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Anatomy of the Cartoon Protest Movement
Opposing Certainties Widen Gap Between West and Muslim World

By Anthony Shadid and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
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 European countries have evacuated the staffs of embassies and nongovernmental organizations, Muslim countries have withdrawn ambassadors, and Danish exports that average more than $1 billion a year have dried up in a span of weeks.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.

September

Denmark Challenging a Religious Taboo

In September, Flemming Rose, a tall, soft-spoken editor for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, had an idea.

He had read that museums in Sweden and London had removed artwork that their staff members deemed offensive to Muslims. A comedian told him he would be afraid to desecrate the Koran, a reluctance he did not have about the Bible. Then he read that a Danish children's book author couldn't find illustrators willing to work under their own names to draw illustrations of Muhammad, the 7th-century prophet of Islam, for a new book on the religion.

Frustrated, Rose decided to contact 25 Danish newspaper cartoonists with a request to draw Muhammad as they saw him. A dozen responded, and his newspaper published each illustration on Sept. 30.

"We have a tradition of satire in Denmark," said Rose, 47, the paper's cultural editor, who saw it as a matter of principle. "We do the same with the royal family, politicians, anyone. In a modern secular society, nobody can impose their religious taboos in the public domain."

"We were astonished and extremely shocked," responded Ahmed Abu Laban, a prominent cleric in Denmark. Representations of the prophet are banned by most schools of Islamic thought. For the devout, even his name is rarely uttered without the phrase "Peace and God's blessings upon him." To Abu Laban, it was not just a portrayal: One cartoon pictured Muhammad with the explosive turban. Another depicted him in heaven greeting suicide bombers; in Islamic tradition, martyrs are promised sensual rewards in paradise. "Enough," Muhammad is portrayed as saying. "We've run out of virgins."

"Muslims have been stigmatized," Abu Laban said. The cartoons, he added, are "the drop that made the cup overflow."

Within a week, Abu Laban and others began organizing. He and leaders of 11 Muslim groups wrote letters to the newspaper and to the Danish culture minister. They received no immediate response. They circulated a petition and submitted 17,000 signatures to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. They met with ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries, who asked Rasmussen for a meeting, which he declined.

"After that, we tried to figure out a way to get more voices with us and how to be heard and get respect here in Denmark," said Ahmed Akkari, 28, a Lebanese-born theological student who has emerged as a chief spokesman for the groups.

December

Middle East Envoys of Protest

They decided to travel to the Middle East, where anti-American sentiment has long festered over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq and a perceived U.S. intention to dominate the region. In recent years, surveys have shown that Muslims in the Arab world and elsewhere overwhelmingly see the U.S.-led war on terrorism as a war on Islam.

Akkari carried a 43-page dossier with photocopies of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, along with 10 more illustrations that were published on Nov. 10 in Weekend Avisen, another Danish newspaper.

The dossier also included illustrations that depicted Muhammad as a pig and engaged in bestiality. Abu Laban and Akkari said those cartoons, and other obscene drawings of the prophet, had been mailed anonymously to Danish Muslim leaders after the controversy over the cartoons began. Critics have said the delegations deliberately inflamed the situation by passing off those cartoons as the ones published by Jyllands-Posten. Akkari and Abu Laban said those drawings were never represented as having appeared in the newspaper. Rather, they said they were included to illustrate what they called anger and prejudice against Muslims in Denmark.

"Freedom of expression without limits is like a car without brakes," Akkari said.

A delegation of five Danish Muslims went to Egypt on Dec. 4 and met with Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, head of al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam's foremost establishments; Ali Juma, the mufti, or top cleric, of Egypt; and Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League. They also met with an assistant to Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister. Akkari said the group stayed in Egypt about a week and gave a news conference that was covered extensively in the Arabic-language media.

A second delegation of four Muslims, including Akkari, went to Lebanon on Dec. 17 and met with Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, grand mufti of Lebanon; Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual head of the country's Shiite Muslims; and Nasrallah Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church. The group stayed in Lebanon until Dec. 31. Akkari said he also made a day trip to Syria and gave a copy of the dossier to Sheik Ahmed Badr Eddine Hassoun, the grand mufti of Syria.

