the Danish people, who clearly knew nothing about Islam, a religion, he noted, of peace.

But on that day, it appeared that radicals had once again hijacked Islam's image. As we spoke, hooligans sacked and set fire to the Danish consulate building, despite the pleas of turbaned Sunni clerics. I later saw images on the news of clerics being stoned by youth as they tried to prevent them from attacking neighborhood churches. Still other religious leaders tried to stop boys from smashing cars and restaurant windows in the relatively upscale neighborhood, but to no avail.

Police and army soldiers tried in vain to man a barricade in front of the Danish consulate, but finally backed off. Only 2,000 strong, there just weren't enough of them to handle a crowd numbered at between 10,000 and 20,000.

The lack of preparation for the protest angered Lebanon's Christians. Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian nationalist party, called for the immediate resignation of the Minister of the Interior, who stepped down that night. But that did little to allay the enormous sense of vulnerability felt by my neighbors. One college student told me he was inside the St. Maroun Church, one block from my home, during mass, when the mob attacked. He said they were yelling anti-Christian slogans.

"I will leave this country because of the Muslims," Geroge Hawaranian told me. There is no rule. There is no law, no respect for humans."

"What do the Christians of Lebanon have to do with a foolish decision made by the Danes? Why take it out on us?"

"What do the Christians of Lebanon have to do with a foolish decision made by the Danes? Why take it out on us?" asked my rattled next-door neighbor, Ms. Akkar.

In fact it was the anti-Christian nature of the protests that most disturbed the Lebanese. Many fear that the slightest provocation could re-ignite sectarian clashes, possibly even a civil war, in a country where religious tensions remain high. According to friends here, members of the Lebanese Forces who live in the area got out their Kalashnikovs and hand grenades and were readying for battle. They were kept in check by LF leader Geagea, who urged restraint. In general, residents of the Christian neighborhood remained remarkably composed throughout the rioting, which damaged more than 40 shops and restaurants.

In the days that followed, Lebanon's Muslim political and religious leaders went into high gear to stem the fallout from the crisis. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora visited the damaged St. Maroun church and expressed his outrage, saying that those who had attacked the church "had nothing to do with Islam." Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Sunnis called the violence an attempt to "harm the stability of Lebanon."

A firefighter battles a building fire atop a firetruck ladder

Fire crews work at the scene of the burning consulate building.

Senior Shiite cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadllalah even issued a fatwa banning attacks on private properties and Western embassies.

The next day, I sensed a collective sigh of relief here when authorities announced that of the more than 400 people arrested in the riot, almost half were Syrians and members of pro-Syrian Palestinian militias. Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians quickly blamed the violence on the neighboring government in Damascus, claiming that the Syrians were trying to sow instability and sectarian division.

Certainly the disturbances were in keeping with a series of attacks that have taken place since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a year ago. Of the more than a dozen bombings that have wracked Lebanon since then, the vast majority have been targeted against Christian neighborhoods in a clear effort to incite Christian-Muslim strife.

But blaming Syria exclusively for the riots may be politically expedient. I saw plenty of what looked like home-grown Islamists in the demonstration, a concern shared by analyst Michael Young who told me that Sunday's protests highlighted what he calls a growing Sunni Islamist movement in Lebanon.

"For them, the Christians are heretics. The Lebanese state is heretical. They are a small minority. But it doesn't take a lot of people to create the kind of tension that was sparked on Sunday."

There is no doubt that anger over the cartoons in the Muslim world is deep and genuine. It is also, according to Amr al Faisal, a Saudi newspaper columnist, an accumulation of "a whole lot of things that have gone wrong" in terms of the West's relationship with the Arab and Muslim world.

A crowd of men stand watching a burning building

Muslim clerics, who came out to appeal for calm and a peaceful demonstration, talk with Lebanese security forces.

"The cartoons were a tipping point," Faisal told me over the phone from Jeddah. "The anger stems from colonialism, goes on to the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock, is made worse by the general disregard in the West for Muslim sensibilities and is compounded by the West's double standards."

But it also seems clear that the cartoon controversy has been exploited to serve certain political agendas in the Middle East. As noted Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan recently wrote, "Governments, only too happy to prove their attachment to Islam, took advantage of this [controversy] and presented themselves as champions of the great cause."

And it's not just governments that are using the cartoons. At a ceremony to mark the end of the Muslim religious celebration of Ashoura this week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made the cartoon controversy a key theme. Speaking before a procession of several hundred thousand Shiites gathered to mourn the killing of the prophet's grandson, Hussein, in 680 A.D., Nasrallah stirred the crowd.

"Defending the prophet should continue all over the world," he declared, "We will uphold the messenger of God not only by our voices but also by our blood."

Nasrallah who is allied with Syria and Iran, told his audience that he wants the demonstrations to continue until Denmark apologizes and Europe passes laws forbidding insults to the prophet. It's probably not a coincidence that his call for more protests comes at a time when both Damascus and Tehran are under mounting international pressure: Damascus for its interference in the affairs of Lebanon and Iraq and Tehran for its nuclear enrichment program.

Despite calls for calm by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and stepped-up diplomacy between the West and the Muslim world, the cartoon controversy could well continue for some time. And for a politically weak and religiously divided country like Lebanon, at a crossroads between East and West, this unexpected firestorm could further undermine its fragile balance.

Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for the PRI's radio program, The World and a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. Read more of Seelye's dispatches and watch her Lebanon and Syria story "The Earthquake," broadcast in May 2005 and available in streaming video on this site.

PHOTOS: Harald Doornbos


Sean Smith - Fresno, CA
Do Muslims ever take responsibility for their own misbehavior? In so many respects, they behave exactly like children.

Doug Vardell - Delton, MI
This is the best, most detailed reporting I've seen on the violence at the Danish consulate in Beirut. Thank you to Kate Seelye for her courage to interview the protestors.