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Friday, March 10, 2006

Help Wanted: U.S. Defense Department Seeks Better PR Officers

"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but . . . our country has not adapted. For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a 'five and dime' store in an eBay world."

--U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on why al Qaeda is winning hearts and minds, in speech to U.S. Council on Foreign Relation (Thanks to alert WORDster Mark Larson) WORD Note: The WORD will take the next week off for Spring Break, sleeping in and seeking wisdom. Return: 3/20/06

Cartoons in the clash of civilizations

By Les Roka

Febrary 8, 2006 | The firestorm that has been lit in the Islamic Diaspora over a series of caricatures portraying the prophet Muhammad with a bomb-like turban and a sputtering fuse is part of a chain reaction that eventually could envelop the entire Middle East in war.

The rage is a turning point in this inevitable "clash of civilizations" because the moderate Islamist voices are being drowned -- if not silenced -- by the growing discordant chorus of extremist protesters. The emotional, violently visceral tides of religious fundamentalism are washing over more comprehensible notions of nationalistic identity. For Westerners, it would be a bit foolish to treat this cavalierly.

Two comments from Western speakers illustrate a couple of dynamics in this debate. The first is from Pope Benedict XVI:

"The right to freedom of thought and expression . . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers."

The other is from Matthew Parris, who wrote an opinion piece in The London Sunday Times on Feb. 4:

"Offence implicitly offered, and offence actually taken, are two different matters. On the whole Christians, for example, take offence less readily than Muslims. The case for treating them, in consequence, differently is obvious, but we should be wary of it. It means groups are allowed to be as thin-skinned as they wish: to dictate for themselves how delicately we must tread with them -- to create, as it were, their own definition of respect and require us to observe it. Those who do this may not always realize that that they create serious buried resentments among those of fellow-citizens who are more broad-shouldered about the trading of insult."

Let's start with the Parris quote. While some criticized the editors of Rolling Stone magazine for its recent cover portraying singer Kanye West as Jesus, it would be absurd to think that editors would hide or cower in fear. Even when John Lennon proclaimed the Beatles were more popular than Jesus in the 1960s, public reaction was limited to the burning of some records and band paraphernalia.

On the other hand, Jihad al-Momani, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian weekly Shihan, was arrested last week for publishing the cartoons not to offend but to show Arab readers why these protests erupted. Momami wrote in an editorial, which his staff disavowed after his arrest, concluded: "Who offends Islam more? A foreigner who draws the prophet . . . . or a Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in Amman or anywhere else?" In the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, where moderate players have engaged contact with the American and Israeli governments, this is an unusual turn of events.

The extremists claim that even benign representations of the prophet are forbidden. While the Vatican publicly criticized the violence, the pope signaled that rights of freedom of expression should not be construed to permit such caricatures or satire. One wonders if fundamentalists -- regardless of their religious colors and stripes -- differ merely in nuances of mindset and response.

Some Westerners have observed that the renderings in question are tame compared to those in Arab newspapers and magazines, which have shown rabbis and other non-Muslim religious leaders as blood-soaked butchers or as lecherous characters in flagrante delicto. Responding to European claims that the cartoons are protected expressions of press freedom not intended to offend or stigmatize Muslims, the Arab-European League's Web site has started a series of cartoons, noting "if it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly do not want to stay behind." Its first entry? A caricature of Anne Frank having sex with Adolf Hitler.

Is this debate a passing border skirmish or is it an omen of a larger-scale conflict? The protests coincide with several significant developments in the region: the super-majority mandate of the Hamas party in the Palestinian elections, the passing of the Ariel Sharon era in Israel, the political ascendancy of the Shiites in Iraq, and, last, but certainly not least, the growing confrontation with Iran over its nuclear technology program.

Many scholars challenged Samuel P. Huntington's hypothesis that, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, future conflicts would be drawn along cultural rather than political or economic fault lines. Huntington introduced this "clash of civilizations" concept in a 1993 foreign affairs journal essay that was expanded into a 1996 book.

The hypothesis gained some currency after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but many scholars wrote that Huntington had oversimplified the dynamic interplay of culture, political ideology, and economic forces.

Scholars such as Samuel Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Pippa Norris of Harvard University give Huntington's hypothesis partial credit, noting that the Bush Doctrine has it right when it comes to advocating and promulgating democratic freedoms for the peoples of the Muslim world. However, both scholars, who co-authored a 2003 book about global cultural changes and their impact on sexuality and gender, wrote that there is no "global consensus on the self-expression values -- such as social tolerance, gender equality, freedom of speech, interpersonal trust -- that are crucial to democracy."

And, this is where the real clash, the two believe, exists.

It is no benefit to the United States that much of the Islamic Diaspora -- even the segment characterized as moderate -- despises the current American president as an arrogant warfarer callously ignorant of the complexities of Islamic identity. Even for those who are nonviolent, deeply religious adherents of fundamentalist Islam who do not separate their persona of faith and ritual from the daily secular routines of life, the continuing public assault on Islamic identity is insulting, if not humiliating. The cartoons, in their minds, crossed into unacceptable territory.

The verdict on Bush's Middle East foreign policy is yet to be decided. However, the signs are disconcerting -- and not just from the region's Islamic strongholds. In a post-election wrap of the Hamas victory in Palestine, The New Yorker magazine carried this telling quote from Shalom Harari, a former Israeli military intelligence officer: "Look at the wives of the [Egyptian] generals. Many of them are wearing traditional head scarves. This was not so ten years ago. And this tells you where we are heading. When the women of Egypt's pro-Western military elite are dressed like that, you know that the Hamas victory is not about Palestine. It's about the entire Middle East."

If the impending Iran conflict is cast in Mahdaviat terms -- a reference to the return of the 12th Imam [Mahdi] who will bring everlasting peace and truth, any hope of a peaceful resolution will evaporate.

We may rue the missed opportunity to expand the dialogue that the moderate Mohammed Khatami sought when he was president of Iran from 1997 to 2005. Although Khatami was an Islamic cleric who reported directly to the Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, he worked a delicate balance trying to bring his nation back to the international community.

The election last summer of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former mayor of Tehran and a laic Islamic fundamentalist, has dashed all hopes of rapprochement. "Ahmadinejad is instead transporting Iran back to the first radical years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, defined by battling imperial US and Soviet powers and Zionism," Scott Peterson, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent who frequently has reported on Iran, wrote last Christmas.

The new Iranian president has set his sights on eliminating Israel from the global map and setting the stage for the Mahdi's return. And if the United States has any intentions of assuming that role of salvation, Ahmadinejad has made it unmistakably clear that his nation will fight to be the sole legitimate exporter of Islamic democracy.

The suppression of the moderate voice in the Islamic Diaspora is a frightening prospect. The rage about the cartoons is a sidebar in a war that threatens to expand well beyond its current theater of battle and engagement. Perhaps Ghassan Sharbal, editor of the London Al-Hayat Arab daily newspaper, had it right on July 8, the day after the London subway terrorist attacks, we are writing yet another chapter in World War III.

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