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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Cartoon Wars: No Laughing Matter

By J.M. Berger

It seems almost ridiculous, as a bald statement, to suggest that a series of Danish editorial cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed could permanently change the global political balance of power, but that's exactly what is happening.

The cartoons were published in September by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and a slow-burning controversy over their depiction of Mohammed has erupted into a wave of global violence.

It's easy to get embroiled in an argument over the freedom and responsibilities of the press, or the question of whether Muslims should be able to take a joke. Regardless of right and wrong, regardless of ethics, restraint and the subjectivity of good taste, the cartoon controversy is polarizing Western and Islamic cultures with shocking speed and violence. Even the war in Iraq has not divided the world as effectively as these cartoons -- although Iraq may be the pool of gasoline into which this lit match has descended.

The magnitude and undiscriminating horror of the September 11 attacks caused many Muslims to question the underlying assumption that fuels al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations -- that the world is dividing irrevocably along lines of "us" and "them."

Even within Islamist and fundamentalist Muslim communities, there were deep divisions about the wisdom and ethical justification for 9/11. Despite its sometimes ham-handed rhetoric, the Bush Administration also made explicit its view that al Qaeda's brand of extremism was outside the mainstream of Islam. The result was an uneasy quietude in many Muslim communities around the world. The invasion of Iraq -- and its questionable pretexts -- deepened this unease and chipped away at the quiet.

The violence now erupting all over the world in regard to the cartoon controversy threatens to dramatically expand the "War on Terror" into a full-fledged culture war. Radical Islamist clerics understand that the unfolding drama presents a perfect opportunity to arouse the passions of Muslims who have -- until now -- remained on the sidelines in the conflict between the ideological al Qaeda movement and Western governments -- including the United States and Europe.

Several reports have emerged to indicate key ideological extremists have deliberately manipulated the situation, choreographing the violence in a calculated and devastating manner to drive an unparalleled wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. (For just one of several stories that have been quietly circulating about this activity, click here.)

Until now, both the Western and fundamentalist Muslim coalitions have been marked by wide internal divisions over various issues. In the West, the cartoon controversy unites liberals and conservatives, Americans and Europeans, all of whom condemn and deride violence and ardor stemming from a simple editorial cartoon. In the Muslim world, even those who have previously espoused moderation are incensed over the publication and dissemination of the cartoons. The manipulation of the media picture by Islamic extremists has also magnified the appearance of popular support for violent protests, and appearances can easily shift into reality when dealing with the strange mechanics of group opinion.

The widening gap is creating considerable pressure on those who have remained in the center, or on the sidelines, in the ideological battle for the 21st century to choose sides between democracy and Islam, while artificially inflating the perception that the two are now and must forever remain wholly incompatible.

Until now, one of the biggest factors working against the al Qaeda movement and its plan for global domination was the lack of active participation by a large segment of its Muslim audience. For sundry reasons, many in the Arab and Muslim worlds were willing to stay out of the battle between Westernization (personified by the U.S.) and Islamification (personified by al Qaeda), offering only passive support or mild opposition to the Islamists.

The cartoon controversy provides a flashpoint which extremist leaders can leverage in support of their "us against them" thesis. The resulting media picture creates the appearance of a groundswell of Islamic radicalism, a rising tide that is capable of sweeping some bystanders into the fray and polarizing the sentiments of others.

There is no easy resolution to this issue for the West, which is tangled in the thorny balance between the rights and responsibilities that accompany a free press. That issue is, in itself, so contentious and complicated that it leaves few people with the energy or inclination to bridge a cultural divide as well.

Nevertheless, history may remember this moment as a watershed in the global conflict between Islam and the West. It is difficult to see an easy way to prevent the current situation from escalating; it is almost inconceivable that the damage done already can be reversed.

We can only learn from what has transpired. Neither self-censorship nor true censorship is desirable or particularly effective in the Information Age. Instead, Western policy makers would be wise to study the organization and techniques of those who intentionally escalated this issue from a momentary offense to an international crisis.

Terrorism is theater. Instead of targeting physical strategic goals, terrorism seeks to sway public opinion, lift or sink morale in key demographic groups, and inflame the passions of all who witness it in action. A good terrorist is a master of psychology -- and that same mastery can be applied to non-terrorist events and overall group dynamics.

Over the last several years, it has become crystal clear that Islamic extremists are incredibly adept at manipulating the flow of information and images in the global media -- far more adept than the often clumsy attempts of their Western counterparts to do the same.

In part, this disconnect stems from the fact that the principles of an independent press were firmly ensconced in Western thinking before the technological revolution of the late 20th century transformed the dominant media paradigm from a monlithic corporate hulk into a fast-moving, viral marketplace of ideas.

Islamists, in contrast, have utilized for decades such viral communication techniques -- point-to-point transfers of opinionated information generated by individuals in many different formats -- including the written word, audio and video. The technological shift to the Internet during the 1990s magnified the reach and effectiveness of their pre-existing communications strategies.

The only way to prepare for future media outbreaks -- and there will be future outbreaks -- is to comprehend the viral nature of information and misinformation in modern society, a phenomenon which spans the Muslim-Western divide. The champions of moderation and reconciliation were caught unawares by the whispering campaign that turned the Danish cartoons into a global cause célèbre. They cannot afford to be surprised again.

If we better our understanding the propagation of information -- and its manipulation by people with ulterior motives -- our response will be smarter and more effective at dousing the flames when the next cartoon controversy erupts.

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Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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