A Bitter Pill for Europe to Swallow

A Danish employee of the European Union in Brussels confides that she is so fearful of Muslim anger over the now-infamous cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper that she is afraid to go home.

Unnerved Danish members of the European Parliament refuse to comment on the violent protests in the Arab world and even normally chatty European analysts said in interviews that they are withholding speculation for fear of fanning the flames.

“This is the first time there is a profound argument between modern Europe and the Islamic world,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. “Now Europe is getting a taste of what Israel and the U.S. have long had to contend with.”

The furor has prompted all sorts of speculation. Many Europeans are wondering what Europe’s grappling with Islamic anger might mean to the delicate balance of E.U.-Middle East relations. Meanwhile, some analysts hypothesized that the protests were part of a wider Islamic effort to pressure the European Union into a softer approach on Islam, and in particular Iran.

Whatever the case, shock and sometimes even fear gripped the 25-member European bloc following days of anti-Danish and anti-European demonstrations during which Muslims vented their rage — in several cases setting fire to embassies — over 12 cartoons that appeared in Jyllands-Posten last fall.

The cartoons satirized the relationship between Islam and terrorism, in one case showing the prophet telling terrorists that there were no more virgins left to reward them for their acts. Numerous other newspapers across Europe have reprinted the cartoons in recent days to show solidarity with the Danes and to support freedom of speech.

As the protests grew more severe, with angry mobs in London and the Middle East calling for the beheading of the Danish newspaper’s editor and the cartoonist, Danish leaders and the newspaper apologized.

But their words have not quelled the anger in some quarters. In Iran, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini claimed that a Zionist conspiracy was behind the cartoons while stones and petrol bombs were tossed at the Danish and Austrian embassies. Austria holds the E.U. presidency.

Elsewhere, Norwegian peacekeeping troops were fired on in Afghanistan, gunmen threatened to attack a French learning center in Nablus and, for the Danes, the most shocking incident was the police failure to halt the burning of their embassy in Damascus.

These developments come at a precarious time for European-Middle East relations, with Europeans grappling how to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat and future funding of the Palestinians, now that Hamas has come to power.

Ottolenghi noted that the Muslim demonstrations were occurring nearly five months after the cartoons appeared.

“So why now? There is nothing spontaneous about what is happening,” he said. “Denmark is going to be the chair of the U.N. Security Council when the decision about Iran’s nuclear activities is made and these protests are intended to make the Danes feel the heat.”

Ottolenghi said he suspects the riots are also intended as a message to those E.U. leaders hoping to maintain a hard line with Hamas.

“This violence is clearly intended to intimidate Denmark in particular and Europe in general and to push them to have a more accommodating attitude toward Hamas,” he said.

Such forecasts do not sit well with Jans Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European Parliament.

“The Danish apology should be accepted and we can all have normal relations again. I think these violent elements are not the view of the majority in the Arab world. There is only one way forward: dialogue and peace. It will all be settled and then things will be back to normal,” he said.

Ottolenghi scorned the Dane’s “wishful thinking” that he said typified the European “whitewashing” of political Islam.

“They want to see it as kosher because they have no idea how to respond to the threat of Islamic violence,” he said.

If the European elite appeases the masses of angry protesters with continued apologies and promises of greater press respect for Islam, Ottolenghi said, some Muslims will feel that violence pays off.

The question of how to handle political Islam looms large within E.U. borders following the Al Qaeda attack on a Madrid train in 2004, the London train and bus bombings last summer attributed to Islamists and the 2004 murder of a Dutch filmmaker who criticized Islam’s treatment of women.

“It is clear now the European governments do not have a common position on what to do when they are haunted by political Islam,” said Richard Whitman, head of the European program for Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

The French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy decried the firing of a French newspaper editor who ran the Mohammed cartoon. Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, took a different tack, calling the reprinting of the cartoons in various newspapers “disrespectful.”

There are approximately 14 million Muslims in Europe and the number is growing rapidly as they have a much higher birthrate than non-Muslim Europeans.

France has the largest Muslim and Jewish population in the European Union, with 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews. Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands also have sizeable Muslim populations.

Most analysts agreed that leaders in E.U. countries were more concerned about the impact of the cartoon row on relations with Muslims within their borders than with relations with the Palestinians. But some said that an awareness of Islamic violence might create greater sympathies for Jewish issues.

