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Friday, February 03, 2006

Western-Islamic Gulf Widens Over Cartoons
More than any military conflict of the recent era, the mutual outrage in Europe and the Muslim world over cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad amounts to that much-ballyhooed phenomenon, a clash of civilizations. And the disconnect is far bigger than differences over the sacred and profane.

The violent reactions to satire originally published in Danish newspapers last September and reprinted in other European publications this week continued to escalate. Protesters in Pakistan chanted "death to France" and "death to Denmark," while Palestinian gunmen briefly kidnapped a German citizen and militants took over the European Union headquarters in Gaza, if only for 45 minutes. Islamic hardliners barged into a building housing the Danish Embassy and burned the Danish flag following the Indonesian government's condemnation of the drawing -- which echoed similar denunciations from nearly all Arab capitals and Iran, which also summoned the Austrian ambassador, whose country holds the EU presidency. The trouble began when the daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons lampooning intolerance among Muslims and links to terrorism. They include one depicting Muhammad with a bomb in place of a turban on his head, the New York Times notes, and another showing him on a cloud in heaven telling an approaching line of smoking suicide bombers, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!"

France Soir reprinted some of them this week, and after its managing editor was fired, the rest of the French press published some of the images as well. The magazine Nouvel Observateur put them all on its Web site, and the daily Liberation printed two today, withholding what it considered the most inflammatory and explaining that its internal debate wasn't over hostile Islamism but "the freedom to think and publish." In what the Beirut Daily Star calls a bold move, the Arabic-language Jordanian tabloid Al-Shihan defiantly published three of the cartoons. But the weekly's publishing company decided to pull the tabloid from newsstands and "open an investigation to identify those responsible for this abominable and reprehensible behavior," it said.

The conflict is the latest manifestation of growing tensions between Europe and the Muslim world as the Continent struggles to absorb a fast-expanding Muslim population whose customs and values are often at odds with Europe's secular societies, the Times notes. Islam is Europe's fastest-growing religion and is now the second-largest religion in most European countries. Racial and religious discrimination against Muslims in Europe's weakest economies adds to the strains. Most European commentators concede that the cartoons were in poor taste but argue that conservative Muslims must learn to accept Western standards of free speech and the pluralism that those standards protect. And several accused Muslims of a double standard, noting that media in several Arab countries continue to broadcast or publish references to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious early 20th-century anti-Semitic hoax that presented itself as the Jews' master plan to rule the world.
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A Costly Divide
The furor's economic reverberations are growing. Danish dairy company Arla said sales in some Middle East countries had fallen to zero, and Carrefour, the French retailer, said it had removed Danish products from shelves in its Middle East operations, the Financial Times reports. Other Danish companies targeted in a widening boycott include Lego, the toymaker, and Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceuticals company. The uproar comes just as the European Union and the U.S. are taking on two contentious issues in the Middle East -- pushing to punish Iran for its nuclear program, and threatening to withhold funding for the Palestinian Authority after elections brought into power Hamas, The Wall Street Journal notes. The EU prides itself on operating by persuasion, rather than by threatening conflict in the Middle East, but it is currently adopting a tougher line on both of those issues. And the rising tension over the cartoons threatens to complicate its approach, the Journal says.

The biggest benefactors politically are hardliners -- from Indonesia to Iran and Iraq to the Palestinian territories -- who can keep the popular anger over the images smoldering and use it to motivate their core constituencies, whether it be in support of an Iranian right to enrich uranium or a general campaign to oppose the West and the philosophical and economic interests it represents. Defense of the sacred is an age-old tool of politics, and one not limited to Islam or the parts of the world it dominates. As it happens, yesterday was the annual prayer breakfast in Washington, and it featured the first speech by a Muslim head-of-state before the largely evangelical Christian audience. King Abdullah of Jordan called upon Christians, Jews and Muslims to discard the idea of a clash of civilizations, emphasizing instead that terrorists have begun an attack on civilization, the Times reports. "In our generation, the greatest challenge comes from violent extremists who seek to divide and conquer," he said. "Extremism is a political movement, under religious cover. Its adherents want nothing more than to pit us against each other, denying all that we have in common."

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