As Muslim fury mounted this week over a Danish newspaper’s cartoon images of Muhammad, indications were growing that two of America’s and Israel’s most intractable foes — Iran and Syria — were fueling the controversy in an effort to blunt the growing diplomatic coordination between Europe and the United States.
Protests erupted across the Muslim world this week, from Indonesia to Nigeria, despite appeals for calm by European leaders, the United Nations and the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. Some of the most violent outbursts, however, were in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut, where mobs stoned and firebombed Danish and other embassies. That led to suspicion in some Western capitals that Iran and Syria were fanning the dispute in order to punish Europe for siding with Washington on several fronts in recent months.
Violence also erupted this week in American-controlled Afghanistan, where at least nine protesters were killed during mob attacks on American and NATO military bases.
“What is happening in the Middle East is primarily political manipulation — Syria taking revenge for its expulsion from Lebanon, Hamas striking back at the European Union for its rebuff on financial aid, Afghans anticipating the replacement of U.S. troops by European ones, and Iranians lashing back at the E.U. for its stance on the nuclear issue,” said Olivier Roy, a leading French expert on Islam.
In recent weeks the European Union has closed ranks with the United States in pushing for the U.N. Security Council to take up Tehran’s nuclear program. Europe
has also joined Washington in backing a U.N. investigation into the slaying last year of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, in which Syria’s top leadership appears implicated. Both Iran and Syria face possible sanctions, with Europe and the United States leading the charge.
Further fueling resentment, European leaders are supporting Israeli calls to cut financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas takes control without renouncing its violent ideology.
While political and religious leaders in several Muslim countries sought to dampen the flames this week, Iranian officials openly raised the stakes, seeking to draw Jews and Israel into the center of the controversy. Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, charged February 7 that Israel was behind the caricatures. The same day, Iran’s largest daily announced a contest for cartoons on the Holocaust.
The dispute began last September when a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, solicited and ran a dozen cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad. The paper was responding to a complaint by a Danish author who said he could not find an artist willing to illustrate his children’s biography of Muhammad.
Following complaints about the cartoons by local Muslims and then by a group of Arab ambassadors, a radical Danish imam began circulating the images, along with several that had not been published, to colleagues and religious and political leaders in Muslim countries. Egyptian officials started raising the issue, but it was only after a Norwegian magazine reprinted the cartoons in January that protests erupted in Saudi Arabia and Gaza, spreading quickly across the Muslim world. Since then a half-dozen nations have cut diplomatic or trade relations with Denmark, leading to threats of countermeasures by the E.U. Further sharpening the dispute, the cartoons have been reprinted in more than a dozen European countries.
Televised images of angry mobs burning European flags in Indonesia, Iraq and elsewhere have greatly strengthened the Western view, previously found mainly on the right, that Islam and the West are engaged in a so-called clash of civilizations.
But knowledgeable observers here and in Europe warned that much of the protest appeared manipulated — arguing, for example, that the torching of European embassies in Damascus could not have happened without at least a tacit nod from the ruling Ba’ath party and that Syria was likely behind similar incidents in Beirut.
In tightly controlled Tehran, protesters pelted the Danish embassy with gasoline bombs and stones for several days running.
Violence also escalated sharply in Afghanistan this week, where clashes between demonstrators and local and international security forces left 11 dead as of Wednesday. On Monday, about 2,000 protesters tried to storm the main American military base at Bagram and police shot dead two protesters. The next day, armed protesters attacked a NATO base in the northern city of Maymana, which is manned by peacekeepers from Norway, Finland, Latvia and Sweden. Four protesters were shot on Wednesday while marching toward a U.S. military base. The attacks on foreign and Afghan government targets have fueled suspicion that opponents to the current pro-American regime were behind the protests.
By contrast, protests in Europe itself have not been violent, and turnout has been low, evenly though European Muslims were ostensibly the ones wounded by the cartoons’ presumed bigotry. For that reason, said Roy, the French scholar, some of the protest was best understood as a response to Europe’s rapprochement with Washington on several issues that involve the Muslim world, rather than a spontaneous reaction to the cartoons.
Perhaps ironically, the protests appear likely to drive Europe and Washington even closer and to sharpen the divisions between Europe and the Muslim world.
Some observers said that the current furor, coming after terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, the slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the riots in suburban Paris last year, is likely to fuel anti-Muslim feelings and thus bolster far-right parties in Europe.
“There is no question the far right is profiting from this,” said Charles Kupchan, who was director of European affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
“Part of their anti-immigration platform is also finding its way into mainstream conservative parties,” Kupchan said.
The anger was visible among conservatives in this country, too.
“The notion that the Muslim world should forever remain unaccountable for its actions and be granted an unlimited license to kill, and that the West should forever apologize, has been weakened,” said Laurent Murawiec, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “The degree of hysteria, hatred and destructiveness displayed in Muslim areas regarding the cartoons, may, it just may, wake up more people in Europe to the present danger.”
Already, Murawiec said, he has heard “a great degree of upset amongst European elites” over the reactions to the Muhammad cartoons.
However, most commentators cautioned that despite the convergence in views, traditional differences between the United States and Europe on the Middle East were likely to resurface if America pushes for stiffer measures than Europe will countenance on the Palestinian, Iranian or Syrian issues.
More important, some observers suggested, the reactions in the Muslim world could end up dividing Europe and the United States by reinforcing the common European belief that the effort to impose democracy in the Middle East is a cause of instability at its doorstep. “The Europeans prefer a go-slow approach on democratization, while the Bush administration is quite impatient,” said Kupchan, who teaches international affairs at Georgetown University. “The latest events are likely to confirm the Europeans in their view.”
By contrast, Iran is seen as unlikely to cause any divergence between Europe and the United States in the near term.
Tehran announced last weekend that it had curtailed cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency after the U.N. nuclear watchdog referred Iran to the Security Council. Impatience with Iran among European and American officials has been heightened by the verbal antics of Iran’s hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently declared that Israel should be wiped off the map and questioned the veracity of the Holocaust.
The accusation that Israel had engineered the publication of the Danish cartoons was voiced this week by Khamenei, Iran’s religious leader. He claimed the publication was part of an Israeli conspiracy motivated by anger over the victory of Hamas in last month’s Palestinian legislative elections.
“The West condemns any denial of the Jewish Holocaust, but it permits the insult of Islamic sanctities,” Khamenei was quoted as saying.
In fact, the cartoons were first published last September, months before the Palestinian election.
Iran suspended all trade and economic ties with Denmark and the conservative Tehran daily Hamshahri invited artists to enter a Holocaust cartoon contest. The paper said it wanted to see if freedom of expression — the banner under which many Western publications reprinted the prophet drawings — also applied to Holocaust images.
“A serious question for Muslims,” the paper wrote, “is this: does Western free speech allow working on issues like America and Israel’s crimes or an incident like the Holocaust or is this freedom of speech only good for insulting the holy values of divine religions?”
The Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis denounced the announcement of a Holocaust cartoon contest and urged the Muslim world to do likewise.
“The Iranian regime has plummeted to new depths if it regards the deaths of 6 million Jews as a matter for humor or to score cheap political points,” said the conference president, Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk of France. He had condemned the initial publication of the Danish cartoons, saying they were offensive to Muslims.