Thursday, February 23, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 3

(continued from Part 2)

In the previous chapter of this narrative, it was described how Egypt undertook a series of diplomatic initiatives, calling international attention to the Muhammad caricatures, and seeking to put diplomatic pressure on the Danish government. This begs the question: Why was Egypt so active in this matter?

A probable explanation is to be found in the strong undercurrent of Islamism in Egyptian politics. At the parliamentary elections in 2005, the strongest opposition group, a moderate Islamist group called the Muslim Brotherhood, had done very well, increasing their representation from 15 to 88 seats in the 444-person parliament. Local elections were coming up in 2006 that looked to put the ruling National Democratic Party at even more of a disadvantage. Clearly, making a bid for the Islamist votes was a very smart political decision for the incumbent Egyptian government.

It should be mentioned that since then (February 2006), the decision has been made to postpone the local elections for two years -- apparently, the Islamist votes weren't that easy to win over.

As Egypt worked the international political angle, an entirely different angle was about to be worked by a group of Danish imams. In early December 2005, they made a tour of several Islamic countries (including Egypt, Lebanon and Syria), showing off a 43-page dossier including copies of the caricatures and agitating for action on the matter.

The leaders of this group of imams were Ahmed Akkari and Ahmed Abu Laban. Both of these imams represent groups of Muslims in Denmark. Akkari was acting as spokesmen for 27 different small groups of Muslims, and Abu Laban is the head of the Danish Islamic Society (Islamisk Trossamfund). It is safe to say that they do not directly represent all of the approximately 200,000 Muslims in Denmark -- a reasonable estimate would be about 20,000 at most. It is fairly common knowledge that both are heavily funded from abroad (like many other Muslim minorities around the world, they receive generous grants from Saudi Arabia), and it has been alleged (by moderate imam Fatih Alev) that the funding depends on their media profile. In this connection, it is worth noting that Abu Laban (representing about 1000-2000 Muslims) was mentioned in the press 646 times in 2005, more than twice as often as Danish EU-parliamentarian Gitte Seeberg (representing over 125,000 voters).

In the dossier, the group had compiled a number of alleged "insults to the Prophet", including the caricatures -- but also including three photocopied pictures of unclear origin. The three photocopies showed a man wearing a pig snout (labeled "Here is the true image of Mohammed"); a dog copulating with a praying muslim (labeled "That's why Muslims pray"); and a man with horns and exposed genitalia (labeled "the pedophile Prophet Mohammed"). It was later stated (by Akkari) that these were examples of contents taken from threatening letters received by Muslims in Denmark. However, it seems clear that the pictures were presented during the tour as being part of the set of caricatures published by Jyllands-Posten. The picture of the man with the pig snout was originally thought to be a photo-manipulation, but was later revealed to be a picture taken at a pig-calling contest in France, in August 2005.

Whether Akkari was telling the truth about the origin of the pictures or not, it cannot be disputed that he made several openly untrue statements to the Danish media concerning the Middle East tour. As a result, his general credibility in the Danish media fell, and remains low. Certainly, many of the moderate-sounding statements he has made in the Danish media do not ring true, when compared to his inflammatory rhetoric during interviews in Arabic-language news media.

Akkari and Abu Laban both claim that they merely presented the pictures, and did not agitate for violent response. This may or may not be true -- it is not unreasonable to assume that the tour was a bid to heighten awareness of themselves in the Islamic world, and possibly secure additional funding. Certainly, it seems as reasonable to propose that the primary motivation for the tour was monetary as to propose that it was solely malicious. However, it should also be noted that the dossier contained a number of remarks attacking Denmark's secularized society as being "atheistic", not Christian. It also contained deliberate misinformation, including claims that Islam was not a recognized religion in Denmark (it is) and that mosques were not allowed to be built (they are).

While Egypt was undertaking its diplomatic initiative, and the Danish imams were taking their tour of the Middle East, the Danish police were dealing with a complaint filed by several Muslim organizations, on October 27 2005. The complaint alleged that the publication of the caricatures in Jyllands-Posten had been a violation of articles 140 and 266b of the Danish Penal Code (see the preceding post). The investigation was dropped on January 6 2006, when the regional police prosecutor in Viborg found that the matter did not satisfy the requirements for a criminal prosecution (or, in other words, such a court case could be expected to end in an acquittal).

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, both Iran and Syria were under pressure from the UN Security Council. Iran had recently come under fire for its failure to comply with the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Syria was likewise under pressure to comply with UNSC resolutions 1559, 1636 and 1644. Under the UN's rotation system, Denmark was serving a term on the UNSC -- might Denmark conceivably be the weak link in the UNSC? The idea must have occurred to the Iranians and the Syrians.

While all this was going on, the caricatures were reprinted in a number of newspapers around the world -- including, remarkably, the Egyptian newspaper El Fagr on October 17 2005. The Egyptian paper's article, which included a strong denunciation of the caricatures, didn't lead to any uproar in itself. From October 2005 to January 2006, the caricatures were reprinted in whole or in part in dozens of European newspapers.

All of these factors were embers, sullenly glowing with the potential to burst into flame. In late January 2006, the flash point arrived, and over the next few weeks the flames, quite literally, erupted.

(Continued in part 4)

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