TNR on the Cartoon Intifada in Lebanon

The latest issue of The New Republic shatters another common illusion about the cartoon offensive.

For the Western news media, always eager to revisit Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war, the Muslim rampage through a Christian neighborhood in Beirut on February 5 was a disappointment. A mob of predominantly Sunni Muslims threw stones at a Maronite Catholic church–a desecration most militias refrained from even during the civil war–and yet Beirut’s Christians turned the other cheek. A peaceful counterdemonstration that night felt like a Cedar Revolution class reunion: Young men and women milled around chanting desultory slogans, then went home. By nightfall, what was assumed to be a ham-handed Syrian attempt to stir up sectarian trouble in Lebanon had fizzled. “We will not fall in the trap,” proclaimed Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. “Our national unity is stronger than Syrian destruction.”

The cartoon intifada–as the sometimes violent protests over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed have come to be known–has been portrayed in the Western press as an epic struggle between West and East, Christendom and Islam. The image of angry, stone-throwing Muslims assaulting the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh fit right into that clash-of-civilizations paradigm.

But, as the world tuned in to watch a classic Christian-Muslim image from Lebanon’s last war, it missed another picture: mainstream Sunni clerics frantically trying to hold back a bandana-wearing, brick-throwing Sunni mob that no longer respects their clerical robes. “I asked those troublemakers, ‘What do the people who live in Ashrafiyeh have to do with the people who published those blasphemous cartoons about our Prophet?'” lamented one Sunni cleric from Dar Al Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni spiritual authority. “I asked them, ‘Why were those men destroying cars and public property? Why did they throw rocks at a church, which is a house of God?’ Those people were not true Muslims. They had other agendas.”

In Lebanon and Syria, the cartoon jihad is not a battle between West and East. It’s a struggle by mainstream Sunnis to contain a growing network of radical Islamists. The Sunnis who burned Beirut’s Danish Embassy weren’t there to defend their Prophet from Lurpak butter or an obscure Danish newspaper. They weren’t even there, really, to assault Christians. They came to Ashrafiyeh–from Lebanon’s northern Islamist pockets, its Palestinian camps, and from neighboring Syria–to teach the mainstream Sunni establishment a lesson. Most of all, they were there to send a message to Saad Hariri, the Saudi- and U.S.-backed figurehead of Lebanon’s current parliamentary majority and the ostensible leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community. The message was this: You cannot control us. What’s frightening is that they might be right.

In a war between the Tolerant and the Intolerant, the Intolerant always have the tactical advantage–and never have as many enemy sympathizers in their midst. Fortunately, their tactical advantage can translate into strategic weakness, as their violent persecution of heretics alienates more and more potential allies.

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Filed under Lebanon, Middle East, religion

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