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Violence Erupts over Muhammad Cartoons

February 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: From Indonesia to India to Iraq, protests in the MuSslim world grew wider and more violent over the weekend, with rioters torching European embassies in two Mideast capitals.

And today, the unrest turned deadly in Afghanistan near an American airbase. Afghan security personnel fired on a crowd of marchers, killing two and wounding five others.

The protests were ignited last week by a months-old series of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. Many other European newspapers republished the cartoons in a show of solidarity with the Danish paper. Many Muslims consider any depiction of the prophet blasphemous.

IZATULLAH, Protester (Translated): They have abused our Quran and our prophet. And they have abused our religion. Our ambassador in Denmark should be called back and the Afghan government should stop all political issues with Denmark.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iranian government announced today an end to trade ties with Denmark, adding to a boycott of Danish goods that’s costing companies there an estimated $1 million a day.

On Saturday, crowds stormed the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus, setting them ablaze. That prompted this response from an editor of the paper that originally published the cartoons.

FLEMMING ROSE, Culture Editor, Jyllands-Posten Newspaper: I think it’s a big tragedy. I think it’s very unfortunate that now Danish interests, Danish buildings are being attacked in Syria.

But let me also say that Syria is a police state and this could not have happened if not the authorities in some way had allowed it to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, crowds in Beirut torched the Danish embassy there. Lebanon’s prime minister urged an end to the violence.

FUAD SANIORA: We don’t protect the prophet in this way. We don’t protect Islam and national unity like this. This act is condemned by all the Lebanese from all religions and sects.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. State Department, which has criticized the cartoons’ publication, said today it is taking additional security precautions at its facilities overseas.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on why these cartoons have provoked such an ongoing reaction, we get two views: Fouad Ajami is director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; and Ali Abunimah writes about the Middle East and Arab-American affairs for newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. He’s also co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a Web site about Palestinian affairs and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Welcome to you both.

Mr. Abunimah, this protest began a week ago now, first in the Arab and Muslim air waves and now we’ve seen it escalate into violence. What explains the continuing, ongoing and increasingly violent nature of the protest?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I think that there is genuine offense at the cartoons which are definitely distasteful to Muslims, but I think that the cartoons in themselves can’t really explain the extent of the protest and the anger that we’re seeing.

And I think that this incident in a sense was a spark in a context where since September 11, increasingly people across the Arab and Muslim world perceive themselves to be under a generalized assault by the United States and its allies.

And there’s a whole list of things that people would cite from the war in Iraq, U.S. support for Israel, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and many other things including increasing xenophobia against Muslim communities within Europe that provide tinder for this kind of widespread process.

I think the sense of anger is real, but I do also think that some leaders or some people within the region are also using the issue of the cartoons to whip up anger.

But I stress that I don’t think they could do that with such success unless they were drawing on a broader sense that people are under attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Ajami, do you agree with that, this has really tapped into and now reflecting much deeper rage, frustration, anger against the West?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I don’t agree with this. I think, you know, to hear the self-pity that my colleague here expresses, you would almost not really –you would have to remember that there were these horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, which were the starting gun for all that he is talking about.

Fundamentally we’ve seen this before. This is a replay of what exactly happened a generation ago with the Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie. The riots began in England then, and then they spread to the Islamic world.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iranian – just explain briefly — the Iranian writer who wrote a book that was considered blasphemous.

FOUAD AJAMI: Right. The Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie, and then the Iranians hitched a ride on the coattails of the riots in England.

In this case, the riots begin in Denmark and the concern begins in Denmark. And then it spread to the Islamic world.

And when you are talking about these two capitals, Beirut and Damascus, you’re really talking about the cynical youth on the part of the Syrian regime of this incident.

This is not about religion; it’s not about the prophet. It’s not about these cartoons. It’s about the determination of the Syrian regime to use cynically this episode and to sew disorder in Lebanon and to make Syria itself, which is under the gun for all kinds of high crime, to make it seem like the embattled heart of the Arab and the Islamic world.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Abunimah, do you want to respond to that, both to the notion that there’s a lot of self-pity going on here and, secondly, that, in fact, in particularly in Lebanon and Syria where it got particularly violent really is being generated by the Syrian government.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I certainly agree with Professor Ajami about the protests in Syria and Lebanon. And the sacking of embassies is inexcusable. And, as I said, there are people who have tried to exploit this for cynical reasons but his thesis that this is Syrian-inspired doesn’t explain the protest in Indonesia and India and across the world.

I think, you know, it would be a mistake to ignore the context in Europe. Bringing up the Salman Rushdie affair draws us to the point that many European editors are making, and people who have supported the publication of the cartoons that this is about free expression.

As an American, free expression is a value that I hold above almost anything else. But we have to look at how this dialogue is going between the Arab world and the Islamic world and the West because Muslims look at Europe and they say, look, you’re defending these cartoons based on free expression.

