Radicals pulling strings of cartoon controversy


PHILADELPHIA -- Here is the most important thing you need to know about the Danish cartoon controversy: The story revolves less around a few provocative drawings than it does around political manipulation of the drawings.

The whole drama has been stage-managed by radical Islamists who want to provoke a clash of civilizations. Without such intervention, this minor tiff wouldn't have grown into a worldwide conflagration.

Unless we in the West recognize the nature of the problem, we can't guard against its happening again.

The controversy originated when an editor at the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten heard of the author of a children's book on the life of the prophet Muhammad who couldn't find anyone to draw illustrations of the prophet for fear that Muslims would consider such images blasphemous.

We're not talking of offensive illustrations, or of a book for Muslim readers, but a book meant for Europeans. Yet illustrators were mindful of the fate of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist for a film that offended Islamists, and British author Salman Rushdie, put under death threat by an Ayatollah Khomeini fatwa because his novel was deemed blasphemous.

So the Danish editor decided to test the limits of self-censorship and commissioned the cartoons. A few were offensive, such as an image of the prophet with an explosive belt around his head like a turban. Did these cartoons deserve protests or meetings with newspaper editors? Sure. A newspaper apology for insensitivity? Maybe. But the editors at Jyllands-Posten were soon receiving death threats.

Ahmed Abu-Laban, an imam with radical Islamic contacts who heads the Danish Islamic Community, took a dossier of cartoons to Egypt, including ugly images of unknown origin that were never published in Denmark. These "extra" images were circulated on the Internet and even picked up briefly by the BBC.

There's no question that Mr. Abu-Laban helped ignite the current violence.

Arab and other Muslim leaders also played a key role.

Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark on Jan. 26, as if this were an issue between governments.

This encouraged the Arab perception that the Danish government could censor the press the way Mideast governments do.

Some Islamic countries saw the cartoon dispute as an opportunity to ease European pressure for better political behavior. Syria let protesters storm the Danish Embassy and torch the Norwegian Embassy. The Danish Embassy in Lebanon was also burned; Lebanese believe Syrian intelligence was behind the attack.

Other secular Muslim leaders who arrest Islamists felt obliged to prove Islamic credentials by slamming Denmark. Of course, Islamist Iran - under European pressure over its nuclear program - whipped up protests, too.

Some will say the Danish paper handed the Islamists their opportunity. That's much too glib. Jyllands-Posten was responding to a real issue in Europe: media self-censorship because of fear of Islamist violence. The paper may have offended, but the violent reaction confirms the problem it meant to expose.

The issue is not simply one of anti-Muslim prejudice. It reflects the broader threat posed by a small Muslim minority to wider European publics. This minority also endangers moderate European Muslims who will be the victims of any anti-immigrant backlash provoked by Islamist violence.

In addition, the cartoon flap reveals the self-defeating behavior of secular Arab countries. In an effort to divert European pressure for better behavior, some leaders are willing to encourage Islamist excesses that could boomerang against them.

The question haunting Europe is how to prevent a radical Muslim minority from expanding small community conflicts into a broader war.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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