TOPICS: Cartoon row: Extremists may win

The Danish cartoons row refuses to go away, reverberating with sound and fury across the Islamic world. This reflects the deep affront felt by many Muslims. But it is clear that the uproar has deeper causes, which Westerners, struggling to fathom the rage sparked by Jyllands-Posten’s crude caricatures, and Muslims, fearing a growing cl-ash of cultures, ignore at their peril.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, a spiritual leader, was not alone in characterising the controversy as integral to an ongoing, unifying pan-Islamic revolt against oppression. “The nation must rage in anger,’’ he said. “Whoever was angered and did not rage is a jackass. We are not a nation of jackasses for riding, but lions that roar.’’ But it was also “a storm signal of worse to come’’, journalist and author Neal Ascherson warned on the openDemocracy website. Europeans had been left wondering whether compromise was possible with a minority’s religious dogmatism while “millions of peaceful Muslims are now inclined to listen more respectfully to those who tell them that the West intends to exterminate Islam by slander and humiliation as preludes to war’’.

A protest in Nigeria morphed into lethal assaults on Christians. Militant Afghans tried to turn protests on February 20 into an Al Qaeda recruitment drive. In Pakistan, the evolving target of rallies is not Denmark but the unelected president, Pervez Musharraf, and his US alliance. In Beirut, the destruction of the Danish embassy was blamed on Syrian agents more interested in destabilising Lebanon than punishing blasphemy. Predictably, hardliners in Iran and the US have used the fracas to justify their mutual antipathy. Parallel controversies have kept the issue hot, ranging from the allegations of Iraqi prisoner abuse by British and US troops to attempted international ostracism of Hamas, Palestine’s new rulers.

Analysts have suggested that Western opinion is failing to grasp the ramifications of pan-Islamic political intifada. Rooted in poverty, poor education and lack of democracy, it is driven by Palestine, Iraq, oil politics, and the thoughtless demonisation of all Muslims in the post-9/11 “war on terror’’. It increasingly challenges established regim-es. It has growing access to uncontrolled media — media that publicised last year’s Quran desecration scandal. The revolt’s unifying banner is Islam. And more than ever before, Islam can freely talk to itself.

“The West must learn to engage with opposition forces and end support for authoritarian governments,” said David Mepham of the Institute for Public Policy Research. “There is a need to draw attention to the very real diversity and popularity of Islamist groups which constitute the main bulk of the opposition to existing regimes. “Those groups that renounce violence should receive support,’’ he said. But engagement could not stop there. Talks between the US and Europe and the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah might be required if the extremists’ grip was to be loosened and mutual repulsion rechannelled into collaborative reform. — The Guardian