Until this weekend I classed the Muslim cartoon fracas as an interesting story I didn't have time to follow. But with the outrage yielding some of the most violent attacks the Middle East has seen lately (outside of Iraq, that is) - namely the sacking of the Danish consulate in Beirut and of the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus - the protesters have gotten what they clearly are after: a closer look from the Western media.
The story is labyrinthine and goes something like this: A Danish children's book author penned a tale about the Mohammed and couldn't find an illustrator willing to buck a supposed Muslim prohibition on images of the prophet (think Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh).
Hearing that story, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands Posten challenged a group of cartoonists to interpret Mohammad. They came up with images including one in which his turban was a bomb with the lit wick. The paper published these back in September, and the uproar has mounted steadily fueled by a variety of half-apologies wrapped within defenses of freedom of speech. Several European papers reprinted the images last week, whereas American papers for the most part have not. The images themselves and a detailed chronology of the affair are available at Wikipedia.
So, what the hell's really going on? It's hard to remember the last time anyone got seriously mad at the Scandinavians. After all, the Danish are among the west's most generous aid donors (however, those funds have been cut back in the last few years under a right-wing government). Denmark was part of the original coalition in the Iraq war and has about 500 men in serving in Iraq.
The issues are complex. There's no question that Jyllands-Posten and other newspapers had the right to publish the images. For those that republished them knowing their incendiary impact, thorny questions of balancing newsworthiness with sensitivity arise: Egyptian papers routinely publish offensive anti-Semitic images; yet it might be legitimate for another paper to republish some of these in a story about the Egyptian media's hostility to Jews.
While attributing the acts of an independent newspaper to the Danish government betrays a lack of understanding of how a free press works, Copenhagen may have waited too long to sit down with Muslim leaders over the crisis, inadvertently fueling its escalation.
For those trying to take a step back and interpret, at least two things are worth talking about.
One is the rise of virulent Muslim extremism in Europe, fueling violent outbreaks that seem to be coming more and more frequently - the train attacks in Spain, the London subway bombings, the French riots last summer.
The tension goes deep, with some Europeans feeling that to completely accommodate Muslims in their midst would be to surrender the enlightened, secular ideals on which Europe was built (thus the French headscarf kerfuffle a few years back). But the longer Europe goes without forging a broad two-way accommodation with its growing immigrant populations, the worse the extremism and resentment will get.
These days many European Muslims face the 21st century dilemma of whether to become a jihadi or a dentist. Their governments need to take urgent steps to tip those scales - improving education, extending economic opportunity, protecting civil rights, forging close alliances with pragmatic Muslim leaders - or find themselves hostage to terrorist attacks at home that will shred the very ideals they believe they are defending.
Unfortunately Denmark 's moving in the wrong direction, enforcing required Danish lessons and stricter marriage and citizenship laws. Europe needs to mount a full court press that's part civil rights era-style reconciliation/integration between majority and minority groups, part War on Poverty-style efforts to combat Muslim unemployment, economic deprivation and social isolation, and part War on Terror-type efforts to identify and crack-down on violent radicals. And they need to do it soon.
This battle of ideas (which will wind up being at least as much a battle of experience - namely what is the experience of young Muslims who wind up deciding whether to apply to a Bin Laden training camp on the Afghan border or the Royal College of Dentistry) waged within Europe could turn out to be as important to combating terror as any United States efforts at rapprochement in the Middle East.
The second observation relates to something I wrote about once before here: Shibley Telhami's concept of the "prism of pain" (forgive me, Prof. Telhami, lest I distort your prism) through which groups and sub-cultures view the world. The most painful event or phenomenon becomes the lens through which all else is viewed: for the Jews, the Holocaust; for African-Americans, slavery; for black South Africans, apartheid; for Muslims, Western incursions and insults.
The cartoons have unmistakably clouded the prism of Muslims around the world (protests are surfacing in Pakistan and Indonesia, as well as Europe and the Middle East). But its also clear that the prism itself is thickening and distorting to the point where a printed caricature can trigger violent protests around the world (the way a rumor about a Koran flushed down the toilet did last Spring). The depth of the "pain" felt by Muslims (to generalize grossly) as a result of of felt offenses by the West has deepened in recent years and specifically since the start of the Iraq war. Almost anything now risks being distorted and, at the same time, the Muslim prism is getting harder to penetrate, making it more difficult for the west and Muslims to communicate and see eye to eye.
One reason for targeting Scandinavian diplomatic facilities may simply be that they can: American installations have been fortified to the tune of billions. These incidents are more evidence that Karen Hughes and Iraqi elections aside, relations between the West and the Muslim world are moving in the wrong direction.