Cartoon crisis spawns debate

While Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes flies off on her tour of the Middle East Friday, she must feel some relief that Europe — rather than the US — 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 President Bush, has played a leading role in shaping the US response to the crisis, which has sparked large protests, particularly in the Arab Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She will no doubt be called on to clarify US views at the third annual US-Islamic World Forum in Qatar, as well as in meetings with non-governmental groups and students there and in the 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 re-publication 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 offence 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 supporters, particularly neo-conservatives and other hawks who charged that it smacked of “appeasement” to Islamist radicals and constituted an abandonment of western ideals of freedom in defence of which Bush had purportedly launched his “war on terror”.

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

The crisis has also given rise to a new public discussion reminiscent of the “Why Do They Hate Us” and “Clash of Civilisations” debates that followed the 9/11 attacks. As in those debates, one side argues that radical Islam represents an existential threat to western ideals and that any suggestion that European newspaper publishers should show greater sensitivity to Muslim sentiments constitutes weakness and signals the decline of Western civilisation.

William Kristol, editor of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, asserted that the anti-Danish demonstrations showed that “those who are threatened by our effort to help liberalise and civilise the Middle East are fighting back.”

On the other side of the debate 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 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 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.” — IPS