Jørgen Nielsen quickly cleared his desk and emptied the safe. Then he locked the door from the outside and left the Danish Cultural Institute in the old section of Damascus to its fate, encountering protesters and looters as he left the building. Meanwhile, in another section of the city, his country's embassy was already in flames. A short time later, under the cover of darkness, a convoy of Danish diplomats left the city for the west. Nielsen was in Lebanon by midnight.
On the same evening, Sheikh Omar al-Bakri was sitting in his luxurious apartment in south Beirut, enjoying the fruits of his work of the day. He had sent out more than 6 million e-mails in the space of 24 hours -- short summaries of Islamic legal opinions on the Islamists' case for blasphemy, as well as calls for demonstrations and tirades against the west. Ever since the jihadist preacher left Great Britain in the wake of last summer's London subway and bus bombings, his daily life had been more or less routine -- until the Danish cartoon controversy, that is. But now there were protests from Casablanca to Dubai and, if al-Bakri was to have his way, Beirut would follow suit the next morning.
Nielsen, who spent years working on his doctorate in Lebanon during that country's civil war, knows the Middle East. There isn't much that can ruffle his feathers. But when he saw a plume of smoke rising from the Danish consulate in Beirut on the day after his escape from Damascus, he felt uneasy. The conflict had been smoldering for months, but Nielsen had still managed to stay in touch with his Arab counterparts. Why this sudden outbreak of rage, he wondered?
Sheikh al-Bakri was in his element when he and his followers arrived at the Danish General Consulate in Beirut on that same morning. Thousands had appeared, including radical Muslims like himself, but also moderates -- women in jeans, with and without headscarves, Sunnis, Shiites, even a few Christians and Druzes. The sheikh, momentarily touched by a divine dialectics, said: "At first we felt only pain. But then we realized what a gift the Danes had in fact given us. They woke a sleeping giant -- the giant of Islam. You have no idea just how big he is."
The sheikh could very well end up being right. Although the focus of the protests shifted to the eastern Islamic world last week, the storm continues to rage unabated. In Tehran, demonstrators attacked the Danish and Austrian embassies, and at least eleven people were killed in violence in Afghanistan. Protests, some of them violent, also erupted in Somalia, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and New Zealand.
Last Thursday's protests against the Muhammad cartoons by 250,000 Shiite Muslims in Beirut following the Ashura festival were peaceful by comparison. And although an Ashura procession was attacked in the city of Hangu in northwestern Pakistan, killing 20 people, the attackers were apparently religiously motivated.
The news that other publications in the West -- including Charlie Hebdo, a Paris-based satirical journal -- have now decided to print the contentious cartoons hasn't exactly allayed fears of further unrest. Lebanese presidential candidate Shibli Mallat, a Christian, francophone and, like many in Beirut, an avid fan of French intellectual publications, commented that it's difficult to engage in politics in the Middle East as long as "people stand there and say: I'm simply expressing my freedom of speech -- and so what if the world falls apart as a result."
The west has been giving off mixed political signals. French President Jacques Chirac condemned the recent reprinting of the cartoons. Meanwhile the Bush administration, which had initially voiced understanding for the Muslim protests, has changed and sharpened its tone.
After meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, US President George W. Bush said that the Americans "reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press," adding that he had assured Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of American "support and solidarity" in the controversy. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, was considerably more forceful on the issue, saying that "Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this (the cartoon controversy) to their own purposes. And the world ought to call them on it."
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who has spoken with many Arab leaders since the crisis began, has also voiced his suspicions over the impetus behind some of the protests in the Arab world. It was "very strange," said Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach, that the demonstrations in Iran, Syria and the Gaza Strip were especially vehement, adding that Arab leaders who value good relations with the west should "clearly and unmistakably" discuss the deteriorating situation. "Otherwise moderate Islam will be the only loser."
But do these thinly veiled threats truly impress Arab leaders? Or are they deliberately adding fuel to the conflict? The question over who stands to benefit the most from the current conflict of cultures is also the topic of heated discussion in the Middle East, a discussion that offers no uniform conclusions.
Adil Hammuda, editor-in-chief of Al Fagr, a liberal Egyptian weekly, was astonished when the storm erupted in January. He had reprinted the cartoons that had been published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in his own paper four months earlier, during the first week of the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan -- even going so far as to place the most controversial cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban on the front page.
Al Fagr is a young but prominent paper that made a name for itself during Egypt's presidential election in September. But the reprinted cartoons failed to attract much attention.
"It can't be a coincidence," says Hammuda, "that the story didn't explode until so much later." The Egyptian government did in fact play a key role in the eruption of outrage. A delegation of Danish Muslims, frustrated that the government in Copenhagen ignored their protests over the cartoons, traveled to Cairo in early December, where they met with top officials including Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu al-Gheit, who agreed to look into the matter. First he showed the cartoons to attendees at the meeting of the Organization of Islamic States in Mecca on Dec. 7, 2005. Then he instructed Egypt's ambassador to enlist the support of other Arab governments.
That proved to be an easy task. As calls for boycotts began appearing on the Internet, first individual ministers, then entire governments and, finally, the entire Jordanian parliament condemned the drawings.
