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Context and Cartoon Riots: When Little Things Sting Old Wounds Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Haatem, United States Feb 22, 2006
Culture , Citizen Journalism , Peace & Conflict   Opinions
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I do not see the so-called "cartoon riots" of the past few weeks as being about Muslims taking issue with Europeans' right to freedom of speech. People in predominantly Muslim countries have been pining for freedoms of all kinds (certainly including that of speech without fear of reprisal) for a long time, and Muslims living in democratic countries value respect, and utilize these freedoms just as much as everyone else does without fear of persecution.

Rather, there must be another explanation for the forces that might be at play in the minds of people who would resort to such desperate measures to assert their opinions. This is especially true since this sort of behavior has historical precedence among any people who have been, or have perceived that they were, under heavy pressures socially, economically, militarily, and spiritually. Witness revolution, a global phenomenon (and one, that I might add, that has been less bloody in the Middle East than elsewhere).

What is happening now is that the proverbial camel's back is breaking, the last straw is being drawn. The context of historical humiliation, both foreign and domestically perpetrated, is perhaps the prime explanation for these events. It is desperation that drives people to do desperate things, and because in the United States and Europe (no matter how difficult our lives may be) we have never known the desperation that is commonplace in many parts of the world, particularly in many predominantly Muslim countries whose dictators and kings are propped up by support, military and otherwise, from our countries.

In their view, we are championing and parading our freedoms about with one voice, and we are extinguishing their hopes for a better future with another. To them, it must be like we are eating a huge meal in front of a starving person, and then throwing away the leftovers to the dogs right in front of them.

With a deep history of subjugation, it is no surprise that Middle Eastern peoples view the "West" with much suspicion. They have seen mild-mannered and soft-spoken men speak eloquently about colonization in the name of "development", and then proceed to move their armies in to do as they please. Yes, it all ended half a century ago, but I think we underestimate how deep that wound runs, and how little a chance it has had to heal.

In the United States, we have never been subjected to foreign occupation. We do not know what it is like. I was living in the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War. I watched the city of Al-Khobar go from a quiet, orderly, clean, coastal city going about its daily business to a chaotic and tense city overrun by American soldiers. They came with no knowledge of how to behave in the country and little sensitivity to its customs. They started fights with people in shops and restaurants and became the de facto police. They were on every street corner with their fatigues, humvees, and weapons at the ready. Yet this was not occupation; they were there to protect us. The soldiers weren't afraid of a ground attack, only of Hussein's scud missiles. So, what I was feeling must be magnified a hundred-fold in order to be able to understand true occupation and how Middle-Easterners perceive the current occupation of their lands. No amount of assurances can allay the suspense and apprehension that must pervade the public's feelings about what might happen next.

The Palestinian issue is another sore that festers in the heart of the Middle East, and while we transiently gaze in its direction when it comes on TV, they see its effects and think about it every day. And they see things on their TV stations that we never see (though the European satellite stations offer more full coverage of the situation). They are constantly bombarded with heart-rending images and statistics; I've seen them myself and by the end of every brief visit to the region, I myself become a little bitter at the apparent hopelessness of the situation. You would have to be heartless not to be affected.

These pains are all compounded by the constant state of relative oppression under which the majority of Middle Easterners live. Dictators, presidents-for-life, monarchs, and politicians all participate in large scale distortion of information to deflect people's animosity away from rampant domestic corruption and injustice and towards what is portrayed as the constant barrage of humiliation that the West-- and Israel-- export. Compounded with the inability to express anger towards their rulers and practically a free pass to do so against anyone else, people will rage against whomever they can.

The scene is set, so when newspaper editors snub their noses at 1.3 billion people in the name of "freedom of speech," it is difficult to justify the wisdom of such a move given current tensions. I've seen the cartoons and they are offensive, yes, and reminiscent of other kinds of ignorant hateful propaganda that we've seen against other marginalized and demonized groups, but because of that they are not novel. They certainly do not warrant any kind of heated response, hence the shock and deprecating amazement with which Europe views the response.

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Krystal Payne | Aug 22nd, 2006
i think that the cartoons were in extremely bad taste, and should not be taken lightly. i think that an issue such as this, which could be seen as small, shows the fact that there are gaps in understanding between the "western world" and the "muslim world" and we must work to bridge these.

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