Arab dissent in cartoon controversy

From Reuters, via The Star of Malaysia, Feb. 14 (emphasis added):

BEIRUT – Uproar in the Islamic world over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad has prompted many in the Middle East to ask why Muslims have rarely mobilised to address other pressing issues such as democracy and human rights.

In a region largely dominated by absolute rulers, there has been little momentum for protests against restrictions on political freedom, sky-high unemployment or human rights violations regularly reported by international organisations.

Thousands took to the streets of Middle East capitals in protest over the cartoons, which first appeared in a Danish daily and were later reprinted in other European newspapers.

They burned European flags and chanted anti-Western slogans. In Syria, protesters set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies and in Lebanon the building housing the Danish mission was also set ablaze.

“Why today we see all this solidarity to protest the cartoons…as if only these pictures had insulted the Prophet Mohammad,” Ali Mahdi wrote in a letter published in Lebanon’s left-wing daily As-Safir.

“Don’t you think that injustice, torture, illiteracy and the restrictions on freedoms (in the Muslim world) are also considered an insult to the Prophet…who called for the respect for human rights?”

A United Nations report in September said the Arab world was unlikely to meet the world body’s goals for cutting poverty, hunger and unemployment by 2015, partly because of the unequal distribution of wealth.

Several Arab Web logs posted the cartoons and hosted online debates about them. Many left-wing and secular-minded Muslims also circulated the cartoons by e-mail.

“What is the use of getting angry for the sake of the Prophet when I have a thousand poor people in my neighbourhood?” wrote one Egyptian blogger on his Web site “Justice for Everyone”.

“What is the use of writing a million letters (about the Prophet’s greatness) when I wet my pants every time a police car passes by my house?”

An Iraqi woman identified on her Web log as Faiza al-Arji wrote that Arabs and Muslims were more concerned about the cartoons than the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

A Jordanian cartoonist implied the same message, drawing a picture of a gigantic Arab man carrying a banner which called for the boycott of Danish goods. Between his legs was a column of American tanks.

Jihad al-Khazen, a prominent columnist for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, said there was a consensus among Muslims that the cartoons insulted their religion, a view that was not applied to issues such as democracy and politics.

“More than one billion Muslims agree that such cartoons were an insult to their religion and prophet and they rejected this,” he told Reuters. “There is no consensus on democracy. Some Arabs dismiss democracy as a product of the West.”

Muslims consider drawing images of the Prophet blasphemous. One of the cartoons depicted him wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, offered a different perspective.

“Most of the protests against the cartoons were blessed, if not organised, by the local governments, which encourage such acts as long as they don’t touch on sensitive domestic issues,” he said.

Safa said the region’s high unemployment also meant that Arab youths had to relegate their demands for democracy and wider political participation further down their agenda.

The United Nations said about 21 percent of Arab youths were unemployed in 204, more than double the adult jobless rate.

“People prefer to vent their anger in a protest that would not irritate local authorities than to risk losing what they have, however meagre, if they march asking for more,” said Nora Mourad, a Lebanese political activist.

See our last post on the cartoon controversy.