CARTOON FUROR BEING USED AS EXCUSE TO DENOUNCE WESTERN-STYLE FREEDOMS
by Fawzia Sheikh
on Muslim cartoon protests
Muslim governments are taking advantage of the furor gripping the Muslim world over the cartoon illustrations of Prophet Muhammad, to sidestep calls for democracy in their own countries, some analysts say.
Some Middle East academics and political analysts blame the disturbances on suppressed anger in protesters' homelands, and on continuing resentment over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Western involvement in the war in Iraq.
Since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a series of cartoons in September last year that included Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, angry crowds from the Middle East to Indonesia and Pakistan have attacked Danish and other European embassies, burned their flags, boycotted Danish goods and vowed another 9/11. Police and military in some cases have responded with lethal gunfire.
"It's axiomatic that despotic governments always exploit these kinds of issues to show democratic societies in a bad light," Aryeh Green, a Jerusalem-based business consultant and activist in public diplomacy issues in Israel, told IPS. He said it is a chance to project "personal freedom run amok."
Certain countries such as Iran and to a lesser extent Syria have encouraged demonstrations against Western governments for allowing the media to continue reprinting the offensive cartoons, and taken advantage of the affront against Islamic feelings, said Hisham Ahmed, political science professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, characterized the cartoons as an Israeli conspiracy motivated by anger over the electoral win of Hamas, the militant political party now governing the Palestinian Authority. He said the caricatures were shameful because they originated in a part of the world honoring free expression.
One Iranian newspaper is holding a Holocaust cartoon contest to see how the international community responds.
The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has urged continued Muslim unrest until European parliaments ban their press from insulting Muhammad.
The Islamic world, in which citizens often clamor for greater freedoms, is now ironically arguing for Western governments to clamp down on privately owned and supposedly free media.
Although information ministers in certain countries issued statements about the blasphemous nature of the caricatures, Middle East governments for the most part "viewed the demonstrations as a way of stress relief to divert attention of the Arab people from internal problems vis-ˆ-vis their own governments," Ahmed said.
He said Arab and Muslim governments have shied away from engaging in clashes with citizens frustrated with their regimes over political corruption, lack of civil liberties and the generally slow pace of movement toward democracy.
Iran has been accused of manipulating the massive protests to distract the world from resumption of its nuclear research. Some analysts say Syria, in turn, is attempting to deflect attention from accusations that it had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
George Giacaman, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, questioned the validity of the evidence supporting such theories. The cartoons did genuinely touch a raw nerve, Giacaman said. "You can't get people to go out to demonstrate and boycott unless they want to."
But he said he is not ruling out an element of political opportunism by certain governments in Muslim countries to criticize Western freedoms.
Giacaman said the political dimension of escalating anger over the drawings entwine Muslim resentment over the plight of Palestinians and the role of the West in war-torn Iraq.
Moreover, he said, many Arabs and Muslims have experienced a cultural invasion through technology, the Internet and satellite television over decades that they see as a sign of "moral depravity" in the West.
"It is now an occasion for them to exercise a counter-cultural invasion using market forces," he said. "If others want them to consume products, then there are limits on freedom of speech related to Muslim holy figures."
Despite an array of motives fueling dissent and economic boycotts around the world, some political experts anticipate contentious religious movements stand to benefit.
One of the most likely beneficiaries of an anti-Western backlash is Hamas, which in the past has talked about imposing strict Muslim laws in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, said Ahmed.
Hamas has not used worldwide Muslim anger to implement controversial religious policies, but its ultimate plans for Palestinians may become more apparent following its official swearing-in as the new government later this month.
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February 16, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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