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Muhammad Cartoon Protests Turn Deadly Again


Across the world, Muslims continue to rally and protest, and in some instances to riot against the now-infamous Danish cartoons. Today in Northern Nigeria Muslims angered over the cartoons attacked Christians and burned churches. At least 15 people were killed. In Eastern Pakistan, police opened fire on a crowd trying to burn down shops. Four people were wounded. Another large protest was planned for tomorrow in Islamabad, but the authorities there have declared a ban on demonstrations in the city. In London, 15,000 people marched peacefully from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park.

It's been five months since the original publication of the cartoons, which lampooned the prophet Muhammad, and it's been nearly three weeks since they were re-published in some European newspapers, sparking the current round of protests. Many in the West continue to scratch their heads, unsure how much of this anger is really about the cartoons at all. We decided to pose the question to Ahmed Rashid. He's a Pakistani journalist and author, and he's on the line from Lahore. Welcome.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist and Author): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: So Mr. Rashid, are these protests really about the cartoons?

Mr. RASHID: Well, at one level, certainly. I mean there's no doubt that these cartoons have been very provocative and Muslims have felt very insulted by them, and the vast majority of Muslims don't see this as an issue of free speech the way the West has been posing it. But it must be said that at another level in each different country I think that these demonstrations we're seeing in the Muslim world, all of them have double and triple agendas. It's not just cartoons. I mean we've seen, for example, in Syria and in Iran, where you had state-sponsored demonstrations which burnt down the Danish Embassy. Now, both Syria and Iran of course are facing huge pressure from the West, so they have reason to, if you like, get some of this anger out by, you know, burning down Danish embassies and things.

But we've also seen huge demonstrations in countries like Turkey, where the Islamic Right has come out. Some 50,000 people came out in Istanbul, which is a huge number, in a totally secular state. Now, I think there the message clearly was you've still got an Islamic Right wing which is against Turkey joining the European Union. You've got several layers of politics there. I think the same probably goes for Egypt and for Libya. In Pakistan, there has been mounting opposition to General Musharaf, who is now in his sixth year of military rule, and he wants to run as President for another five years. The opposition is led by an alliance of Islamic parties who are in Parliament, and also extremist Islamic groups linked to Bin Laden.

So you have now a growing Islamic opposition which is using this cartoon issue to try and mount a campaign to house Musharaf.

ELLIOTT: How is that happening? Is there an organized effort for this?

Mr. RASHID: Very much so. What we've seen over the last couple of days is organized street demonstrations, many of which turn into riots, and then burning and smashing and looting takes place. Now, the alliance of Islamic parties have ordained that every two days in a major city in Pakistan, there will be a massive strike, shutdown and demonstration.

ELLIOTT: Now, I think I just need a little help understanding how the outrage over these cartoons is related to people's attitude against President Musharaf.

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think the cartoon issue has really hurt people immensely. I mean I think much more than the flushing of the Korans in the toilet in Guantanamo or the kicking of the Korans or torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the pictures that have recently appeared. Much more than that, an insult to the Prophet is really taken very, very personally by Muslims. So that has had the capacity to bring out hundreds of thousands of very aggrieved people. And the government has been seen to be far too weak in dealing with that.

And what we've got across the Muslim world is that people are frustrated that their governments are powerless in front of the West. They're not capable, you know, there've been demands, for example, to break ties with Denmark, to break ties with the European countries. Obviously Muslim governments aren't willing to do that for a whole variety of very sensible reasons. But that has not been seen in the press by the public. They're seeing their governments weak and incapable of defending what they consider Islam's interest against an ever- encroaching West in this kind of battle of wills we've seen since 9/11.

ELLIOTT: I have a question about the riots. The targets of the violence aren't necessarily Western embassies or Danish missions. Why is that?

Mr. RASHID: It's been quite terrible. I mean my own brother-in-law was on the road in Peshawar, and his car was utterly smashed. He was badly wounded. And he's, you know, a resident and a citizen of that city. So I mean, you know, the targeting has been totally indiscriminate and un-understandable. And I think, you know, this is part of this kind of wider picture, the growing frustration amongst young people, the joblessness, inflation, anger at the regime for not resolving their problems. Something, for example, that we saw in France last month, setting fire to things. I think what we're going through is something like that process.

ELLIOTT: Do you think these protests are somehow a watershed in relations between the Muslim world and the West?

Mr. RASHID: I think they really are, because what I see at the moment is that the Muslim world really has no answer to the demonstrations going on. It has no answer in how to contain them, what to tell its own people, it has no answer what to tell the West. It is unable to unite on these issues. And on the West's side, I think the Europeans are utterly at a loss. I spoke to a European ambassador yesterday and he told me very clearly that all the European Union ambassadors have been ordered not to apologize to anyone about anything related to the cartoon issue.

Now, if the Europeans are going to act tough like that, then certainly there's no give. So I think we really are at a watershed.

ELLIOTT: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author of a book called Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. We reached him in Lahore.

Thank you.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Just ahead, the rough and tumble of Louisiana politics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.