On to another controversy involving Europe and Islam. A Danish newspaper has apologized for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Four months ago the newspaper ran twelve cartoons, including one showing Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban. Ever since then, protest against Denmark has been building in Arab countries. When the cartoons were reprinted in a Norwegian newspaper, it only added to the controversy.

There were street demonstrations and boycotts of Danish products. Libya and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark. Commentator Shibley Telhami is a government and politics Professor at the University of Maryland. He's also the author of THE STAKES: AMERICA IN THE MIDDLE EAST, and he says the recent protests were only partly about those cartoons.


The strong and widespread reaction in Arab and Muslim countries to the publication in Norway and Denmark of cartoons offensive to Muslims has taken many in the West by surprise. Their anger is not hard to understand. These were offensive cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a manner that touched people's Islamic identity and displayed insensitivity, disrespect and outright contempt. Had anti-Semitic cartoons or anti-Christian cartoons been published in major American newspapers, reactions of Christians and Jews would have been strong and angry and demands on politicians to express condemnation would have been possibly just as great.

But the scope and degree of anger in Arab and Muslim countries has not only led to major demonstrations and calls of boycott, but governments having to take diplomatic action. Some of this can be blamed on a propensity in some Islamic societies not to differentiate between offensive individual statements and acts and the freedom of speech. There is a difference between the right to be angry and to demand an apology, and resisting turning every offensive episode into a large political issue that affects relations between Muslim countries and the West.

But the Muslim outcry reflects a much broader and potentially dangerous mood in Muslim countries, a feeling especially since the Iraq war that many in the West through American leadership are pursuing a policy to weaken the Muslim world. Both Denmark and Norway were coalition partners with the U.S. in a very unpopular war. Surveys in Arab and Muslim countries show that majorities believe that the war was intended to weaken the Muslim world as much as it was intended to control oil. In contrast, with all the remarkable events in France, beginning with the limitations on the use of the veil in French schools, France remained the most popular country in the Arab world, with French president Jacques Chirac identified as the most popular leader, largely because France was redeemed in their eyes by its defiance of American policy in Iraq.

Islamic identity has risen in a number of countries. For aspiring Islamist politicians, it is easy to tap into that identity and anger by using every episode that touches a cord. As they read the power of Islamic groups in Egyptian and Palestinian elections, governments cannot go against the tide. So instead of applying the brakes, they lead the rallies. Reflection is needed here by journalists about the responsibility that comes with the valuable freedom of speech in an increasingly connected world, by Muslims, especially intellectuals, about the dangers of escalading every insult into a crisis, and by policymakers about the state of affairs that has led to such deep suspicion and mistrust in the Muslim world that every challenging episode could quickly turn into a crisis.

SIEGEL: Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland.

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