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Clerical errors

About the author
Tom Burgis is a freelance reporter. He has written for openDemocracy’s debates on protest and globalisation and has contributed to many newspapers.

The first months of 2006 have been a time to panic. From startling new evidence on melting ice and rising sea-levels via political threats of nuclear escalation and war to James Lovelock's warning of climatic catastrophe, the fear of impending planetary disaster is rising. And to chill the global soul even further, the clash of civilisations, embraced as well as hotly anticipated by neocons and jihadis alike, is finally upon us.

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The now-familiar story of the cartoon crisis started quietly enough. Flemming Rose, cultural editor of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, heard that a children's author, Kåre Bluitgen, had had difficulty finding illustrators to contribute to a book about the life of Mohammed. In response, he contacted around forty illustrators to invite them to depict the prophet and published twelve cartoons in the newspaper. They were later reproduced in publications across Europe, the Arab world, Asia and Latin America. Some were anodyne, most were satirical and less than droll, but one – depicting suicide-bombers on a stairway to paradise being refused entry on grounds of a shortage of virgins – was, some found themselves admitting, quite funny.

Ahmed Abu Laban, Palestinian émigré, father of seven, religious advisor to the Islamic Society in Denmark and winner of our fifth Bad Democracy Award, was not amused. Last December, he travelled to the middle east to spread word of the blasphemous images. He co-authored the dossier with which the touring imams informed their audiences of the Scandinavian offence afoot. That dossier contained the twelve cartoons and three others. The three others went far beyond the original joshing dozen. They showed Mohammed with the face of a pig, being sodomized by a dog and molesting a child. Laban's critics suggested he stirred hatred by claiming the bogus cartoons appeared in Danish newspapers – an allegation yet to be proven, and strenuously denied by the cleric.

There followed global protests and a diplomatic standoff between Copenhagen and a swathe of Arab nations. Protestors torched the Danish embassy in Damascus and Beirut; American troops fired on Afghan demonstrators from the military base at Bagram, killing three. In London, a week before a far larger protest by moderate Muslims, a hardcore demonstration on 3 February called on the west to apologise for exacerbating tensions, under the conciliatory slogan "Butcher those who mock Islam".

Europe was asunder. Facing each other across the ruins of multiculturalism were the champions of free speech, ready to die for each other's right to scream obscenities from the rooftops and crack jokes about raping babies or gassing Jews, and the continent's Islamists, for whom decadent secularists defiling the prophet warranted merciless jihad and the foretold victory of the new Caliphate. In the middle, bewildered and troubled, were the likes of Tom Vilmer Paamand.

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"It's not the cartoons that are the problem, it's this context", says Vilmer Paamand, a freelance journalist who lives in Norrebro, a district of Copenhagen with a large Muslim community. "No one shouts at me on the streets here. The problem is unemployment, not Muslims. But we've been allowed to say very nasty things about Muslims in Denmark. In the past five years it's got worse."

The problem, he argues, is that so many Danes have scrambled to use the crisis for their own political ends. The Danish People's Party, for one, has pedalled rank Islamophobia in recent weeks (though, worryingly, its share of the polls has risen to 17% in the same period, a rise of almost four points). One of its MPs had the wisdom to opine on her website that "Muslims are a cancer in Denmark". The parliamentary spokesman for the governing Liberal Group, Jens Rohde, under pressure in a recent televised debate, concocted a cock-and-bull tale about rampaging Muslims plotting to hunt down the daughter of one of the offending cartoonists. Says Vilmer Paamand: "Abu Laban has some responsibility – but these cartoons didn't just drop from the sky. He has an agenda but so do the politicians and the media."

All the same, those westerners who gaze into the navel of free expression may be missing the point. What we are witnessing is less a clash of civilisations than the overspill of a struggle within one civilisation – the Islamic one. Abu Laban's real offence is to promote the kind of nutcase imperialist fundamentalist that is anathema to the vast majority of Muslims. A belief that one speaks for a far greater constituency than one does is a symptom shared by the power-hungry and the deluded down the ages.

Speaking of which, this month's batch of wavering democrats numbers several who have been happy to exploit conflict to their own grisly political ends. Despots in Belarus and Pakistan have travestied the vocabulary of democracy, styling hippies, students and thinkers as the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In Algiers and Quito, a pair of presidents is spurning the public will to push through pacts with their respective devils. In France, a prime minister with an eye on the Elysée is stumbling through a difficult dance with the forces of globalisation. And in London, a Labour leader who promised to clean up politics seems to have been lining the party coffers with suspect cash. But the nest egg is probably a wise move, considering that, as Tony Blair clarified on 21 March, we have now embarked on a new war with an odd name: "a clash about civilisation".


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