Saturday, February 18, 2006

Cartoon Violence: is the sky really falling?

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the spiteful Mohammed caricatures that were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and the resulting backlash. As I explained, the cartoons were a deliberate insult by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper against Islam and Muslims in general, and I can easily understand their outrage at them.

However, this does not explain or excuse some of the nonsensical violence that has taken place over the past few days. While the bulk of the protests around the world have been peaceful, some hooligans and warmongers have channeled the anger resulting from the cartoons into a backlash against local Christian communities (none of whom had anything to do with the cartoons), or against other interests.

In Lebanon, a week ago, the violent protest that resulted in the torching of the Danish embassy in Beirut also resulted in a rampage of destruction through a predominantly Christian neighborhood surrounding the Danish embassy. Fortunately, in that confrontation, nobody was killed, however many innocent people had their homes and property damaged or destroyed.

In Libya yesterday, ten protesters were killed in a violent protest at an Italian consulate in Libya. They were protesting the actions of Italian cabinet minster Roberto Calderoli, who had worn a T-shirt displaying the offensive drawings under his suit to a television interview, and unbuttoned his shirt the interview to reveal it.

And today, in northern Nigeria, according to news reports, an anti-Christian riot resulted in at least 16 people being killed (most of whom were Christians beaten to death in the street), and 10 churches burned, along with at least 20 businesses and 10 automobiles.

What is truly sad about all three of these incidents is that the targets of the violence had nothing to do with the cartoons at all. In the case of the Italians, even before the violent protest, the Italian prime minister had called for Calderoli's resignation. And, in Nigeria and Lebanon, the local Christian community had absolutely nothing to do with the Danish cartoons, and in fact many of them found the cartoons completely distasteful.

To understand the real cause behind some of this violence it is necessary to look beneath the surface, at the seething anger that existed in each of these locations long before the offending cartoons had even been drawn. Like a pot of water, the cartoons may have caused it to boil over, but if the water was not already at the boiling point before the cartoons came along, nothing much would have happened. In the case of Libya, it was a colony of Italy for dozens of years preceding World War II. In one of her earlier posts, Highlander, a Libyan blogger, holds little back when describing the Italian colonial period:
The Italian aggression and terrorism against Libya was extremely brutal. Thousands of innocent men, women and children were killed. Their homes were burnt down, their crops destroyed, their wells filled with cement, and copies of their Koran stepped upon. Many women were raped. Thousands of other Libyans were detained in concentration camps in the hot desert. Their properties were confiscated. Others perished under the most repressive conditions. Furthermore, the Italians, had laid about 170,000 landmines all over the country. These landmines have killed and are continuing to kill and maim many Libyans.
How much of the anger vented at the Italian consulate in Libya was about the cartoons, and how much of it was pent-up anger at Italy's colonial legacy in Libya?

The violence against Christians in Lebanon and northern Nigeria is disturbing, but it is also worth noting that both of these countries have had a painful history of violence between Christians and Muslims. In the case of Lebanon, the country was decimated by a 15 year civil war between these groups, which ended only in 1990. And, in the case of northern Nigeria, tit-for-tat violence between Muslim and Christian militia groups, like this, this, and this, has been simmering in this area for over two hundred years. The violence in Nigeria goes beyond inter-relgious rivalry, and includes both tribal and political dimensions. How much of the anger that was directed at Christians in Lebanon and Nigeria was caused by these cartoons, and how much of it was pent-up anger from prior causes?

I expect many bloggers today will latch onto these Nigerian riots and, like Chicken Little, will tell us all that the sky is falling; that the riots in Nigeria are a case in point that we are faced with an imminent clash of cultures between Islam and Christianity. I do not subscribe to this theory, and if you take these three episodes of violence in the local context, you will easily realize they were just the latest chapter in a long history of conflict in each of those areas.