Are Extremists Fanning Cartoon Outrage?

Iran Cartoons row

An Iranian protestor throws a stone at the Austrian Embassy, the country which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, in a protest over drawings of the Prophet Muhammed in European newspapers, as police officers look on, in Tehran, Iran, Monday. (AP)

Associated Press Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – An Iranian state TV announcer depicts cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as a direct insult to Islam by the Danish government, not a private newspaper. Crowds in Syria – where state control is absolute – set fire to Danish and Norwegian embassies. The U.S. military sees the hand of extremist groups in riots in Afghanistan.

As rage over the caricatures continues across the Muslim world, there are growing questions whether governments like Syria and Iran’s hard-line clerical regime and extremist groups like the Taliban are fanning the outrage.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that Iran and Syria “have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes. And the world ought to call them on it.” Iranian Vice President Isfandiar Rahim Mashaee, speaking to reporters during a trip to Indonesia, rejected the allegation Thursday as “100 percent a lie.”

Few doubt there is genuine anger among Muslims. For religious an the past weeks – protests and impromptu boycotts of Danish products have erupted in numerous Arab and Islamic countries.

Most have been non-violent. In Egypt, demonstrators – including ones from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood – have gone out of their way to insist they are peaceful and aren’t angry at the Danish people, only the newspaper and the government for not taking a strong enough stance against the insult.

But in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon the protests have been more violent.

Iran’s government has been the most overt in characterizing the drawings as an organized effort to attack Islam.

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a nationally televised speech that the cartoons were part of a “Zionist plot.” Mohsen Rezai, an official on the Expediency Council – a powerful body of hard-line clerics – said the drawings were a “test” by the West to see what Muslims’ reaction would be.

Iranian state media depict the drawings as an act of the Danish government, not a private newspaper. “After insulting Islam with the drawings, the government has not apologized yet,” one newsreader said in a television broadcast recently.

“It’s clear these reactions were supported by some political elements. Even state media alluded to the fact that European governments intentionally ordered the production of cartoons,” said Iranian political sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour.

He thinks the violent protests were payback for the U.N. nuclear watchdog referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program earlier this month.

In Syria, crowds set fire to Danish and Norwegian missions in Damascus. In a country where the government has absolute control, few believe the protesters could have pulled off such a brazen act without tacit government consent.

The next day, state-run media said the violence would not have happened “if Denmark had apologized” for the drawings.

The following day, protests against the Danish Embassy in Beirut turned into the stoning of a nearby Christian church. Anti-Syrian groups in Lebanon accused Damascus of sending in violent rioters to destabilize the country and re-ignite a Lebanese civil war.

“This is an organized attempt to take advantage of Muslim anger for purposes that do not serve the interests of Muslims and Lebanon, but those of others beyond the border,” Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, a Christian, said Sunday after riots in Beirut.

On Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims commemorating a holy day in Beirut to continue their protests.

“Defending the prophet should continue all over the world. Let Condoleezza Rice and (President) Bush and all the tyrants shut up,” he said. “We are a nation that cannot tolerate, be silent or be lax when they insult our prophet and sanctities.”

Analysts say Syria – under intense pressure over U.S. accusations of harboring terrorists and the implication of top Syrian security officials in the slaying of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – is sending a message that it can, and will, cause trouble if pushed too hard.

“They’re (Syria) basically telling the West that we have a lot of potential for rage and anger and here is a sample of it, so stay away from us,” said prominent Egyptian-American democracy advocate Saadiddine Ibrahim.

In Afghanistan, where three days of riots left more than 10 people dead, U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said the United States and other countries are examining whether extremist groups incited the violence.

“Other countries are having the same demonstrations, same problems – very violenay have been involved.

He said the United States and other countries would look to see “if this is something larger than just a small demonstration – if there is a tie to it, if there is an infrastructure, a connection to it.”

Zahor Afghan, the editor of Erada, Afghanistan’s most respected newspaper, said he felt there was definite incitement.

“No media in Afghanistan has published or broadcast pictures of these cartoons. The radio has been reporting on it, but there are definitely people using this to incite violence against the presence of foreigners in Afghanistan,” he said.

In Indonesia, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said he also believed radical groups around the world had jumped on the issue.

“The cartoons have hurt the Islamic community, so it has added to ammunition for (global) radical groups to exploit the situation,” he said.

The cartoons were first published on Sept. 30 in a Danish Daily, The Jyllands-Posten. Several days later, a coalition of Muslims in Denmark demanded a meeting with the country’s Culture Ministry to protest the drawings, but the ministry refused.

The Muslim coalition turned to foreign embassies, and then went on a tour of the Muslim and Arab world between December and January to call attention to the cartoons. Soon after, newspapers around the world began republishing the drawings and the issue returned to the spotlight.

Newspapers have argued that publishing the cartoons is a matter of free speech, but many Muslims find that argument hard to believe.

Americans and Europeans “are trying to impose their culture on us by abusing our religion,” said Sher Mohammed, a 40-year-old Afghan farmer.