Almost the whole world has been surprised by the scope and intensity of angry crowds throughout the Islamic realm demonstrating against the offensive cartoons about the prophet Muhammad that were published last year in a small, right-wing Danish newspaper.
It is perhaps time that we stopped being surprised by a phenomenon that has become routine - the affirmation of Islamic identity as the dominant form of national self-assertion in developing societies whose citizens suffer major grievances against the quality of their own statehood and governance as well as against Western and Israeli policies.
The cartoons, including one depicting the prophet's headdress as a bomb, are only the fuse that set off a combustible collection of pressures and tensions anchored in a much wider array of problems. These include provocative and arrogant European disdain for Muslim sensitivities about Muhammad; attempts by some Islamist extremists and criminal-political elements to stir up troubles; the Europeans' clear message that their values count more than the values of Muslims; and a wider sense by many citizens of Islamic societies that the West seeks to weaken and subjugate the Muslim world.
The current wave of intense protests was sparked when half a dozen newspapers throughout Europe provocatively reprinted the cartoons last month. This was coupled with European political and press leaders flat-out telling the Islamic world that Western freedom of press was a higher moral value and a greater political priority than Muslims' concern that their leading prophet not be subjected to blasphemy and insult.
Clearly, some troublemakers in Europe and the Islamic world stirred up Muslims' anger and provoked some of the destructive protests, especially burning embassies and offices in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon. This is the political equivalent of soccer hooliganism in Europe - a small minority of unruly criminal thugs that preys on the legitimate sentiments of otherwise peaceful crowds taking to the streets in orderly if lively protests.
It would be a huge mistake to focus mainly on the few violent Islamist skinheads and to ignore the meaning of the vast majority of hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched in earnest and in an orderly way.
This occurs at a time when Islamist political movements throughout the region are winning election after election. Islamist identity repeatedly triumphs where traditional ruling elites have had to open up and make space for others to contest political power democratically and peacefully.
The most consistent source of Arab-Islamic angst in the past two centuries, Western colonialism, has now run up against the resistance of the single most consistent form of indigenous identity and anti-imperial opposition - cultural and political Islamism.
It is too simplistic and easy to categorize this as a clash of civilizations, a very Western perspective that explains political tensions primarily through the lens of cultural and values differences. Nor is this an argument about freedom of the press in Europe, much as our European friends would like to believe it is. It is about Arab-Islamic societies' desire to enjoy freedom from Western and Israeli subjugation, diplomatic double standards and neocolonial policies.
This is a new form of the colonial struggle that defined European-Arab/Asian relations in the 19th century. The difference this time is that the natives in the south are not helpless and quiescent in the face of the West's large guns. They disdain rhetoric or insulting cartoons.
Muslims, Arabs, Asians and others today are much more aware of the policies of Western states, concerned about their goals, angry about Western double standards, able to resist through the use of mass media, political and other channels. They are willing to stand up, fight back and assert their right to live in freedom and dignity. The message is that the 19th century has officially ended.
Muslims have been deeply insulted by much of Europe's behavior regarding the Danish cartoons, but not only by the cartoons, because our concerns and fears are much wider and deeper than that.
Many ordinary citizens in the Arab-Asian region see the European position on Iran's nuclear industry and the victorious Hamas Party in Palestine as moving closer to American-Israeli positions that grossly discriminate against Arabs or Muslims.
Coming after the American-led assault on Iraq, this explains why large majorities of people polled in Arab countries just three months ago believed that the main motives of American policies in the Mideast are "oil, protecting Israel, dominating the region and weakening the Muslim world."
Editorial cartoons by nature send a message by symbolizing much larger political and social issues. Similarly, the current protests by many Muslims should be understood as reflecting much deeper concerns than only the insulting, blasphemous cartoons in an obscure Danish newspaper.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.
© 2006 Newsday, Inc.