A 'dangerous moment' for Europe and IslamÂ
By Alan Cowell The New York Times
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2006
LONDON As Islamic protests grew against the publication in Europe of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, a small Arab movement active in Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark responded with a drawing on its Web site of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank. "Write this one in your diary, Anne," Hitler was shown as saying.
The intent of the cartoon, the Arab European League said, was "to use our right to artistic expression" just as the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten did when it published a group of cartoons showing Muhammad last September. "Europe has its sacred cows, even if they're not religious sacred cows," said Dyab Abou Jahjah, the founder of the organization, which claims rights for immigrants aggressively but without violence.
Such contrasts have produced a worrisome sense that the conflict over the cartoons has pushed both sides across an unexpected threshold, where they view each other with miscomprehension and suspicion. "This feels to me like a defining moment," said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford professor of European history. "It is a crunch time for Europe and Islam," he said, "it is an extremely dangerous moment," one that could lead to "a downward spiral of mutual perceptions, and not just between extremists."
As often violent protests against the cartoons and attacks on Danish diplomatic missions have spread to the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, some Europeans have come to realize that relatively small Muslim minorities - 3 percent of the population in Britain, 4 percent in Denmark, and around 5 percent in the European Union as a whole - wield a hitherto untapped power from across the Islamic world.
"No longer is the issue merely that of belittling an immigrant group," wrote JÃ¼rgen Gottschlich, a German journalist based in Istanbul. "Just as there are heroes of free speech in Denmark, there are also heroes - from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa to Indonesia - who are ready to take to the barricades to defend their prophet's dignity."
Ibrahim Magdy, a 39-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian who runs a florist business in Rome, said, "The problem now is that when you say something or do something you are not just talking to the Egyptians or to the Syrians or to the Saudis, but you are talking to the entire Muslim world."
For some people in Europe, the cartoons precipitated a profound debate about freedom of expression and the supposed double standards that affect Muslims and Christians at many levels in Europe. For others, the spreading protest against the cartoons signified a hardening of extremes that left little room for moderate voices. "The moderate Muslim has again been effectively silenced," said Tabish Khair, a professor of English at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.
For decades European nations have wrestled with an influx of immigrants who came for economic and political reasons primarily from lands where Islam is the dominant faith. Many Muslim immigrants feel they have never been fully welcomed.
But the catalogue of Islamic terror - from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States to the March 2004 bombings in Madrid and the July 2005 London attacks - has challenged governments and societies to distinguish between moderates and such extremists as the four British-born Muslims who killed themselves and 52 other people in the attacks on London's transport system.
Ostensibly, said Garton Ash, the clash has pitted two sets of values against one another - freedom of expression and multiculturalism - with the latter demanded of societies in which Muslim immigrant populations, initially seen as a temporary labor force in the 1960s, have become permanent and expanding.
But beyond that, there is a seething resentment among some Muslims that they are treated as second-class citizens and potential terrorists in lands that deny the importance of their faith, even though the number of Muslims in Europe totals 20 million, and possibly many more.
"If you have black hair it is really difficult to find a job," said Muhammad Elzjahim, 22, a construction worker of Palestinian descent whose parents moved to Denmark when he was 2 and who said he studied dental engineering for three and a half years only to find that "it was for nothing because I couldn't find a job in my field."
That mistrust is mirrored by a gnawing sense among some Europeans that their plump welfare states have come to host an unwelcome minority that does not share their values and may even represent a fifth column of potential insurgents, who project themselves as the victims of Islamophobia and discrimination in housing, jobs and social status.
"The radicals don't want an agreement, they don't want the round table," said Rainer Mion, 44, an insurance agent in Berlin. "What they want is to spread their Islamic beliefs all over the world."
Giulio Cordese, 50, a salesman in an Italian delicatessen in Berlin, added: "We have to make a point here. Personally, I would expel all Muslims in the concerned countries. Because they simply don't accept democratic rules here."
But that goes to the core of the debate: Which rules apply to which people?
In London on Tuesday, Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian cleric who is also wanted in the United States on terrorism charges, was sentenced to seven years for incitement to murder in public speeches. Five days earlier, Nick Griffin, head of the hard-right and anti-immigrant British National Party, was acquitted on race hate charges relating to alleged assaults on Islam as a "vicious, wicked faith."
The different outcomes provoked fresh accusations that British justice - like British society, by this argument - discriminates against Muslims. "We seem to have different standards when we deal with these issues from different communities," said Massoud Shadjareh, head of London's Islamic Human Rights Commission.
Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published the cartoons, insisted in an interview last week that his interest in publishing them lay solely in asserting the right to free speech over religious taboos.
"When Muslims say you are not showing respect, I would say: you are not asking for my respect, you are asking for my submission," he said.
That apprehension was echoed in an editorial in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that said: "In America, few people fear that they will have to live according to the norms of Islam. In European countries, with a large or growing Muslim minority, there is a real fear that behind the demand for respect hides another agenda: the threat that everyone must adjust to the rules of Islam."
In response, some fear that it is European values and freedoms that are under direct threat.
In 2000, Islamic pressure was held responsible in the Netherlands and Belgium for the cancellation of an opera about Aisha, the youngest wife of Muhammad. In 2005, a Moroccan-Dutch painter, Rachid Ben Ali, went into hiding after death threats related to an exhibit showing "hate-imams" spitting bombs. And in 2004 the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed for committing what his confessed killer called blasphemy in a film called "Submission" about violence against Muslim women.
In the Netherlands, where the population of 16 million includes a million Muslims, some people have taken to wondering whether their secular values can guarantee social peace. In earlier periods of European history, NRC Handelsblad said, "a small religious dispute could lead to large- or small-scale wars. The Muslim immigration has thrown Europe back to the religious conflicts of the past."
In Britain, some analysts argue that the government of Tony Blair has shown itself ready to promote self-censorship when dealing with Islamic extremism in the interests of averting further terrorist attacks. "Islam is protected by an invisible blasphemy law," said Jasper Gerard, a columnist in The Sunday Times of London. "It is called fear."
In some assessments, the situation rewards those at the extremes. "Islamic fundamentalists and European right-wingers both enjoy a veritable gift that can be used to ignite fire after fire," said Janne Haaland-Matlary, professor of international relations and former deputy foreign minister of Norway.
In Germany, the memory of Nazism has ensured a degree of caution. "We must de-escalate the situation," said Ayyub Axel Koehler, a converted Muslim who heads the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. "It might be easier to do that in Germany than in other countries. This is an experience we've had in Germany before, so we understand the dangers."
Reporting was contributed by Marlise Simons in Paris; Mark Landler and Petra Kappl in Frankfurt; Victor Homola and Sarah Plass in Berlin; Renwick McLean in Madrid; Elisabetta Povoledo in Milan; Peter Kiefer in Rome; and Ivar Ekman in Copenhagen.