Just a quick note on the Danish cartoons and the seemingly spiraling
'clash of civilizations' (a term much in vogue on Arab op-ed pages and
talk shows these days). Briefly: this is what the word "StupidStorm" was invented for.
If the Danish cartoons hadn't existed, al-Qaeda would have paid good money to create them. The cartoons are the ideal
mobilizational issue for radical Islamists, tailor made to stoke up passions and to silence moderate voices and to cut off the possibility of dialogue. What al-Qaeda wants more than anything else is to heighten the
salience of Islamic identity among the Muslims of the world and to
sharpen the contradictions between that Islamic identity and "the
West." Nothing could
have served al-Qaeda's cause better, and I'm sure that bin Laden has
already sent the various European publishers multiple mash notes, along
with anonymous letters urging more papers to publish the cartoons.
And all the Western commentators fanning the flames... well, to quote Angel, "they fall for it every time."
The cartoons crisis does not "prove" that there is a "clash of civilizations": it provides an opportunity for those on both sides who want a "clash of civilizations" to help make it come true. The appropriate response to such cynical mobilization is not to embrace it but to deflate it. Mishari al-Zaydi,
a thoughtful critic of Islamism for al-Sharq al-Awsat, remarks that
Muslims - like any people- have the right to be angry and to protest over an insult to their religion,
but shouldn't resort to violence.. and that now is the time for
reasonable people to step in. Because, Zaydi writes, there are
definitely people who don't want the conflict to end - they want a
clash of civilizations, and it's up to reasonable people to stop them. That sounds right to me - on both sides.
I've been dismayed by how the media has handled itself on all sides. Al-Jazeera has not been particularly constructive, which is especially disappointing after I just sat on a panel at its Forum on the topic of whether the media could be a "bridge between civilizations". Even if its coverage of the story itself could be defended in purely professional terms - it is, after all, now a big story, and I haven't seen any other networks, Arab or Western, abstaining from coverage - al-Jazeera does seem to have a particular gusto for the story. It can't be an accident that Faisal al-Qassem, the presenter most likely to turn a show into a screaming match, was chosen to host the most recent "Behind the News" program about the cartoons rather than its more reasonable, mild-mannered regular hosts Mohammed Krichane or Jumana al-Namour (her January 21 show, for instance, was much calmer - her guests included the Egyptian moderate Islamist Mohammed Selim al-Awa) - or that he presented the conflict in his opening statement as a conflict between East and West rather than as a conflict between, say, extremists and moderates. Check out this photo gallery from the Arabic website, or this one, and tell me how it differs from one which might appear on Fox News? I read in al-Safir (though can't verify for myself) that al-Arabiya broadcast an apology from a Danish official, while al-Jazeera did not: if true, that's a poor editorial decision on al-Jazeera's part. I know that on-line polls don't mean anything, but right now 85% of an al-Jazeera one say that the response of Arab governments has been "too weak." Overall, al-Jazeera just doesn't seem to be able to help itself on this one, which is a shame: it is playing to populism, rather to to pluralism, which I identified in my book as one of the greatest dangers for the new Arab public.
It isn't just al-Jazeera, of course. The religious stations, like Iqra, seem to be playing an actively inflammatory role. The current "most read" and "most emailed" story on al-Arabiya is about an Italian cabinet member calling for the use of force against Muslims and for a "Crusader" war - not inflammatory at all, right? All in all, not a great couple of weeks for the "new Arab public."
The only bright side is that voices of reason are beginning to assert themselves in the Arab media, even if they may be having trouble getting traction in the hyper-politicized environment. I've seen at least a dozen op-eds in the last few days saying some variation of "shame on you for offending the Prophet, but shame on Muslims for reacting as they did." A lot of ordinary Muslims - not extremists - are genuinely upset about this, and their legitimate anger should not be conflated with the manufactured "rage" of the extremists. Moderate Islamists - who stand to lose the most from an incident which strengthens extremists and closes down the possibilities for dialogue - have begun to step forward. Yusuf al-Qaradawi supported the calls for a boycott, but condemned violence and riots. (MEMRI, for its part, declined to mention that second part, even though it was the lead on Qaradawi's own site. Nice.) Fahmy Howeidy similarly combines anger over the defamation of the prophet with anger at the violent, non-rational response. Ditto for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
So far this controversy is running according to script: strengthening extremists on both sides and silencing the middle, creating a clash of civilizations that shouldn't exist and making a mockery of reasonable public discourse. And that, my friends, is a StupidStorm. Can voices of reason break through?
PS. The sacking of embassies in Lebanon and Syria? I'm not sure about Lebanon, to be honest, but in Syria it's hard to argue with the "blame Bashar" crowd. Large mobs generally don't sack foreign embassies in Damascus without a green light from above... and probably a map, and some gasoline.