Danish diplomats braced themselves against the growing tide of indignation in the Arab world. "The Egyptians' anger wasn't entirely unfounded," one Danish diplomat concedes. Copenhagen and Cairo had just agreed to a Danish-Egyptian "dialogue forum" in January 2005, but when Egypt's ambassador, speaking on behalf of her Arab counterparts, requested a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Fogh Anders Rasmussen in early October, he declined. The cartoons, said Rasmussen, were a matter for the free press, and so there was no need for dialogue.
The diplomats had the situation under control for a few more weeks, reports Nielsen, Denmark's cultural ambassador to the Islamic world, who tried to smooth ruffled feathers from his office in Damascus. But three events helped trigger the outbreak of rage, he says: the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian parliamentary elections in November, the reprinting of the cartoons in Norwegian newspaper Magazinet on Jan. 10, and Hamas's landslide victory in the Palestinian elections. "Then it suddenly became clear that the Arab regimes had their hand in the game," says Nielsen.
According to Rami Churi, publisher of the Daily Star, a Beirut newspaper, Arab governments "are competing for legitimacy." An acute feeling of weakness and vulnerability, even of imperialistic subservience, has blanketed the Arab Middle East ever since the Iraq war, says Churi, adding that no one understands this feeling better than the Islamists.
The Arab regimes' reactions to the cartoons varied. The Gulf monarchies, for example, attempted to take the wind out of the extremists' sails with relatively mild steps. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Denmark on Jan. 26. Qatar's chamber of commerce cancelled invitations to Danish and Norwegian delegations. The United Arab Emirates permitted demonstrations, a move that would normally be unheard of. "We have no other choice," said an employee in the country's Ministry of Religion. "Those who say nothing create the impression that they secretly want to see the prophet be insulted."
The upshot? The Gulf states have been boycotting Scandinavian butter ever since. "That won't last," says Churi, "no sheikh would seriously consider doing without his new (Danish) Bang & Olufsen stereo system."
Other regimes went a step further. "It would have been easy to block off the entire street where the Danish embassy is located," says Nielsen. But the government in Damascus thought otherwise and incited the mob to riot. The next day, busloads of demonstrators from northern Lebanon showed up at the Danish consulate in Beirut. As it turned out, 77 of the 192 arrested were Syrian.
Mobilizing people on Arab streets is a proven tool of rulers in the regime. It sends a message to the West: If you didn't have us to keep this mob in check, you'd be dealing with it.
Syria, which has come under pressure for its alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, applies this logic, says Churi -- as do Libya and Egypt. "But the argument is gradually becoming less convincing. After all, the West is already cooperating with an Islamist-tinted government in Turkey, and Washington itself helped put the Islamists in power in Iraq." The dictators are no longer needed.
A western diplomat in Beirut points to a similar motive. He says that Hamas's victory at the polls has the Arab world's autocrats more worried than any Islamist bombing attack. "Until now, the Islamists were a security risk, a problem mainly for the police and intelligence agencies. Now they're a democratic alternative." Street hooligans are much easier to control than winners in an election.
Not all governments derived the same amount of political capital from the cartoon dispute. Lebanon's cabinet was caught completely off-guard by protests in that country, prompting it to apologize to Denmark for the violence and Interior Minister Hassan Sabar to offer his resignation. In Jordan, a country still in shock over terrorist attacks at three western hotels in Amman last November, pressure from the Islamists remains relatively light. As a result, King Abdullah II was able to keep his comments about the cartoon affair comparatively mild during his recent visit to Washington.
The way Iraq's Shiite-dominated government played the cartoon crisis is also instructive. Indeed, its approach may even have had the West's tacit approval: it took advantage of the controversy to build a bridge to the frustrated Sunni minority.
Although Shiites also generally avoid depicting the Prophet Muhammed, their prohibition of images isn't nearly as strict as it is in Sunni Islam. Millions of portraits of Ali and Hussein, the most important Shiite martyrs, are in circulation. Nevertheless, Iraqi Minister of Transportation Salam al-Malaki announced in Baghdad that Iraq is freezing all economic agreements with Denmark and will no longer accept any reconstruction aid from Denmark and Norway.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites, has taken an unusual approach to the cartoon dispute. Although he too condemns publication of the Muhammad cartoons as a "despicable act," he also criticizes Muslim extremists, who he says are partly responsible for Islam's poor image in the west. "Misdirected" and "oppressive" parts of Muslim society, he adds, contribute to a distorted image of Islam.
Sistani, a Persian by birth, was probably referring more to the leadership of the al-Qaida terror network than to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- reflecting the Iranian head of state's emerging rivalry with Osama bin Laden over who should be shaping the opinions of Muslim extremists.
Until now the Tehran administration, already entangled in an escalating row with the west over Iran's nuclear program, has eagerly egged on the culture war. Although the contest for the 12 best cartoons about the Holocaust, which Tehran newspaper Hamshahri announced last week, shocked the west, it impressed men like British fugitive Sheikh Omar al-Bakri, a known bin Laden supporter.
"The rhetoric from Tehran is quite impressive," the preacher of hate says from his Lebanese exile, "but it's nothing more than just rhetoric. What has Ahmadinejad done to America so far?"
Al-Bakri expects al-Qaida to issue a statement over the cartoon dispute any day now -- a word from Osama bin Laden on the "desecration of the Prophet." That, says Bakri, is when the culture war will truly begin. "And then you will hear what it sounds like when a lion speaks."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan