What’s missing from the cartoon controversy

Buried in stories about the protesters were the political and economic conditions of Muslims in Europe.

On the cover of last Tuesday’s New York Times there was a picture of the Danish Embassy in Tehran burning to the ground. Under the photo, a caption read, “Violence and Death Over Cartoons.” This information was true; violent clashes in Afghanistan have left protesters dead as rioters in Beirut, Damascus and Tehran burned Danish and Norwegian embassies and consulates to the ground. What was missed by this photo and buried in many stories about the protests was the political conditions that helped stoke the anger of the protesters.

News outlets from The Weekly Standard to National Public Radio have depicted these reactions as primarily about the religious offense that the cartoons have caused. And they’re right, sort of. Any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is, after all, unequivocally forbidden in Islam. If you need proof, watch the movie version of the prophet’s life, called “The Message.” Although Muhammad is the film’s protagonist, at no time during the 180-minute film is Muhammad seen or heard. The caricatures of the prophet, published in a European newspaper no less, were bound to stir up feelings of anger and resentment.

In addition to religious objections, however, there are political factors that have contributed to the increasingly angry and sporadically violent response to the caricatures. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of this controversy is the question of why Muslims are targeting European, specifically Danish, institutions rather than the independent newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the caricatures.

In most Arab Muslim countries, as well as in Iran, there is little independence in the media. Many of the region’s newspapers are run by governments. In Jordan, for example, the English-language Jordan Times never runs without a picture of King Abdullah on the cover, and the paper is strictly barred from criticizing the king, his policies or his government. And Jordan is considered to have “progressive’ laws compared to those of its Arab neighbors.

So for many Arab Muslims, the state and its news organizations are inextricably linked. Anger at the newspaper turns into anger at the state. Not that there are no independent newspapers in the Arab world, but rather, because the Danish newspaper first published the caricatures, the embassies are the most symbolic, and available, targets of anger.

Another political aspect of this controversy is the actions of Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in controlling the restive crowds in their countries. Both leaders recognize that anger exerted toward a Western country means less anger exerted toward the repressive regimes.

The anger that spiraled into violence in their countries was fueled, in part, by the lack of political freedom offered to their populations. High unemployment and a young, idle population have added to this growing anger.

Assad and Ahmadinejad are well aware of their populations’ political and economic grievances. The West, for them, is a great direction to hone the rage of their citizens. This is especially true now, as European and American diplomats are condemning Syria’s presence in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear program. The controversy sparked over the caricatures could turn out to be a surefire way for Assad and Ahmadinejad to unite their populations against the countries that are threatening to isolate them. Isolation for Syria or Iran would lead to less political freedom and fewer jobs.

Since the West now is seen as anti-Muslim, Iranians and Syrians might be more willing to blame the West for worsening conditions than they would be to blame their own governments.

The caricatures as well as the widely disseminated images of angry, young Middle Eastern men burning flags, storming buildings and firing Kalashnikovs are simply reincarnations of the West’s post-9/11 obsession with Islamic fundamentalism.

There is violence in the Middle East but it is not only due to chaotic religiosity. Unfortunately, Islam is portrayed as the main cause of violent actions, rather than a factor.

And leaders like Assad and Ahmadinejad add to this misconception by using the faith of their countries’ citizens to legitimize their power and geopolitical policies.

Ben Ragsdale is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]