Cartoon strife hints at deeper discord

“Thousands of young white men have converged on Cronulla Beach in Sydney, Australia, and attacked people of Arab and Mediterranean background.” This news lede actually appeared in the BBC last December. The race riots in Australia were alarming, to be sure, but where was the global sense of shock and alarm that has prevailed in the case of the Danish cartoon controversy?

Daniel Koffler’s editorial “Exploring the roots of Danish controversy” (2/15) does not answer the question it sets out to explore. Koffler asks, “What are the root causes … of the Cartoon Intifada?” In the 919 words that follow the opening sentence, he goes on to reproduce the surface level description and analysis of the controversy that we have already seen in the major media. The hunch Koffler expresses, that there are more elements of this story than a set of cartoons and angry mobs burning down an embassy, is correct. I have been frustrated with commentators from both the left and the right who have simply dismissed the unrest as irrational or stupid. Irrationality is not an explanation. To any student of social science, it should be clear that something else is going on in this situation.

More than being a question of “root causes” (a dubious term, I agree), a full explanation of the unrest across the “Muslim world” (another dubious term) must take into account the broader context, mainly the war on terrorism.

But before I continue, let me make a brief disclaimer: I am not an expert on the Muslim world. I have never been to any of the countries in question. My comments should not carry any special weight. I am merely asking for a more reflective attitude toward these questions, among other people in the West who like me do not have privileged knowledge of what is happening in any of the dozens of places where the unrest is taking place.

First of all, there is the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Riaz Hassan, visiting sociology professor at Yale, brought up a key empirical claim in a faculty panel last week: that the war on terrorism is viewed in the Muslim world as a war on Islam. Whether the war truly targets the totality of Islam is not the question. This perception could not be more important in understanding events that center on relations between the West and the Islamic world. This finding is corroborated by the Pew Research Center’s 2004 study that anger against the United States in the Muslim world has intensified since the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since the war in Iraq was caused such high levels of distrust and anger, Denmark’s membership in the “coalition of the willing should not be seen as irrelevant.

Second, there is a question of cultural misunderstanding here. As University of Michigan historian Juan Cole wrote, “The Muslims honor Moses and Jesus, so there is no symmetry between Christian attacks on Muhammad and Muslim critiques of the West. No Muslim cartoonist would ever lampoon the Jewish and Christian holy figures in sacred history, since Muslims believe in them, too, even if they see them all as human prophets.” I am hesitant to put forward cultural explanations for what are really political events and issues. By itself culture is not the ultimate cause of any violence. I do not however think we can pretend to understand the unrest without situating it culturally.

To get back to the political elements of the problem, I’ll quote an e-mail I received from a friend who is studying in Cairo and witnessed the demonstrations herself. “I think people are scared, and fed up, and frustrated, and angry — about Iraq, about their own governments, about the fact that you can’t be buried in an Islamic manner in Denmark, and about the cartoons.” Given these multiple layers of oppression and resentment, it seems quite possible that the controversy over the cartoons was merely the spark that unleashed a wave of highly confrontational protest. In many of these places, the police presence may not be strong enough to prevent the rioting and violence that occurred in cities like Beirut.

I agree with Koffler that a government should not have to apologize for the outcome of a free press. Self-critical gestures on behalf of the West and the First World are not a bad instinct. Non-Muslims should not dismiss the uproar as “stupid” as if they are somehow superior in their behavior. The race riots in Australia last December should be at least as alarming. We shouldn’t rush to explain or assess the violence in the Middle East before placing it in its proper context of an encounter with Western power.

Jared Malsin is a junior in Berkeley College.