The Uses of Cartoons

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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

EXTREMISTS AND political opportunists across the Muslim world are rushing to exploit the controversy over the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Late to the game but conspicuous in its crudeness is the Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which yesterday oversaw a second day of demonstrations outside European embassies while a newspaper it controls announced a contest for Holocaust cartoons. The Taliban is probably behind violent demonstrations in Afghanistan, including one directed at the largest U.S. military base in the country. And the Bush administration has rightly fingered the secular but cynical government of Syria for orchestrating the burning of embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

A clash of civilizations between Muslims and the West is the fondest ambition of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, from Britain to Indonesia. But it also is a convenient refuge for authoritarian regimes hoping to resist the rising pressure for political liberalization in the Middle East. That explains why Muslim outrage over the original publication of the cartoons in Denmark was patiently cultivated not by Osama bin Laden but by the Egyptian and Saudi governments. According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, Egypt's ambassador in Denmark worked with local Islamic clerics as they prepared an inflammatory propaganda campaign about the cartoons for dissemination through the Middle East last fall. In December a delegation of the Danish militants was received by senior clerics and government officials in Cairo, where the manufactured outrage contrasts with the quotidian persecution of a Christian minority and publication of anti-Semitic libels in the government-controlled press.

Europeans, too, have participated in the stoking of passions, if for different reasons. The cartoons, whose vulgarity and offensiveness are beyond question, were published as a calculated insult last September by a right-wing newspaper in a country where bigotry toward the minority Muslim population is a major, if frequently unacknowledged, problem. The Danish government depends for support in Parliament on a far-right populist party with an anti-immigrant agenda: Maybe that's why Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrogantly refused to meet with ambassadors from Muslim countries last fall, when the controversy might have been defused.

Last week, as protests escalated in the Middle East, European newspapers in Spain, France and Germany rushed to republish the cartoons, claiming they were defending freedom of speech. But there is no threat to freedom of speech in Europe -- no newspaper was prevented from publishing the cartoons, and demands by Muslims that European governments impose such censorship were quickly dismissed. In reprinting the drawings the European papers demonstrated not their love of freedom but their insensitivity -- or hostility -- to the growing diversity of their own societies. It is just such attitudes, more than any insult to Islam, that have inspired much of the Muslim resentment toward the West, and the growing anger of Muslims who live in Europe.

The few heroes in this sordid episode reside not in continental newsrooms but in the Middle East. In Jordan, where freedom of speech really is at issue, two editors bravely republished the offensive cartoons; they now face prosecution. In Iraq, the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani condemned the Muslim inciters. It's not an accident that these Arab voices of reason are also leading proponents of democracy: They, more than anyone, are the ones deserving of the West's support.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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