Thursday, March 09, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 5

(continued from Part 4)

In the days immediately before the Gaza incident, demonstrations protesting the caricatures had taken place. The demonstrations included burning of the Danish flag, and various other staples of Middle Eastern political demonstrations. To the Danish public, seeing images of the Dannebrog, the Danish flag, being burned by yelling demonstrators was a shock. Furthermore, in comparison to the Danish custom of peaceful and orderly demonstrations, the yelling crowds seemed more like mobs than demonstrators.

To many Danes, a boycott of Danish goods, however unfortunate, seemed a reasonable, if slightly disproportionate, response to the offense against Muslim sensibilities. Danish consumers have a long history of political activism and boycott, and the inherently non-violent form of such a protest was eminently understandable and acceptable to most Danes. Violent protests, flag burning and death threats, however, were a different matter. Viewed from Denmark, these were barbarous acts.

This impression of barbarism (and an essentially alien worldview) was firmly cemented in the minds of the Danish public, when demonstrators in Damascus attacked the Danish embassy to Syria, on February 4 2006. The following day, the Danish embassy to Lebanon, in Beirut, was burned.

It may be a coincidence that the first two locations where the demonstrations turned from protest to violent attack on embassies were in Syria and Lebanon. It may likewise be coincidental that insufficient local police were present to deter the demonstrators from the attacks. There is no certain proof that Syria deliberately engineered the attacks (to put pressure on Denmark, as the perceived weak link in the UN Security Council). However, the timing and the location seem suspiciously convenient for Syria.

By this time, the protests were spreading. Demonstrations in Afghanistan and Somalia claimed at least six lives on February 6 2006. The very next day, in Tehran, a crowd of several hundred people attacked the Danish embassy to Iran. Again, this seems to be a suspiciously convenient occurrence, given Iran's recent controversy with the IAEA over nuclear development. That the first attacks on embassies take place in Syria (and its dependent neighbour, Lebanon) and Iran coincides remarkably with the interests of precisely the two countries with most to gain from pressuring the weakest member of the UNSC.

By now, many religious and political groups in the Islamic world had become aware that the caricatures had become a popular cause, and they eagerly participated in the growing conflict, fueling the fire.

However, the situation was no less problematic in the West. Anti-islamic groups had eagerly seized on the situation, claiming it as proof of their preconceived notion that Islam in general was a religion of terrorists. Unsurprisingly, the anti-islamists cribbed the ideas set forth in Samuel P. Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and the print, broadcast and internet media were full of punditry proclaiming the imminent clash of civilizations, and the inevitable need for a major war between Islam and the West (as if either of these two concepts were monolithic entities).

More disturbingly, many writers made use of arguments based upon the so-called "Three Conjectures", a syllogism that seemed to imply that the only logical response to a (presumed Muslim) terrorist attack using a nuclear device was massive nuslear response. The conjectures, which were apparently first posted on the internet by the pseudonymous "Wretchard", were simplistic and unconvincing (one should always be wary of syllogisms), but made for an excellent rhetorical tool for alarmist demagoguery.

The anti-islamists weren't the only people in the West who were adding fuel to the fire. Eager to defend the freedom of speech and of the press (and, less charitably viewed, also to promote themselves), many prominent persons in the cultural and political sphere spoke out in the media. In France, the magazine Charlie Hebdo published the caricatures again, on February 8 2006, along with other new caricatures. This was rightly interpreted by French President Jacques Chirac as an overt provocation.

The vast geographic span of Islam was highlighted by the fact that demonstrations were taking place as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia. On February 12, the Danish Foreign Ministry issued an advisory to Danes travelling in Indonesia, urging them to leave the country for their own safety.

On February 13, an Iranian newspaper, the Hamshahri Daily, began accepting submissions for a contest among its readers to "test Western free speech". Originally, the contest had been announced as calling for caricatures of the Holocaust, but this was later expanded to cover the limits of free speech in the West, in general. This contest was already a hot topic, because Flemming Rose, in interviews with CNN and the Danish TV2 on February 8 2006, had declared that Jyllands-Posten was ready to publish the results of the contest in its pages, as a demonstration of free speech. However, in doing so, he appears to have acted unilaterally, without the consent of the editor-in-chief, Carsten Juste. The offer certainly bears all the hallmarks of Rose's personal devotion to free speech. Shortly after the interviews, Juste disavowed Rose's plans, and the following day, Rose was sent off "on vacation".

It may be conjectured that Juste's reaction provided evidence that there were limits to what could be printed in a Danish paper -- that caricatures of the Holocaust fell into a separate and inadmissible category. It may also be conjectured that it proved that the Muhammad caricatures were acceptable only because they were anti-Islamic. Whether these conjectures are true, is open to interpretation. Certainly, they contain at least an element of truth. However, Juste's actions in reining in Rose could reasonably be viewed as an attempt to put an end to the crisis by avoiding further provocations of any kind -- a sensible act on the part of the beleaguered newspaper editor.

At any rate, mid-February saw a gradual escalation of the crisis, with an added twist. Danish travel agencies refunded millions of kroner worth of cancelled vacations to Islamic countries. Hardest hit were Turkey, Indonesia, Algeria and Tunisia. Although there may have been an element of boycott to these cancellations, the overwhelming reason was, of course, fear. Nor were Danes the only nationalities to reduce tourist activities in Muslim countries. Other European nations reported similar effects, to a lesser degree.

At present, there is no way of estimating the losses in revenue to the tourist industry in the Islamic countries, but it has to be considerably more than the effect of the boycott on Danish goods. Economically speaking, the crisis was bad for business, on both sides.

(Continued in part 6)

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