Muhammad Cartoon Unrest had been Simmering
by Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 7, 2006
Although the furor over Danish cartoons of Muhammad erupted onto the world stage in the last week, the controversy has been simmering behind the scenes and on the Internet for months.
Muslim leaders in Denmark, insulted by a Copenhagen newspaper's refusal to apologize for publishing a dozen caricatures of the Islamic prophet on Sept. 30, took their complaints to religious leaders in the Middle East in November in an attempt to "internationalize" their grievances.
The leading Islamic clerics in Cairo, Egypt, condemned the cartoons in late January, emboldening Muslim activists to organize an escalating series of protests and a boycott of Danish products. By early January, demonstrations already had broken out as far away as in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and 11 Muslim nations and the United Nations had issued rebukes of the cartoons.
The protests that began last week continued to spread around the world yesterday, including the first demonstration directed at a U.S. target. Afghan troops shot and killed four protesters, including two who tried to storm a U.S. military base.
The Bush administration appealed to Saudi Arabia to use its influence among Muslims to help ease tensions in the Middle East and Europe.
The extent to which the anti-Western Muslim sentiments were initially stirred up is only beginning to come to light.
"For months, the protests didn't extend much beyond Denmark, and then suddenly we have violence breaking out," said Lorenzo Vidino, a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project in Washington and author of the recently published book Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad.
Vidino and others say the Danish imams added fuel to the fire by circulating several additional caricatures of Muhammad that were far more incendiary than those published by the newspaper. The cartoons, included in a 45-page document the imams took to Islamic leaders in the Mideast, show the prophet with a pig's face or in sexual congress with animals. The images are widely circulated on the Internet, though their origin is unclear.
The extent to which those caricatures influenced the outrage against Denmark and the West is impossible to measure.
But Vidino pins much of the responsibility on Ahmed Abu-Laban, the head of the Danish Islamic Community who made the cartoons an international issue.
"He has a very shady past but has managed to become the face of moderate Islam in Denmark," Vidino said.
In presenting the cartoons to Islamic leaders in Cairo in November, Abu-Laban created the impression that the Danish paper published even the pornographic images, according to Vidino and Danish journalists who read the document that the imams took to Egypt.
"The imams manipulated Arab opinion by misinforming them and showing them drawings that never even appeared in our newspaper, making them believe that we are continuing to publish the caricatures," Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who commissioned the cartoons, told Agence France-Presse news agency.
In European interviews, the Danish clerics acknowledged presenting the additional cartoons to Islamic leaders in Egypt. But they insist that it was only to show examples of the types of anti-Islamic slurs that occur in the West and that they did not misrepresent the cartoons as those published in the Danish paper.
The extent to which the "extra" cartoons were circulated by e-mail or by fax and influence the protests is uncertain.
Vidino believes the dozen cartoons that appeared in the newspaper were sufficient to outrage Muslims, who believe any depiction of Muhammad is sacrilegious. "This whole thing probably would have started just with the 12 cartoons," Vidino said. "But by adding the others, it was just a sign of the malice that this guy's going around the Middle East and stirring up trouble against the country where he lives."
Vidino said Abu-Laban has ties to extremists - he once served as a translator for Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, when Zawahiri was based in Copenhagen in the early 1990s. Danish journalists said in interviews that Abu-Laban has also expressed public admiration for bin Laden.
Abu-Laban's credibility in Denmark has been under attack in the last week after he told Danish television interviewers in English that he said he disapproved of the Muslim boycott, while he was quoted in the Arabic media as praising the outrage at his adopted country.
"We have clearly noted that in certain situations, some people are speaking with two tongues," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week. "The government watches what news and information is circulated in Arabic countries very closely so we can catch false stories and correct them immediately."
Abu-Laban has close ties with international Islamic leaders. His delegation to Egypt in November that carried the cartoons met with Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa and Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the celebrated Islamic university. He also met with one of Sunni Islam's most influential scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi runs a Web site, IslamOnline.net, that reported on the visit.
Theories about the origins of the "extra" cartoons have been circulating on Internet blogs in the West, feeding anti-Muslim sentiments.
The combination of the violent protests in the Muslim world and revulsion in the West at images of burning embassies in the Middle East only exacerbates the raw feelings. Some say extremists on both sides of the Islamic-Western divide are living up to their worst stereotypes. "Unfortunately, these situations bring out extremists on both sides, from those in the West who think Islam is a violent, irrational faith, to people in the Muslim world who use violence to further their cause," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "That quickly leads to a downward spiral."
"It's at times like this that mainstream people of goodwill need to come together and build bridges of understanding that aren't built on stereotypes," he said.