Cartoon Crisis Echoes ‘Why They Hate Us’ Debate

While Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes flies off on her second tour of the Middle East Friday, she must feel at least some relief that Europe – rather than the United States – has been the main target of the two-week outpouring of anger in the Islamic world that has come to be called the "cartoon crisis."

Hughes, a long-time friend and adviser to Pres. George W. Bush, has played a leading role in shaping the U.S. response to the crisis, which has sparked large protests, including some violence, particularly in the Arab Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan..

She will no doubt be called on to clarify US views at the third annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar, as well as in scheduled meetings with non-governmental groups and students there and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Under her guidance, the administration has tried to walk a fine line between showing sympathy for Muslims offended by the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and their republication by major newspapers elsewhere in Europe and upholding free speech principles.

"Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief," declared State Department spokesman Scott McCormick at the outset of the crisis.

"While we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images," he added, "we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view."

Such a carefully balanced statement, however, outraged some of the administration’s strongest supporters, particularly neoconservatives and other hawks who charged that it smacked of "appeasement" to Islamist radicals and constituted an abandonment of western ideals of freedom in defense of which Bush had purportedly launched his "war on terror."

As a result, subsequent administration statements focused more on criticizing the violence, particularly after attacks on Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut, than on the offensive nature of the cartoons.

"We reject violence as a way to express discontent over what is printed in the free press," declared Bush, who had just called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to express his support. And while he also insisted that "with freedom comes the responsibility to be thoughtful about others," Bush’s main message was to "stop the violence."

Several hours later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that "nothing justifies the violence that has broken out," and charged Iran and Syria with having "gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this (for) their own purposes."

While the administration’s greater focus on assailing the violence and the alleged responsibility for it of Washington’s two remaining Middle East nemeses and radical Islamists appears to have pacified its hawkish supporters, the crisis has also given rise to a new public discussion reminiscent of the "Why Do They Hate Us" and "Clash of Civilizations" debates that followed the Sep. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

As in those debates, one side argues that radical Islam, if not Islam itself, represents an existential threat to western ideals – in this case, freedom of speech and the press – and that any suggestion that European newspaper publishers should show greater sensitivity to Muslim sentiments constitutes weakness and signals the decline of western civilization.

"Like the appeasement of the 1930s," wrote Victor Davis Hanson, a favorite columnist of Vice President Dick Cheney, this week, "we are in the great age now of ethical retrenchment… If we give in to these 8th-century clerics, shortly we will be living in an 8th century ourselves, where we may say, hear, and do nothing that might offend a fundamentalist Muslim."

"This is a moment of truth in the in the global struggle against Islamic extremism," wrote William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, one of the handful of US publications to reprint the cartoons.

He asserted that the anti-Danish demonstrations showed that "those who are threatened by our effort to help liberalize and civilize the Middle East are fighting back with whatever weapons are at hand."

"Will Hamas succeed in creating a terror state on the West Bank?" asked Kristol. "Will a terror-sponsoring Iranian regime succeed in its quest for nuclear weapons? Will Danish imams succeed in intimidating Europe – or the free world as a whole?"

On the other side of the debate – and one heard more loudly than in 2001, perhaps because Europe, rather than US, has been the main target – are commentators who insist that the outrage voiced by Muslims in the crisis is based on real grievances that the West should understand and address.

"What we are witnessing today has little to do with Western democratic values and everything to do with a European media that reflects and plays to an increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic society," wrote John Esposito, who teaches Middle East studies at Georgetown University.

Citing a recent Gallup World Poll of opinions in predominantly Islamic countries, he noted that, when asked to describe what the West could do to improve relations with the Arab-Muslim world, "by far the most frequent reply was that they should demonstrate more understanding and respect for Islam, show less prejudice, and not denigrate what Islam stands for. At the same time, overwhelming majorities said they favored freedom of speech in their own countries.

In Esposito’s view, depicting the crisis as a defense of free-speech principles – if not of western civilization – was precisely the wrong tack to take.

"Cartoons defaming the prophet and Islam reinforce Muslim grievances, humiliation, social marginalization and drive a wedge between the West and moderate Muslims, unwittingly playing directly into the hands of extremists," he warned.

In a New York Times column Friday, New America Foundation senior fellow Robert Wright also mocked the hawks’ depiction of the crisis as a replay of the 1930s, noting that self-censorship by the media, particularly regarding minorities, is "an American tradition that has helped make America one of the most harmonious multiethnic and multireligious societies in the history of the world."

Recalling changes made in the media’s treatment, as well as in anti-discrimination laws, of US blacks after the urban riots of the mid-1960s, Wright also noted that "appeasement" in that case neither spawned more violence nor "weakened Western values."

Behind the cartoon crisis, he went on, "so many of the grievances coalesce in a sense that Muslims aren’t respected by the affluent, powerful West (just as rioting American blacks felt they weren’t respected by affluent, powerful whites)."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.