When I sat down last Tuesday night to write this column, the internet search engine Google News was listing over 2200 articles in English only written about the Danish cartoon controversy, followed with over 1900 articles by the Iranian nuclear controversy. At first sight, there is no obvious connection between the two controversies. The first one pits two concepts against one another: freedom of expression –which is, far from it, not a ‘western concept’ and certainly not an ‘absolute right’– and religious precepts, which, as a case in point, prohibits in the Islamic faith the painting or drawing of the Prophet Muhammad (BPUH). The fact that the cartoons published initially by a Danish newspaper and subsequently reproduced by various European media outlets depicted the Prophet in a way that shocked Muslims the world over (as well as many non Muslims it should be noted) has only added fuel to the fire, so much so that the controversy has become an international crisis. It struck a raw nerve.
While some politicians and analysts are suggesting that the issue is being exploited for political purposes by radical elements, or regimes, the truth remains that whereas the initial publication last September of these cartoons was already blasphemous, their reprint months later was understood to be a provocation, a plot against Islam. But if this were to be indeed the case, Moslems ought to reflect and deflect the trap rather than fall into it, for the aim of a provocateur is to set the agenda. And when watching on television burned down European embassies and places of worship of other faiths, I cannot help but think that such violent actions do not serve Islam, nor do they serve Moslems and the already often misunderstood and misconstrued understanding of Islam in the West.
And yet, the eruption of violence that we witness did not spring out of nowhere. It is the expression of a much deeper malaise, a crisis that permeates the Moslem world, and which keeps the West nervously guessing –there is a billion Moslems in the world today; over 20 million of them live in Europe, which made European chanceries, study carefully last year’s week-long riots all over France.
Eventually, the crisis over cartoons will fade away –hopefully with fewer deaths– just as the sudden outburst of passionate violence died out after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa which made Rushdie a world-famous writer overnight. But whenever words or cartoons trigger such emotions and violence, it suggests a deep-rooted and dangerous frailty of an entire community that is at first glance ready and capable of self-defence, but ultimately prone to being manipulated, misled, and trapped –particularly in a tense post-9/11 international context when larger and far more consequential political battles are being fought.
Quietly, maps are being drawn up: Israel’s Acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, stated on Tuesday that Israel would separate from, but not negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians. It will annex all of the Jordan Valley, which would leave a future Palestinian state on the West Bank entirely surrounded by Israel and without a direct link to neighbouring countries(just like the Bantustans of Apartheid South Africa). Olmert went as far as to assert that Israel will “keep Jerusalem unified”. In fact, Olmert killed single-handedly the “Road Map”, but on Google, however, this story had a mere 250 articles listed. Where is the protest? Shouldn’t the energy deployed during the last few days by angry Muslims over the cartoons lampooning the prophet –even if these are deeply offensive and blasphemous– be channelled elsewhere? Is this anger a warning or an outlet of frustrations? Is it a show of force or does it display a state of disarray?
At this point, it is also critical to protest against Sharon’s Wall of separation that is about to put El Qods firmly in the hands of Israel. By next month, the case of Iran, which will be brought before the Security Council of the United Nations, will dominate the international agenda. Not Olmert’s heralded annexation of Palestinian land. Google is a good barometer of things to come.