Pay attention, America. Culture counts.

By Alec Brandon

It has been a rough couple of weeks for liberalism in the Middle East. Last week saw the rise to power of theocratic terrorists in the Palestinian Authority. This has been all but overshadowed by the baffling turn of events that has prompted the torching of European embassies in Syria and Lebanon, all over a page of cartoons. While many have been casting the violence as a European problem—comparable to the rioting in France last November—the astounding level of vicious intolerance still bodes poorly for America’s uphill road to “democratization” of the Middle East.

This becomes even more apparent when you take into account the circumstances that prompted all this. It all started in September of last year when the Danish newspaper Politiken featured a story detailing Kåre Bluitgen’s trouble. He was writing a children’s book on the life of Mohammed and was unable to find an illustrator willing to draw pictures of the prophet out of fear for their safety. Less than two weeks later, the prominent Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had an article questioning the level of self-censorship witnessed in the Bluitgen case and others. Attached were a dozen cartoons of Mohammed commissioned by the newspaper to see if freedom of press still truly existed in Denmark.

But it is clear that the circumstances of the cartoons published are lost on those rioting. In fact, it is safe to say that this has nothing to do with the cartoons. While what was published was by definition blasphemous—any portrayal of Mohammed is sacrilegious in Islam—the response it has prompted, four months later, mind you, reeks of political manipulation of fundamentalist clerics. It is reminiscent of last year’s Newsweek story on treatment of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay that prompted riots and the death of 17. The suspicious thing in both of these cases is that somehow Arabs are having their attention drawn to American newsweeklies and Danish newspapers in a region that is so heavily censored any news reaching it is shocking.

While there is no evidence now of who originally brought attention to these cartoons, a pretty safe guess would be fundamentalist clerics who hold enormous sway over their followers. To a large extent, this is America’s fault. We have propped up Arab dictatorships that have imprisoned or murdered any political opposition over the past few decades. As a result, the only remaining political alternative in these countries are untouchable religious clerics. The power these groups enjoy, which is on full display this week, will be the largest obstacle to the ideals America has committed itself to spreading in the War on Terror, namely liberty, tolerance, and peace.

Providing a sensible and legitimate Arab political alternative is the only way to undercut the power of fundamentalist clerics. Doing this will be no easy task, but a good start would be to start paying attention to the events that impact the lives of the people we are trying to “liberalize” instead of naively testing whatever grandiose theories of democracy our policy makers are so in love with.