Why the Cartoon Clash Is Escalating

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OUTRAGE: In the streets of Fallujah, Iraqis burn Danish flags and clothes made in Denmark to protest cartoons printed in a Danish paper

Can the cartoon war be stopped? The controversy over Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad has mushroomed into another major crisis in relations—one that appears to have developed a self-perpetuating momentum that will be hard to stop. It has escalated rapidly in the last few days, with imams around the world fanning anger in last Friday's mosque sermons, and mobs in Damascus and Beirut attacking embassies over the weekend. Muslim television and newspapers have provided blanket coverage, bloggers have stoked outrage on the Internet and more governments and Islamic groups have declared support boycotts.

One of the reasons for the escalation is that Muslim and Western officials have deadlocked over how to resolve the original grievance. Muslim leaders insisted that the Danish paper had no right to publish images of the Prophet and demanded an apology; Danish officials, while expressing regret at the hurt feelings, have refused to apologize for what they see as the fundamental right of newspapers to freely publish their views. Other European newspapers fueled the fire by republishing the drawings, some of which were offensive caricatures, in defense of free expression.

The dramatic attacks on the Danish as well as Norwegian embassies in Damascus on Saturday, and on the Danish mission in Beirut Sunday, are the most violent manifestations to date, but fury over the cartoons has been spreading fast from Muslim communities in Europe through the Middle East all the way to Indonesia. Its spread has been accelerated by widespread anti-Western anger over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Western moves to block the development of Iran's nuclear ambitions. And the uproar is being exploited by regimes such as Iran and Syria, who hope to turn the widespread outrage over the cartoons among both radicals and moderates into political support in their own confrontations with the West. The failure of the police-state Damascus regime to prevent the siege of the Danish embassy there is being viewed as a form of retaliation for Western isolation of Syria over its alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Local politics, too, are a complicating factor. Militant Danish Muslims helped push Arabs to join the fray after feeling ignored at home. Some moderate European Muslims claim that the militants sought Arab backing in part as a way of winning financial contributions from wealthy, oil-producing countries. Now that the Danish cartoons have become a cause celebre, local grassroots pressure is building on pro-Western Muslim regimes. Such governments are more susceptible than ever, given how the cartoon controversy arose amid a wave of unprecedented Islamist gains in Middle East elections. While governments look for a way out and protesters fill the streets, Muslim preachers can hardly be restrained from calling the faithful to action. "It is the duty of all Muslims to wake up from their deep sleep and defend their religion," declared an imam broadcasting a sermon live on Algeria's national television network last week. If the scenes in Damascus and Beirut are anything to go by, more confrontation is still to come.