Among those they met was al-Shahal, the Lebanese cleric in Tripoli, who cringed at the sight of the pictures.

"Ugly and repugnant," he recalled thinking.

January

Saudi Arabia 'A Revolution Inside Me '

Over the weeks that followed those trips, the conflict germinated, sometimes by the most modern of means.

In Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Hashim Balkhy, a 43-year-old plastic surgeon who would not consider himself unduly conservative by his country's standards, heard about the cartoons on about Jan. 21. He received a text message on his cell phone from a friend in Medina, one of Islam's holiest cities, saying Danish newspapers had been making fun of the prophet for months.

We must boycott them, his friend said.

That night, after his wife and children had gone to bed, he spent almost four hours online, smoking Carlton cigarettes and reading Web sites. He discovered that within weeks, an entire virtual world had already been dedicated to the subject. He stayed up past dawn.

A few days later, he got an e-mail from a Yahoo discussion group called al-Bostan, which published the cartoons. His eyes wandered over the photos until he got to one portraying the prophet wearing a turban as a bomb. He stared at it.

"They don't know our prophet," he recalled thinking. "And they can't get away with this."

Balkhy was already upset with the West. The photos of torture by members of the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had outraged him. He was bitter at American support for Israel. He had already stopped drinking Pepsi and Coke, as a symbolic gesture. But the victims in those cases were people -- Palestinians and Iraqis -- and this was the most pure man we know, Balkhy said.

"A revolution inside me started," he said.

He found that the most informative Web sites were the most religiously rigid. In the past, he had recoiled at some of their views, but he now came to rely on them for help in what had become a personal campaign.

On one Web site, he found the e-mail addresses of Danish embassies overseas, and a form letter to them. He cut and pasted a 27-page letter, written in both Arabic and English, and sent it to the embassies. The following day he sent a shorter version of the letter to the same list as well the Norwegian newspaper Magazinet, which had republished the cartoons in January. This time it was only in English. The third day, he e-mailed the same group a copy of a letter calling for a boycott.

He sent a copy of each e-mail to a separate list of 100 people, including colleagues in Egypt and Lebanon. Some he knew from training in Canada, others he met at conferences in the region. In the past, the list was often used to send jokes. This time, his messages encouraged those on the list to boycott Danish goods and, like him, write letters of protest to Danish diplomats, journalists and businessmen.

He joined what had become a virtual sphere of activism, with themes repeated from London to Jakarta, Indonesia. Its speed and scope were unprecedented; to him, it was empowering. As Balkhy sent his e-mails, thousands of others were circulating as well. Dozens of Web sites were set up. Among them was http://www.no4denmark.org/ . Text messages beeped on cell phones: "Danish papers are making fun of our prophet," read one. "Boycott their products." Supermarkets in Saudi Arabia began pulling Danish goods from their shelves, and Saudi companies published advertisements citing their support for the boycott. The kingdom recalled its ambassador to Denmark.

"We had accomplished something," Balkhy said. "Our campaign was working."

Denmark Stopping Short of an Apology

By Jan. 30, intense pressure had built on Rasmussen, a tough-talking farmer's son, and the editors at the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. Protesters in Muslim countries were burning Danish flags. The economic boycott that started in Saudi Arabia had nearly shut down sales of Danish cheese, butter and other products in the Muslim world. On that day, a Monday, Rasmussen expressed his first public criticism of the cartoons.

"I personally have such respect for people's religious feelings that I personally would not have depicted Muhammad, Jesus or other religious figures in such a manner that would offend other people," Rasmussen told Danish television. He stopped short of the apology demanded by Muslim leaders, saying he could not apologize for what was printed in a newspaper exercising free speech.

At about the same time, Carsten Juste, editor in chief of Jyllands-Posten, posted a similar statement. "In our opinion, the 12 drawings were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims, for which we apologize," he wrote.

Al-Shahal, the Lebanese cleric, watched Rasmussen's remarks on al-Jazeera satellite television. So did Balkhy, on both al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, another Arabic-language satellite network. Both felt the same way. "Truthfully, it wasn't a real apology, in the precise meaning of the word," al-Shahal said. Balkhy was blunter: Rasmussen had "tried to weasel out of an apology."

February

Berlin A Free Expression Paradox

In Berlin, Roger Koppel, editor of Die Welt newspaper, saw the apologies by Rasmussen and Juste as an alarming defeat for Europe's tradition of free speech. The next day, Tuesday, Jan. 31, he met with his editorial team and ordered up a front-page story on the issue, including a reproduction of the cartoon of Muhammad with the bomb in his turban positioned at the top of Page One. At least six other European papers did the same, sharply increasing anger in the Muslim world about how the dispute was being handled.

"This had now become a huge political story," Koppel said. "In a secular Western society, a prime minister and a newspaper had to issue an apology for exercising their right to satire."

Koppel said he found many of the cartoons "ridiculous," but the quality of the images wasn't the point.

"You don't deliberately stir up religious hatred, but, sorry, we live in a secular country in the West," he said. "It's part of our culture. It's just not possible that our culture gets somehow penalized by threats."

It is illegal in Germany -- and punishable by prison time -- to make statements denying or questioning the existence of the Holocaust. It is also a crime to make "patently false statements" about the Holocaust, such as minimizing the number of victims. Some Muslims have argued that such laws constitute a double standard: in the West it's fine, they argue, to denigrate Muslims, but not Jews.

"It's not a double standard because it's the right of every culture to have its own taboos," Koppel said.

Koppel said that given Germany's painful history with the Nazis and the Holocaust, German society had chosen to establish certain limits on free speech. He said people in Germany must abide by those laws, just as people in Muslim countries must abide by the laws and traditions of those lands. He said a newspaper publishing the Muhammad cartoons in a Muslim country should expect to be punished, while a newspaper publishing them in Germany should expect to be protected by German guarantees of free speech.

In Milan, Gianni Riotta, deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, was framing it in a different way.

While defending Jyllands-Posten's right to publish, he said the Danish newspaper made a mistake in judgment by running all 12 cartoons, which he said carried the implication that "all Muslims are terrorists." Riotta said it reminded him of his days studying at Columbia University in New York under famed American television news producer Fred Friendly. He recalled Friendly telling the class, "Shouting fire in a crowded theater is not freedom of expression, it's being stupid."

Riotta had in mind publishing something with what he thought was a clearer perspective. The Corriere, one of Italy's most respected papers, ran a package of nine cartoons: three of the "least offensive" Danish cartoons, along with three anti-Semitic cartoons taken from Arab newspapers and three Nazi-era propaganda posters.

"We wanted to publish to show that these cartoons were really offensive and really racist," Riotta said. "We wanted to give our readers some perspective: This was not Salman Rushdie." Riotta said that, as a reporter, he had covered the controversy over Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses," and that he believed the Danish cartoons could not be considered in the same literary league with Rushdie's book.

Muslim World Building Solidarity

Republishing the cartoons unleashed a torrent of response.

Governments were already taking action: Interior ministers from 17 Arab nations called on the Danish government to punish the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. The Saudi interior minister urged the other nations to recall their ambassadors from Denmark. Protesters burned a large photo of Prime Minister Rasmussen outside the U.N. compound in Gaza City, scenes repeated elsewhere in Muslim countries. Algeria and Yemen, among others, were calling for U.N. action against Denmark.

In Indonesia, Santosa, the Web site editor, decided to publish one of the cartoons yet again.

"But then after I published the picture, a lot of Muslim people got angry at me. Then I said, 'Oh my God, what happened?" He put the cartoon up at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 2. He pulled it down less than 12 hours later.

In time, editors in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan were arrested for publishing the cartoons, often to bring attention to the offense.

Some of the region's most influential leaders weighed in.

Fadlallah, the senior Lebanese Shiite cleric, dismissed defending the cartoons under the principle of freedom of expression. Why, then, were some European networks banning al-Manar, the television station of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, on the grounds that it incited people? Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, a leading Sunni Muslim scholar, called on Muslims to use the dispute to strengthen solidarity. "The whole nation must be angry and rise up to show their anger," he said. "We are not a nation of donkeys. We are a nation of lions."

Protests erupted the next day, Feb. 3, after Friday prayers in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. They would be dwarfed by the scenes that unfolded that weekend in Lebanon and Syria.

Feb. 4

Middle East 'Defending the Prophet'

For days in Damascus, diplomats had heard about protests planned for Saturday. In the streets, there were posters of a Danish flag with a red X across it. Text messages went out on Friday, their source unclear: "Join us in defending our prophet and what is sacred." It added, "What are you going to do in order to answer to your prophet in the afterlife?"

The Norwegian and Danish embassies requested extra security, the diplomats said, but received none.

The protesters gathered on Feb. 4 carrying Syrian flags and banners calling on the Danish ambassador to leave the country. They tore down the flags hanging on the building. Soon, people began throwing rocks and gasoline bombs. Diplomats said they saw what appeared to be Syrian intelligence agents in the crowd. Before dusk, the Danish Embassy was ablaze, and other protesters went to the Norwegian Embassy, burning it as well. Another crowd went to the French Embassy, but was driven back by water hoses.

Ammar Sahloul, a wealthy businessman, heard about the demonstration through text messages, canceled work on Saturday and went with nearly 60 of his employees. He said he reached the Danish Embassy's doors and tried to calm things down, in vain.

"I wanted to express our resentment in the way that the prophet taught us," said Sahloul, 40. "He would not have wanted things to happen the way they happened outside the embassies."

That day, typewritten leaflets were circulating in neighboring Lebanon, calling for another demonstration in Beirut on Sunday. "They have declared war," it read. "So for the victory of our Prophet, we must accept the challenge." The 1,000 leaflets were issued by the Salafi Group in Lebanon, headed by al-Shahal, who first met the Danish delegation in December.

Hundreds boarded buses in Tripoli, flying green-and-black banners with white Islamic inscriptions from the windows. They passed at least seven army checkpoints on the way to Beirut unhindered. In time, thousands gathered in the Lebanese capital, some rampaging through a Christian neighborhood and setting fire to the building that housed the Danish Embassy. Al-Shahal, carrying a loudspeaker, said he was among the clerics who tried to restrain the crowd.

"The truth? I felt sorry when I saw it," he said. "The protest should have demonstrated strength, but with wisdom."

A day later, in Afghanistan, protesters chanting anti-American slogans tried to storm the U.S. air base in Bagram. Afghan security forces fired on the crowd, killing at least three people. More protests followed in other Afghan cities, the grievances multiplying and mixing. In all, about 12 people were killed. Unlike in Lebanon and Syria, calls were passed not by technology, but word of mouth. Few had seen the cartoons, but they had become the topic of Friday sermons there, each retelling tinged with another exaggeration.

"I haven't seen the cartoon itself, but I was told that our prophet has a hand grenade on his turban and each of his fingers, too," said Haji Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, head of a council of professionals in the western Afghan city of Herat.

This Week

Beirut Silencing Voices of Moderation

Amira el-Solh, 28, is a Lebanese Palestinian who lives in Beirut. She had heard about a text message calling for the protest in Lebanon. She, too, was angry about the caricatures, but recalled thinking that the Lebanese have greater worries today.

"Ten minutes of thought," she said she gave it.

The next day, as the protests raged in Beirut, she stayed glued to the television: Lebanese channels, CNN and the BBC. She talked to friends in Beirut, in Europe and the United States. At night, she met with friends, all disgusted with the way things had turned out.

But as she looks back at the dispute -- from the repeated publishing of the cartoons, to the protests, to the violence that pulled at Lebanon's frayed sectarian tapestry, to the moral certainty infusing the debate -- she sees the controversy as less about a dozen cartoons and more about a sense of siege in the Muslim world that forces everyone to take sides. "It's upsetting that you have to defend your identity as a Muslim constantly," she said.

She thought back to other divides in history -- the Green Line that partitioned civil war-era Beirut, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. She resented having to qualify herself as liberal or conservative, secular or religious. She worried that, in time, those definitions might become irrelevant. Perhaps they already have.

"These walls weren't so long ago," she said. "It was people who built them, and it will be people who will resurrect them."

"Do you want to silence voices of moderation, of coexistence?" she asked this week. "And this is what the generalizations of these cartoons do. It silences any individual as a Muslim and groups me along with everyone else."

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