But when we said that it’s our free expression of our personal faith to wear head scarves in public institutions or schools in France and other countries, you passed laws saying we can’t do that.

So to many Muslims, the argument about free expression looks to be a little bit disingenuous.

And I would also say that the publication of the cartoons in the middle of this atmosphere, certainly the newspapers have the right to do that, but is it wise? And was it not provocative — given especially the fact that the Guardian of London reports today that the same Danish newspaper that published them had previously rejected caricatures of Jesus Christ precisely on the grounds that they knew that many of their Christian leaders would find them offensive.

So, I wouldn’t talk about self-pity. I wasn’t talking about my own feelings. I’ve looked at the cartoons, and to me they’re quite banal and stupid. And what I am saying is that we need to look at the broader context in which this incident occurred.

To me it’s a little bit like the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Aqsa Mosque in 2000, that people say set off the Intifada. I don’t think his visit in and of itself was enough to start the Palestinian uprising. I do think though it set fire to a lot of anger which had been built up by things that people were experiencing and seeing around them. And that’s all I’m saying.

We need to understand the broader context and how people in the Arab and Muslim world are seeing this and not just put it down to some kind of amorphous rage which, you know, has no explanation and is completely mystical or to come up with conspiracy theories that the government in Damascus can control crowds in India, which I think is just silly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Professor Ajami to respond. And if you would, there were a lot of things put on the table there, but let’s look at two issues he raised having to do with the Europeans here: One is he was essentially saying it’s hypocritical. I mean, Europeans talk about free expression yet they ban expressions of Muslim faith in the public square essentially in many European countries; and secondly that there was something deliberately provocative about these cartoons and that perhaps is at the very least unwise.

I mean, do you think Europeans deserve any responsibility for this, especially the ones who republished them?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well none whatsoever because part of the challenge, if you will, of living and the advantage of living in a liberal society is the willingness to be offended.

And I think what these Muslim populations in Europe, what these Muslim populations are telling us today is that they’re in the West geographically but not of West. They don’t accept the challenge; they don’t accept the difficulty of living in a pluralist liberal society; that they have brought with them the fire from Morocco, from Tunisia, from Algeria, from Egypt and Syria.

And I think these European societies have a problem because they tended to think that there is a battle between America and the Islamic world, and that they are innocent bystanders. They’re not innocent bystanders and now they know this. They know this in Denmark. They know this in Holland. They know this in Sweden. And that’s what we’re really seeing.

We’re really seeing millions of Muslims who have come to Europe; they’ve been granted the chance for a new life. And I think they need to make their peace with this modern society in which they find themselves. And they haven’t done it yet.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Ajami, staying with you for a minute, are you saying that you think the burden is really on the Muslims living in Europe and not at all on the European societies into which these Muslims have moved?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think — I think that’s probably about it. I mean, I think you have to look at the dilemma of these Muslim populations in Europe.

You have 15 million, maybe you even have millions more undeclared who have come to Europe, and they need to respect the rules of European liberalism, and that they haven’t really shown.

Like I took you to the beginning of this story, the time line — this began in Denmark. And I think the Muslims in Denmark have to respect the rules of Denmark. And they have to acknowledge — when in Rome, you live as the Romans do. And you are willing to be offended; you are willing to look the other way; and you are willing to accept that even though these cartoons are hideous and they’re tasteless, that you don’t go on a rampage. And you don’t challenge the basic rules of European liberalism.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Abunimah, I’m sorry but very briefly if you could respond on whether Muslims living in European really need to accept those cultural norms of free expression?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I reject Mr. Ajami’s broad generalizations. Fifteen million Muslims haven’t gone on rampages in Europe. The protests, though high profile, have not involved more than a tiny, tiny percentage of the Muslim population in Europe. I grew up in Europe.

I remember 20 years ago long before September 11 in the streets of Brussels being picked on by the police just because I’m an Arab — not because I don’t accept European liberalism or democracy.

I’m an American. I love democracy. I love freedom. But I also think there needs to be mutual respect. And there needs to be a more sophisticated dialogue between Arabs, Muslims and people in the West, not just the kind of really simplistic name calling that Mr. Ajami is engaged in –

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

ALI ABUNIMAH: — and unfortunately has been his stock and trade.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. Mr. Ajami, brief response from you and then we’re really out of time.

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think I don’t want to engage him on this personal level. It’s just idle.

I think fundamentally what this is really about, it’s about the ability to accept the challenge of liberal society and to accept the challenge of dissent.

And I should add that many religious jurists in the Arab world, many prominent columnists, have condemned these hooligan attacks in Syria and Lebanon and have condemned the use of this episode for cynical political reasons. That’s really what this story is all about.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen, we’ll have to leave it there at least for tonight. Thank you both.