February 16, 2006
A Bitter Pill for Europe to Swallow
Fear spreads that Mohammed cartoon backlash will damage European-Mideast relations.
A Danish employee of the European Union in Brussels confides that she is so fearful of Muslim anger over the now-infamous cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper that she is afraid to go home.
Unnerved Danish members of the European Parliament refuse to comment on the violent protests in the Arab world and even normally chatty European analysts said in interviews that they are withholding speculation for fear of fanning the flames.
"This is the first time there is a profound argument between modern Europe and the Islamic world," said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony's College at Oxford University. "Now Europe is getting a taste of what Israel and the U.S. have long had to contend with."
The furor has prompted all sorts of speculation. Many Europeans are wondering what Europe's grappling with Islamic anger might mean to the delicate balance of E.U.-Middle East relations. Meanwhile, some analysts hypothesized that the protests were part of a wider Islamic effort to pressure the European Union into a softer approach on Islam, and in particular Iran.
Whatever the case, shock and sometimes even fear gripped the 25-member European bloc following days of anti-Danish and anti-European demonstrations during which Muslims vented their rage -- in several cases setting fire to embassies -- over 12 cartoons that appeared in Jyllands-Posten last fall.
The cartoons satirized the relationship between Islam and terrorism, in one case showing the prophet telling terrorists that there were no more virgins left to reward them for their acts. Numerous other newspapers across Europe have reprinted the cartoons in recent days to show solidarity with the Danes and to support freedom of speech.
As the protests grew more severe, with angry mobs in London and the Middle East calling for the beheading of the Danish newspaper's editor and the cartoonist, Danish leaders and the newspaper apologized.
But their words have not quelled the anger in some quarters. In Iran, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini claimed that a Zionist conspiracy was behind the cartoons while stones and petrol bombs were tossed at the Danish and Austrian embassies. Austria holds the E.U. presidency.
Elsewhere, Norwegian peacekeeping troops were fired on in Afghanistan, gunmen threatened to attack a French learning center in Nablus and, for the Danes, the most shocking incident was the police failure to halt the burning of their embassy in Damascus.
These developments come at a precarious time for European-Middle East relations, with Europeans grappling how to deal with Iran's nuclear threat and future funding of the Palestinians, now that Hamas has come to power.
Ottolenghi noted that the Muslim demonstrations were occurring nearly five months after the cartoons appeared.
"So why now? There is nothing spontaneous about what is happening," he said. "Denmark is going to be the chair of the U.N. Security Council when the decision about Iran's nuclear activities is made and these protests are intended to make the Danes feel the heat."
Ottolenghi said he suspects the riots are also intended as a message to those E.U. leaders hoping to maintain a hard line with Hamas.
"This violence is clearly intended to intimidate Denmark in particular and Europe in general and to push them to have a more accommodating attitude toward Hamas," he said.
Such forecasts do not sit well with Jans Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European Parliament.
"The Danish apology should be accepted and we can all have normal relations again. I think these violent elements are not the view of the majority in the Arab world. There is only one way forward: dialogue and peace. It will all be settled and then things will be back to normal," he said.
Ottolenghi scorned the Dane's "wishful thinking" that he said typified the European "whitewashing" of political Islam.
"They want to see it as kosher because they have no idea how to respond to the threat of Islamic violence," he said.
If the European elite appeases the masses of angry protesters with continued apologies and promises of greater press respect for Islam, Ottolenghi said, some Muslims will feel that violence pays off.
The question of how to handle political Islam looms large within E.U. borders following the Al Qaeda attack on a Madrid train in 2004, the London train and bus bombings last summer attributed to Islamists and the 2004 murder of a Dutch filmmaker who criticized Islam's treatment of women.
"It is clear now the European governments do not have a common position on what to do when they are haunted by political Islam," said Richard Whitman, head of the European program for Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
The French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy decried the firing of a French newspaper editor who ran the Mohammed cartoon. Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, took a different tack, calling the reprinting of the cartoons in various newspapers "disrespectful."
There are approximately 14 million Muslims in Europe and the number is growing rapidly as they have a much higher birthrate than non-Muslim Europeans.
France has the largest Muslim and Jewish population in the European Union, with 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews. Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands also have sizeable Muslim populations.
Most analysts agreed that leaders in E.U. countries were more concerned about the impact of the cartoon row on relations with Muslims within their borders than with relations with the Palestinians. But some said that an awareness of Islamic violence might create greater sympathies for Jewish issues.
"When Europeans see E.U. flags being burned in Palestine, people are asking themselves if this is the reward for spending all that money there," said Marc Hecker of the French Institute of International Relations.
Ottolenghi was harsher on what he perceived as European hypocrisy.
"The Europeans have for years been deriding Israel for the way it behaves, saying how much more sensitive they are to the Muslims, but now that it's Norwegian soldiers being stoned in Afghanistan, not Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, they might view things a bit differently."