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Behind the cartoon protests

By The Monitor's View / February 10, 2006



The clash over the Muhammad cartoons isn't just between "the West" and Islam. It's more between Muslims. Protests over the derogatory cartoons were purposely fanned by Arab leaders who need to look like mightier defenders of Islam than the jihadists who want to overthrow them and unite all Muslims.

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Many actions by the West serve as merely a foil in a long intra-Muslim struggle over whether to return the Middle East to some bygone Islamic unity of centuries past. The cartoons published in a Danish newspaper were used as an excuse to score points in a bigger game.

This Muslim struggle over whether to create an Islamic empire reappeared in modern times with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Now, after more than two decades of trying to export their revolution through terrorist groups and oil money, Iran's Shiite mullahs are losing the battle. They were drained by a long war with Iraq during the 1980s but, most of all, by the misrule of their own, now disenchanted people.

Besieged at home by youthful dissent, Iran's clerics have reverted to Persian nationalism, Israel baiting, and a quest for the ultimate tool against those who oppose its claim to Islamic leadership, nuclear weapons.

That latter move has only widened the split between Islam's rival camps, the Shiites and the Sunnis, who are divided over who should have led the faith after the prophet Muhammad's passing. Arab leaders have sought the West's help in thwarting Iran's nuclear ambition.

Competing with Iran for Islamic leadership since the 1990s has been Sunni-dominated Al Qaeda.

Its leaders, now on the run, may still believe terrorist attacks on the West, such as 9/11, can rally the faithful under its flag or bring a flood of followers into Afghanistan and Iraq. But the group's violent tactics, especially beheadings or killings of Muslim bystanders in bombings, have turned off the "umma," or the wider community of Muslims.

Al Qaeda's internal memos have admitted its tactical mistakes. "We are in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma," wrote the group's ideologue, Ayman Zawahiri, last year. And in a recently released audio tape, the fugitive Osama bin Laden tried to restore his slipping legitimacy with Muslims.

Strangely, the jihadists on the ascendency are those using a Western import, democracy. The Palestinian group Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have won impressive gains in recent elections. Reflecting the views of their voters, they're now mainly occupied with how to govern well. Both appear to be moderating their rhetoric.

The mistake of many jihadists is to think that Islamic unity through the sword can bring the dignity and respect sought by Arabs and Iranians from their governments and the West. But religion can't be imposed.

And to always create an enemy out of Western actions is no way to uplift Islam's image. While the West can do more not to antagonize Muslims, it is really up to Muslims to resolve their internal conflict. So far, the radicals appear on the run, with some at least running toward the ballot box rather than the ammunition box.

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