“When Europeans see E.U. flags being burned in Palestine, people are asking themselves if this is the reward for spending all that money there,” said Marc Hecker of the French Institute of International Relations.

Ottolenghi was harsher on what he perceived as European hypocrisy.

“The Europeans have for years been deriding Israel for the way it behaves, saying how much more sensitive they are to the Muslims, but now that it’s Norwegian soldiers being stoned in Afghanistan, not Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, they might view things a bit differently.”


Iran’s New Export — Suicide Bombers

Behind the horrible scenes left by four explosions in London on July 7, loomed a more fearsome reality: The perpetrators, most of them very young, had voluntarily turned themselves into living bombs. Europe experienced its first suicide bombings. More horrible yet, was that not even the closest ones around the culprits had realized the disaster coming. The world was shocked to see that youngsters in a western democracy could be turned into suicide bombers with so much ease, without anybody noticing.

People are looking for the roots. In London, the government’s liberal approach to Londonistan, eastern London’s safe haven for fundamentalist activists, where hard-line preachers used to openly instigate violence among the Muslim youth, is put under question. France’s interior minister said he was astonished by the suicide bombers’ youth. He criticized the British for their liberal approach in dealing with fundamentalists.

But in going lean on fundamentalism, the British are not alone. Together with their French critics, and the Germans, they are pursuing a far more liberal approach with a country known as the first state sponsor of terrorism — Iran. They are busy negotiating with Iran on a range of issues — mainly its nuclear program, human rights and security, with luxurious trade relations on the agenda as well.

Recently, news reports from Iran affirmed that a military garrison has been opened in Iran to recruit and train volunteers for “martyrdom-seeking operations.” Its commander, Jaafari, a senior officer in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, told a hard-line weekly close to Iran’s ultra-conservative President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the new “Lovers of Martyrdom Garrison” would recruit individuals willing to carry out suicide operations against Western targets.

“One of our garrison’s aims is to spot martyrdom-seeking individuals in society and then recruit and organize them, so that, God willing, at the right moment when the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] gives the order, they would be able to enter the scene and carry out their missions,” Jaafari told the Parto-Sokhan weekly.

Jaafari’s remarks were widely reported by Iran’s state-run media. The brigade claims that 30,000 young Iranians have thus far registered for getting a chance to take part in such operations, and more than 20,000 are currently being trained.

It might be true that none of Jaafari’s recruits have found their way to London or other European capitals. Besides, all of them are Shiite Muslims, and not of the Salafist brand of Islam thought to be responsible for the bombings. But that is the least important point. The London bombings have shown that recruits are abundant locally; they just need to be inspired.

Those Muslim teenage kamikazes in London or elsewhere, like others of their age, have their idols. Theirs is not necessarily Michael Jackson or Lance Armstrong. Shows, like one orchestrated in Tehran, depict a new world of heavenly death where martyrs are welcomed like glorious heroes, much like those in Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” carried to heaven by heavenly female warriors. If you were 18 years old, and fond of holy jihad against the infidels, you would have found enormous inspiration by thinking that thousands of people somewhere in the world watch you with admiration, sharing your sinister zest and waiting for your ultimate heroic act. It is only of secondary importance if they are Shiite and you are not.

Don’t forget that Khamenei’s official title is the leader of the world’s Muslims, and not Shiites. That title holds even in Lebanon, where Shiite Hezbollah fighters put up parades of would-be suicide bombers with explosive-filled belts around their torsos under his huge portraits. All fundamentalists share a common hatred toward the West, toward modernism and toward democracy. They all say they want to annihilate Israel. This is a devastating ideology claiming the leadership of 1.2 billion Muslims the world over.

With the world facing such a serious threat, responsible international behavior is expected from all countries. Those not abiding by the general rules should be boycotted, isolated and brought to their senses. Firm positions from other countries are imperative for making them abide.

When Europeans openly meet and talk with leaders of a country boasting about an army of would-be suicide bombers on their state television, little can be done to send a message of firmness to homegrown imams and fundamentalists in Europe. More important, it would be interpreted as a sort of recognition for a devastating ideology, with its message of death and blind terror.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes for a variety of publications on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights.