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I had a friend over today who lives out of town and we switched on the traditional news media television and saw what most of you have probably seen - angry rioters protesting, burning flags and attacking various Danish embassies around the world.

Despite the spectaculor footage and a bevy of experts "weighing in" on the issue, I did not one single mention of what's actually going on.  And so therefore, by my duty as a citizen journalist, I will now share it with all of you.

The issue has been framed by the traditional media as "Free Expression/Speech" in contrast with "Sensitivity to Religion".  Do newspapers in democratic societies have the right to publish offensive images?  Well that's something definitely worth debating, but it's overlooking an important step.

12 cartoons were published in the Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, which you can see here.  Some were very bland, others seem to be unquestionably offensive.  Yet these cartons were published on September 30, 2005.  What the traditional media has failed to explain is why the protests are occuring now.

But before we explain that, it's time to address a few other issues.  The first issue is whether or not it is inflammatory or offensive to Islam to depict the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) at all.  Traditionally, the answer is the Qur'an (the Muslim equivalent to the Christian Bible) does not forbid it, it only forbids "idolatry", which would imply worshipping a statue or other representation of Mohammed (PBUH).  The Hadith, which has no equivalent in Christianity but is equivalent to Judaism's Talmud, and is somewhat of a secondary literary source of the Muslim faith, prohibits any pictures or drawings of sacred figures, including Mohammed (PBUH).  That being said, in practical terms, it occurs quite regularly.

There are images similar to Orthodox Christian ikons that are commonplace in Shi'ite communities, especially in Iran.  There are also Muslim works of art depicting Mohammed (PBUH) in Central Asia, and neither these nor those in Iran are considered inflammatory and neither are they censored.

There are a number of depictions of Mohammed (PBUH), some in very unflattering situations, in Christian churches in Europe, especially Italy.  The famous book/poem "Inferno" by Dante makes a very unflattering reference to Mohammed (PBUH) and there are several pieces of artwork depicting Dante's descriptions.

There have been several derogatory or potentially inflammatory usages of Mohammed (PBUH) in American entertainment vehicles, perhaps the most famous being South Park.  And last but not least, there is an actual sculpture of Mohammed (PBUH) on the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

The point I'm trying to make here is that Mohammed (PBUH) has been depicted, painted or made appearances in animated cartoons on many, many occasions and yet there's been no rioting, storming of embassies and CNN coverage.  The question becomes, not why were the Danish cartoons offensive or inappropriate, but why is there such a strong reaction now?

Denmark has a long history of multi-cultural tolerance, including their famous solidarity stand with Jewish citizens during World War 2.  The newspaper Jyllands-Posten itself was surprised by the strong reaction to their cartoons and even apologized publically for any offense they may have caused.  And for 2 months, there was hardly a peep from any Muslim group outside a small protest in Denmark itself and somewhat larger protests in Pakistan.

So what triggered this?  Well it takes a blog to explain it.  What CNN and the other traditional media failed to tell you is that the thousand gallons of fuel added to the fire of outrage came from none other than our old pals Saudi Arabia.

While it was a minor side story in the western press, the most important of Muslim religious festivals recently took place in Saudi Arabia - called the Hajj.  Every able-bodied Muslim is obligated to make a pilgrimage once in their lifetime to Mecca, which is in modern-day Saudi Arabia.  This pilgrimage can be done at any time of the year but most pilgrims arrive during the Muslim month known as Dhu al-Hijjah, which follows a lunar calendar that does not exactly match the western Gregorian calendar.

The most recent Hajj occurred during the first half of January 2006, precisely when the "outrage" over the Danish cartoons began in earnest.  There were a number of stampedes, called "tragedies" in the press, during the Hajj which killed several hundred pilgrims.  I say "tragedies" in quotation marks because there have been similar "tragedies" during the Hajj and each time, the Saudi government promises to improve security and facilitation of movement to avoid these.  Over 251 pilgrims were killed during the 2004 Hajj alone in the same area as the one that killed 350 pilgrims in 2006.  These were not unavoidable accidents, they were the results of poor planning by the Saudi government.

And while the deaths of these pilgrims was a mere blip on the traditional western media's radar, it was a huge story in the Muslim world.  Most of the pilgrims who were killed came from poorer countries such as Pakistan, where the Hajj is a very big story.  Even the most objective news stories were suddenly casting Saudi Arabia in a very bad light and they decided to do something about it.

Their plan was to go on a major offensive against the Danish cartoons.  The 350 pilgrims were killed on January 12 and soon after, Saudi newspapers (which are all controlled by the state) began running up to 4 articles per day condemning the Danish cartoons.  The Saudi government asked for a formal apology from Denmark.  When that was not forthcoming, they began calling for world-wide protests.  After two weeks of this, the Libyans decided to close their embassy in Denmark.  Then there was an attack on the Danish embassy in Indonesia.  And that was followed by attacks on the embassies in Syria and then Lebanon.

Many European papers, including the right-wing German Springer media group, fanned the flames by reprinting the cartoons.  And now you have the situation we are in today, with lots of video footage of angry crowds and the storming of embassies and calls for boycotts of Danish and European products.

Saudi Arabia's influence on the Sunni Muslim world is incalculable.  The sermons from high-ranking Muslim clerics are read and studied by Muslims around the world, who in turn give sermons to their local congregations.  While the Saudis do not have direct control of the world's Sunni flocks, their influence is similar somewhat to the Pope's pronouncements and the sermons that Catholic priests give to their flocks the following Sundays.  Saudi Arabia also finances a number of Muslim "study centers", where all the literature and material is provided by the Saudi government, filled with hatred for Jews and other extremely racist material.  For them to promote an idea based on religion, including "outrage" at some cartoons published months earlier, is standard operating procedure.

Of course there is more than Saudi Arabia's hand at play here.  The issue has metamorphed from religious outrage at a dozen cartoons to a clash of those who feel they are oppressed and downtrodded by the Christian world and those they consider their oppressors.  That's why there was anti-Christian rioting in Lebanon, where the two religious groups have a long and tumultous co-existance.

As I sat there watching CNN (International) with my friend today, I could not help but note the number of Saudi flags that the various rioters were waving in Lebanon and Syria.  Coincidence? I think not.  Look for yourself - they are green with a large expanse of Arabic writing in white above a sword.

Lebanon (Reuters)

This is cross-posted from Flogging the Simian


Originally posted to Soj on Sun Feb 05, 2006 at 10:01 AM PST.

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