European-Arab Cartoon War Escalates

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It's politically incorrect, and also inaccurate, to use the loaded phrase "clash of civilizations" to describe big stuff like the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the burgeoning international conflict over a series of cartoons in a provincial Danish newspaper caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad seems to fit the term with depressing accuracy. It's a case of the hard-fought right to free expression banging up against Muslims' conviction that states ought to punish anyone who insults the Prophet. And so far, all the protagonists appear ready to ride their principles to Armageddon.

When they first appeared last September, the images—one of which shows Muhammad's turban transformed into a bomb—caused only a minor kerfuffle. Finding any artistic representation of the Prophet inappropriate, and that some of these images conveyed disrespect against him and against Islam as a religion, Arab ambassadors in Copenhagen quickly demanded meetings last autumn with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He demurred, making the bulletproof argument that government doesn't control the free press. But it has broken out with new and somewhat mysterious force since a Norwegian periodical reprinted the cartoons on January 10. Arab Ambassadors were recalled from Denmark, protest marches were under way in Kuwait and Damascus, and armed gunmen shut down the office of the European Union in Gaza City. Boycotts of Danish products spread throughout the Middle East, and death threats were issued against journalists.

A number of European papers, including Germany's Die Welt, Spain's El Periodico, the Netherlands' de Volkskrant and Italy's La Stampa, then responded by republishing the drawings in support of the principle of free expression. "I don't really understand the fuss," Die Welt editor Roger Köppel, who ran one on his front page today, told German television. "Arabic television has shown beheadings and staged bestial rituals involving Jewish rabbis. We're seeing double standards at work here, and it's the job of journalists to expose them." Larry Kilman, communications director of the World Association of Newspapers, says the "overreaction in the Middle East is disturbing."

The principled stand of at least one of the papers looked a little suspicious: France-Soir, a once noble French daily that has been slowly dying as its circulation figures have collapsed, got more attention than it has for years by republishing all the cartoons. But after the paper's current owner, Egyptian financier Raymond Lakah, fired the editor—who had reportedly argued against publishing the drawings in editorial meetings—France Soir's future seemed more precarious than ever.

The hypocrisy on the other side of the debate was even thicker. Syria called on the Danish government "to take the necessary measures to punish the culprits," piously arguing that "the dialogue of civilizations is based on mutual respect." Tell that to the Lebanese, whom the Syrians have treated as vassals for the past quarter century. Dalil Boubakeur, the chairman of the state-sponsored French Council for the Muslim Religion, was on the ramparts two years ago arguing for the principles of secularism that undergirds France's 2004 law against the wearing of veils or other religious symbols in schools. But when asked about the threats directed at Europeans in the Gaza strip as the result of the cartoons, he said, "He who sows the wind reaps a tempest." Meanwhile, Western governments were left with no options much better than to straddle the dilemma the way Denmark did: by regretting the hurt caused by something they didn't do, while pointing out that they have no means or desire to punish journalists who did. But the dispute seems to have acquired a life of its own. Nestle, for example, took out ads in the Middle East early this week pointing out that its products are Swiss, not Danish. But by Thursday two Swiss papers had published the drawings, too.