Anger at Europe may have legs
Muslim furor over cartoons could bring political fallout
Elizabeth Bryant, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, February 10, 2006
Paris -- For years, Western Europe has played the good cop to America's bad cop in much of the Islamic world. Its governments have offered a sympathetic ear and billions of dollars to the Palestinian cause, and millions of its citizens have poured into the streets to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But these days, the Great Satan has competition. Now, it is European embassies that are being torched and attacked by rampaging protesters in Beirut and Damascus. European products are being boycotted in Dubai and Pakistan, and European nationals are facing death threats and warnings not to travel to volatile areas.
European analysts warn that the furor over the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad could have longer-term political consequences for the continent.
"Europeans are already being perceived in more negative terms than they have in the past," said Richard Whitman, an analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. If not soon resolved, the situation could lead to a "downward spiral" in relations between Europe and much of the Muslim world, he said.
Anti-European anger continued Thursday, with demonstrations occurring in Lebanon, Bangladesh and South Africa, but the intensity of the protests appeared to subside, and there were increasing calls from Arab and Muslim government officials and commentators for an end to the violence. And in a further attempt to tamp down the storm, the Danish paper Jyllands Posten, which first published the drawings in September, posted a letter in Arabic on its Web site apologizing to Muslims for the "misunderstanding" the cartoons provoked.
But analysts in France say that even after the furor dies down, its impact may linger.
"Diplomatically, I think that the Arab countries are going to be re-looking at their relationship with the European Union, particularly by requiring a certain amount of respect (on issues like religion)," said Luis Martinez, a North African and Middle East expert at the International Study and Research Center in Paris. "Even if this doesn't necessarily correspond to European values."
Already, Denmark, the country at the center of the cartoon storm, is feeling the bite of diplomatic reprisals. Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran have withdrawn their envoys in protest at the images and the Danish government's refusal to apologize -- a refusal reiterated by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday. Iraq's Transport Ministry has canceled contracts with Danish firms and refuses to accept aid from Denmark, which has a small contingent of soldiers as part of the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq. After Danish and Norwegian embassies were set afire in Lebanon and Syria, Denmark withdrew a number of its diplomatic missions overseas.
Publicly, European officials argue the cartoons are unlikely to inflict lasting damage with the Arab world. "This episode, dismaying as it has been for both sides, will not undermine partnerships built up over such a long time," said Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission.
These partnerships are cemented partly by geographical proximity. The bulk of North African trade, involving countries such as Algeria and Morocco, is conducted with Europe, particularly its former colonial power, France. A decade-old Euro-Mediterranean agreement is aimed at forging closer economic, diplomatic and defense relations between the Western and Middle Eastern sides of that sea.
While there have been scattered calls for broader boycotts against European products -- Danish industry estimates it has lost more than $55 million in sales in the Middle East in the past week -- analysts are skeptical that such economic moves will amount to much.
"These countries will have a hard time putting into practice their refusal to consume European goods," said Martinez of the Paris center. "Even more because it will be hard to discern in large supermarket chains like (the French supermarket company) Carrefour what product comes from Denmark, or Sweden or Italy."
Still, Europe's relationship with Islam both inside and outside its borders had become increasingly uneasy before the cartoon row erupted. A series of deadly events -- from the Madrid and London terrorist bombings, to the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the recent riots across France -- have sown growing distrust and friction between largely secular Europeans and some 20 million Muslims living inside the continent's borders.
"European societies haven't quite worked out how to reconcile a very large Islamic citizenry with secular societies," Whitman of the Royal Institute said. With the cartoon protests, he said, "they're facing an externalization of that problem in their relationship with the Muslim world."
At the same time, European Muslims have, for the most part, reacted in a low-key way to the cartoon controversy, even though much of the anger was originally fanned by Islamic clerics from Denmark who circulated the cartoons in the Middle East after they said they were unable to air their grievances to Danish authorities.
But other events also are shaping Europe's changing relationship with the Muslim world. Unlike its splintered reaction over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the region is marching in lockstep with Washington on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program to insisting Syria disengage in Lebanon and refusing to countenance a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories unless it recognizes the state of Israel and rejects violence.
The danger, say some analysts, lies in Europe's incomprehension of the cultural disconnects it now frequently encounters. "The whole situation and the way it's unfolding right now made the point that the Europeans are relatively unprepared when it comes to clash-of-civilization issues," said Fabrizio Tassinary, an international affairs professor at the University of Copenhagen.
One British Muslim leader believes Europe's sometimes abrasive relations with its own Islamic communities may be contributing to the shaping of a more negative image in the Muslim world. "People will remember this wave of Islamophobic policies that have manifested themselves in France, in Holland, in Germany," said Daud Abdullah, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
Tassinary is more optimistic.
"Now, governments understand how serious the matter is getting -- they'll hopefully put the situation back on track," he said.