News Analysis: In the unrest, a warning to Europe

Posted in Europe | 08-Feb-06 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Protestors wave black and green Islamic flags in front of the burning building housing the Danish mission during a protest against publication of caricatures of Islam's revered prophet in European newspapers, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006.
PARIS Explanations for the continuing upheaval in Islamic countries about caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper have moved past a debate about freedom of the press and its depiction of Islam and into areas that project hard, new problems. Possibly greater ones for Europe than the United States.

"It's about more than the caricatures," the Danish foreign minister, Per Stig Moller, has said. "There are forces that want a confrontation between our cultures."

Syria has been accused of being behind mobs' invasions of Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut, and on Tuesday extremists briefly stormed Denmark's embassy in Tehran, not a place where violence is often aimed spontaneously at diplomatic missions.

This has led to a refocused evaluation of events.

Western governments' initial (and understandable) attempts to confine the Danish issue to a manageable discussion about Islam's justified sensitivities and the Western press's justified concern for its liberty are now overtaken by the seemingly patent involvement of Islamic governments in much of the violence directed against the Danes and other Europeans.

Two different - or until now, reluctantly articulated - interpretations of what's going on are emerging:

That the attacks are a direct warning to Europe from Iran, Syria and Islamic extremists of the consequences of its markedly hardened positions on taking Iran's development of nuclear weapons to the United Nations Security Council, and its refusal to consider the newly elected Hamas party as a legitimate Palestinian interlocutor.

That, in a general sense well beyond the caricatures, an attempt is being made to force Denmark to ask forgiveness for making clear its limits in accommodating Islam. This line argues that Denmark has been singled out as the post politically correct European country that is most actively insisting that its immigrants from the Middle East demonstrate compatibility with the European humanist tradition.

The chronology of events reinforces the pertinence of this analysis.

The caricatures were initially published in a Danish newspaper four months ago. Shortly after the New Year, Muslim leaders in Denmark praised the government for expressing concern about the insulting character of drawings, while saying at the same time no apology could be forthcoming from a country that prized the freedom and independence of the press.

But it was only after Europe's subsequent show of determination on the Iran nuclear issue and Hamas's refusal to renounce terrorism and its determination to destroy Israel that the attacks on Danish and other European installations began. Iran and Syria appear to be the leaders of a campaign that other Islamic countries, often running behind sentiment in their streets, have joined.

The Danish center-right government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, while trying to avoid confrontation, has privately told friends that it now believes that not only its own but also Europe's society and sovereignty are being targeted.

The most coherent case that the upheaval is a specific political warning directed at Europe has been made by Olivier Roy, a highly respected French analyst of Iran and the Islamic world.

In a telephone interview, Roy described a significantly changed Middle Eastern equation involving an increased European role in actual fighting in Afghanistan, France's statement that its nuclear deterrence doctrine extends to terrorists and rogue states, and the hard French posture on Syria and its destabilizing role in Lebanon. All this comes alongside Europe's resistant stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions and Hamas.

"There is new trend," he said. "Before you might have argued it was the United States that was interventionist and Europe the neutralists."

And he added: "There is a message going out here to Europe. Don't replace the Americans. Denmark is under attack because it represents Europe. They have gone after Denmark because it is small. There is real desire for vengeance."

The Bush administration's recognition of these circumstances, Roy believes, was characterized by its cautious and secondary role in backing Denmark.

That reserve, possibly explained by a genuinely religious country's discomfort with what it regards as an offensive depiction of a great religion, has been angrily criticized in some Danish newspapers as failed American solidarity. Washington, in turn, expressed its "unambiguous support" for Denmark on Monday.

The argument that Islamic extremist elements want to intimidate Europe from demarcating the areas at home where it will defend its national cultures from the establishment of (at least notional) no-go Islamic enclaves is not part of Roy's thesis.

In fact, the Danish government has been in the forefront in Europe in formulating rules on immigration and integration that instead of new accommodations by the majority essentially demand compatibility with Danish lifestyles from the Muslim immigrant community.

The Danes' sensitivity to the issue has been heightened since the onset of the crisis by statements from imams in that community. In Danish, some imams have talked of reconciliation. But in Arabic, according to press reports, when appearing on Arab radio stations, the imams have been inciters referring to caricatures that never appeared in Denmark or turned out to be fakes.

The government has been in the awkward position of avoiding any justification of its views of the stakes at hand for all of Europe because the Danish opposition has held Rasmussen's line on integration as responsible in part for the problem.

But the reality is that Danish concern for its Danishness crosses party lines, rather as similar worries do in Europe's more powerful nations. When the center-right ousted the Social Democrats from office two elections ago, the then Social Democratic prime minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, campaigned with similar themes, saying Denmark was populated in some cases by people who don't care "a whit for our fundamental values."

Now, the chances for bringing the crisis to a credible end simply by means of new statements about a common will for tolerance are slim.

With eight demonstrators dead this week in Afghanistan - as in Iraq, Danish troops are present there - the real explanations for what is taking place surely go beyond clumsy caricatures first published in a country that once was a preserve of good nature and gentle fortune.

Now, the chances for bringing the crisis to a credible end simply by means of new statements about a common will for tolerance are slim.