Why now?
February 6, 2006 5:22 AM   Subscribe

Why did the violence over the European cartoons of Mohammed erupt when it did?

There are thousands of news stories about the cartoons and subsequent protests, but I'm having trouble finding one that explains the events leading up to the imbroglio in any kind of detail. I'm curious why cartoons published in September of last year suddenly became a source of global unrest four months later.
The BBC has this timeline:
  • 30 Sept 2005: Danish paper publishes cartoons
  • 20 Oct: Muslim ambassadors complain to Danish PM
  • 10 Jan 2006: Norwegian publication reprints cartoons
  • 26 Jan: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador
  • 30 Jan: Gunmen raid EU's Gaza office demanding apology
  • 31 Jan: Danish paper apologises
  • 1 Feb: Papers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain reprint cartoons
  • 4 Feb: Syrians attack Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus
  • 5 Feb: Protesters sack Danish embassy in Beirut
Given this timeline, I suppose another way of phrasing my question is: what prompted the Sauds to recall their ambassador on 26 Jan, rather than earlier or not at all? Can anybody provide a link to a good discussion of the backstory? Thanks in advance.
posted by blue mustard to Society & Culture (13 answers total)
I seem to recall reading a story about how Islamist Imams started passing out the cartoons (along with Danish flags to burn) to start up a ruckus, but can't find a link anymore. The article also mentioned that the Imams included some cartoons that weren't even in the original publications, just to cause even more anger.
posted by antifuse at 5:54 AM on February 6, 2006

IMO the cartoons are just a strawman for the Wahhabist Imams.

The Wahhabists are not hugely common in Europe, the Muslim brotherhood style of politics is much more influential, or at least obvious. I'm guessing they are just trying to stir up some hate against the west which they seem to of been pretty effective at.
posted by public at 6:07 AM on February 6, 2006

Best answer: According to BBC News, diplomatic protests started around October 2005.

The Religious Policeman (a blog from a Saudi Muslim living in London) waspishly suggests that it was deliberately hyped up again so the Saudi authorities wouldn't have to answer real questions about eg the crush that killed thousands at the last Hajj stampede.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 6:08 AM on February 6, 2006

I heard danish muslims took the cartoons to Saudi-Arabia to show friends or relatives, thinking to get support for their (democratic) protests, but unwantedly triggering all the (rather undemocratic) protests that are happening now.
posted by Skyanth at 6:17 AM on February 6, 2006

The theory I've heard over the past few days the most is that which concerns the Imams intentionally initiating the protests, etc...
posted by Atreides at 7:01 AM on February 6, 2006

Best answer: There's an ongoing wikipedia article about this, too... interesting and scary stuff!
posted by Chunder at 7:52 AM on February 6, 2006

Oh, and there's also a bundle of stuff on del.icio.us - but naturally due to the vagaries of folksonomies you'll find stuff under the references "Mohammed cartoon, "Muhammed cartoon", "Muhammad cartoon", and "Mohammad cartoon"... and probably several others.

I must admist that I only had a passing familiarity with this issue until I looked into it in further detail following your question; I thought that the pictures had been posted recently... Hmmm - very odd!
posted by Chunder at 7:57 AM on February 6, 2006

Best answer: According to this post, the issue was revived by Saudia Arabia on January 12, 2006, to distract attention from the 350 people who died in Mecca during the Hajj because of onging Saudi incompetence at crowd control. Since then they have continued to pump it up.

The article also notes that the newspaper which originally published the cartoons in September '05 apologized shortly thereafter.
posted by alms at 8:13 AM on February 6, 2006

Wikipedia gives the date of the apology as Jan. 30.
posted by klangklangston at 8:45 AM on February 6, 2006

Yes, and the protests in Gaza have as much to do with Hamas anger with the EU over economic aid as they do with theological scruple.

(Personally, I fail to see how kidnapping Germans and burning offices of aid agencies makes a stronger case for financial assistance, but then, I don't understand how blowing yourself up is an effective political strategy either.)

Perhaps the protests (which were quite obviously coordinated from above) were intended to shift the terms of dispute from the prosaic (should you be allowed to call for the destruction of the Jewish state and still receive western aid?) to the cultural (clash of nations, disrespect for Islam, etc etc). And I've no doubt that the galvanization of muslims worldwide will translate into concrete financial aid from countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia for the Hamas-led government of the PA.

Additionally, in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of the PA, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have been trying (so far relatively unsuccessfully, thank god) to step up terror attacks within Israel. The thinking is that they're trying to keep the Palestinians on a radicalized course and to prevent rapprochement and bilateral negotiation. If these organizations are behind the protests, the same motive could be in play here.

In any case, the timing is extremely suspicious. You'd have to be quite naive to imagine that the re-ignition of the controversy a full 4 months after the initial publication of the cartoons had nothing to do with recent shifts in Palestinian/European relations.
posted by felix betachat at 8:52 AM on February 6, 2006

While I agree Muslim anger at other issues is clearly at play in the Danish cartoon protests, I think felix betachat is overstressing the Palestinian angle. Muslims outside of Palestine don't often get this worked up over Palestinian issues (to their shame, many Palestinians would say). Anyone looking for political rather than theological roots just needs to look at the benefits that accrue to local imams who succeed in stirring up this kind of furious controversy, whether in Gaza or elsewhere. To lay the entire thing at the feet of the Palestinian election seems a bit much, particularly since one of Hamas' first reactions was to protect a Christian church in Gaza:

Hamas leaders, showing how their role has changed since their election success last week, quickly and publicly reacted to calm fears of Gaza's small Christian population, only 3,000 people. On Thursday, a top Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, visited the only Catholic church in Gaza to condemn any threats against Christians.

"He said he is protecting us not because he is Hamas," said the Rev. Manuel Musallam of the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, who said he has long and friendly relations with Hamas. "But he is protecting Christians and our institutions as the state of Palestine and as a government."

Not sure if that's changed as the protests have heated up, however. Personally, I'd put more of the blame on the Saudi government's desire to shift attention away from the 76 deaths in the Jan. 5 Mecca hostel collapse and the 346 deaths in the Jan. 12 Hajj disaster.
posted by mediareport at 9:49 AM on February 6, 2006

Cite for the quoted text above.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 AM on February 6, 2006

Obviously the situation differs in each particular country, and you can see differences in the speficicity of targets. Syria, in many ways a police state with virtually no democratic expression, which is certainly capable of controlling what it wants, allowed people to burn an embassy. In Lebanon, though, protests spilled over into ethnic clashes along religious lines, some of the worst violence since the civil war there. In Afghanistan, people attacked a US military base, even though the White House has condemned the cartoons (disingenuously, I might add).

The major delayed reaction is primarily due to the group of Danish imams, who only made their trip in December, and who obviously intended it (disingenuously) not to be a buttress to the civilized campaign that Danish Muslims had so far managed, but to bolster their right-wing and extremist public profile as Islamists.

Some of the public ire seemed to be sparked by the January republication in Norway and some other places in Europe, rather than the original publication.

It's impossible to take any of this without a large dose of cynicism. The loudest voices on both sides are those who want to carve a deeper split between the West and Islam.
posted by dhartung at 10:40 PM on February 6, 2006

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