Over the past few days, protesters in Damascus torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies, mobs clashed on the streets of Beirut and stormed the Danish mission, and Palestinian gunmen seized the Gaza offices of the European Union. Did all this fury really come from a series of 12 caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were first printed in the Danish newspaper and then re-printed throughout Europe and New Zealand over the past month?
Ostensibly, it did. But the roots of the anger run much deeper. As one young Syrian businessman who joined the protests in Damascus on Saturday told me, the cartoons were just "the straw that broke the camel’s back." On Saturday, young people marched through the city chanting Islam’s main creed—There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger. Earlier that day, Syrians had received text messages saying, “Go out to the street and defend your prophet!” With an increasingly religious population, the government could not afford to look like it would resist such a call. In fact, to gain favor with its population, the government must support the call for Muslims to defend their prophet.
Since 9/11, Muslims have come to feel that their religion is fair game for a kind of criticism and ridicule that is taboo toward other ethnic or religious groups. For example, Jesus or Christianity itself would never be blamed for the killings that took place at the hands of Christian Serbs in the civil war in Yugoslavia. By portraying the Prophet with a turban in the shape of an explosive device or with devil horns, the Danish cartoonists were telling Muslims that the very essence of their religion—the messenger himself, the role-model for all Muslims—is a terrorist.
Still, the intensity of Muslim reaction to these cartoons is hard for non-Muslims to understand. It is linked to problems facing much of the Muslim world—internal frustrations with repressive governments, external pressures on the regimes, and poor communication between the Muslim and Western worlds. Like many other countries in the Arab and Muslim world, Syrians are becoming more religious. Rampant corruption, a distrust of their government, and a lack of freedom of speech and freedom to organize has led many to return to their churches and their mosques. Still, the burning of the embassies in Syria shocked many. Syria is a secular country where foreigners often say they feel welcomed, where men and women mix freely and where women can walk the streets at night, without a scarf, without fear and often alone.