Anatomy of the Cartoon Protest Movement
Thursday, February 16, 2006
BEIRUT, Feb. 15 -- It was Oct. 13 when Teguh Santosa, a 30-year-old editor with wire-rim glasses, slicked-back black hair and a stubbly beard, decided to make a point in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. His idea was a small gesture in a broader confrontation, illustrating the power of images in shaping sentiments. He scanned a dozen cartoons published in September by a Danish newspaper that lampooned the prophet Muhammad and chose to publish the one on his news Web site that has proven the most inflammatory: the prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.
"I wanted them to know why it was insulting," said the thickset Santosa, a Muslim who runs the widely read Rakyat Merdeka Online.
To his surprise, there was almost no reaction. A few e-mailed comments to the Web site, he said. That was all. So he republished the caricature more than a week later, on Oct. 22. Again, nothing.
"We were confused," he recalled, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. "Why aren't people reacting to this story?"
What followed was a quintessentially 21st-century battle, a conflict steeped in decades, even centuries of grievances, reshaped by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath. A digitally interconnected world propelled it forward, as did a series of slights and missteps. And a cultural divide, at times so deep two sides cannot seemingly occupy the same space, transformed an almost incidental decision to publish a dozen cartoons on a page inside a small newspaper in Denmark into a global conflagration.
Protests have erupted in an arc stretching from Europe through Africa to East Asia and, at times, the United States. About a dozen people have died in Afghanistan; five have been killed this week in Pakistan. Muslim journalists were arrested for publishing the cartoons in Jordan, Algeria and Yemen. European countries have evacuated the staffs of embassies and nongovernmental organizations, Muslim countries have withdrawn ambassadors, and Danish exports that average more than $1 billion a year have dried up in a span of weeks.
But the scope of the fallout tells only one story. The debate over the cartoons is replete with unintended consequences, some still taking shape this week. On one side is a defense of freedom of expression, on the other an unforgivable insult to a sacred figure. In between are potentially longer-lasting repercussions: a rethinking of relations between Europe and the Muslim world, and a rare moment of empowerment among Muslims who have felt besieged. Given the moral certainty pronounced by each party, some in the middle feel forced to take sides, blurring the diversity of religious thought that might offer grounds for compromise.
In the United States and Europe, some officials have suggested that the governments of Syria and Iran, isolated abroad, have stoked the protests for internal political reasons. A few Muslim leaders have contended the controversy would have ended quickly with an apology. But the conflict illustrates a broader collision of worldviews, often fueled by feelings of Muslim weakness and injury that date back long before the cartoons were published.
"The way I see it, the war has already started," said Daii al-Islam al-Shahal, a Sunni Muslim cleric in the coastal Lebanese town of Tripoli, who helped organize protests this month against the cartoons in his home town and in Beirut. "Will it end soon, or will it come to a close only after it has completely wiped out the two sides? That is up to God."
This is the story of how it unfolded.
Denmark Challenging a Religious Taboo
In September, Flemming Rose, a tall, soft-spoken editor for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, had an idea.