The month had an innocuous, but ominous, beginning. Some cartoons originally published in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, last September were reprinted in papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

February ended with the bloody aftermath of the bombing of the al-Askari shrine and mosque in Samarra, 96km north of Baghdad, and the Iraqi government is in disarray.

Assuming that the reader is acquainted with the nature of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, there is little reason to describe them again here. They were a slap in the face to the followers of Islam, and the EU condemned their repeated publication as a "systematic incitement to violence".

While protests were expected, some view what followed as a public relations disaster for Islam when the US/UK invasion of an Islamic republic is taken into account. Put a different way, the invasion of Iraq by primarily American forces engendered a tremendous amount of sympathy for the Arab nation, and, suddenly, despite 9/11, America became the bad guy.

"The Civil War is an illusion. What the Americans want is to have the people fight each other while they get their oil."


Ivan Martinez, Venezuela

 

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Even when Islamic extremists struck in faraway places such as Bali, Madrid, and London, somehow the US was culpable in left-of-centre circles. These same circles will defend to their last breath freedom of the press. They will also defend the right of protest.

Never was there a more righteous cause for protest than the cartoons, so making placards and joining in street marches was in order. A few letters to the editor might help, too.

But what followed was a PR disaster. Some sympathy for the Muslim world was lost, because what followed (violent demonstrations) was a classic example of the punishment far exceeding the crime, and that is true for both sides of the equation.

 

Some nations and some institutions and businesses that had nothing to do with the cartoons were punished. Also, previous Islamic excesses around the world were easily blamed on extremists.

What followed involved the Muslim version of the man-on-the-street participating in excess. Many were hurt. Many were killed. Many were arrested in the violent riots.

 

During the first week of February, two people were killed as protesters assailed the US airbase at Bagram, although the US was not involved with the images of Muhammad.

Iran announced that it was halting trade with Denmark as protesters pelted the Danish embassy with petrol bombs. The Austrian embassy in Tehran came under attack. Norway's embassy in Syria was set on fire. Danish and US embassies in Indonesia were also targets. A general strike was called to protest against the cartoons in Indian-held Kashmir. Five people were killed in Afghanistan and, after more rioting, the death toll rose to 11. The Danish embassy in Beirut was sacked.

 

It (al-Qaida) wants only turmoil and a civil war in Iraq would fit in with the group's grand scheme, embarrassing the US to the utmost.

Then matters really got serious. In three straight days of violent protests, five were killed in Pakistan, and at one point 70,000 people rampaged through Peshawar torching businesses and fighting police. A bus terminal was destroyed. Some are still trying to work out how the Daewoo bus company of South Korea is connected to Danish cartoons.

 

A Pakistani cleric announced a $1 million bounty on the cartoonist, not knowing that there were a few of them.

 

Matters got progressively worse and in Libya 11 people were killed by security forces as protesters assaulted the Italian consulate in Benghazi. The interior minister was later fired.

 

In Italy, Roberto Calderoli, a right-wing minister, resigned under pressure for wearing a T-shirt with the offending cartoons printed on it. He was accused of fuelling the frenzy in Benghazi.

 

Saving the worst until last, we come to Nigeria. On 18 February, 15 people, mostly Christians, were killed by Muslims, most beaten to death on the streets of Maiduguri, and 15 churches were burnt. Later, the Christians struck back and the fighting continued between the Muslim north and Christian south, and eventually 130 or more were killed.

 

All of this over some cartoons. Of course there is more to it than just cartoons, but  serious questions can be raised over these incidents. Foremost among them is: Can Islam censor Western freedom of the press? No, of course not. Still another: Does Islam have the right to protest against Western press when offended. Yes, of course. That is one of the freedoms the West cherishes. Does Islam have the right to protest violently when offended?  No.

 

While Western viewers were gasping at the events, another outrage occurred. On 22 February an unknown group blew the golden dome off the al-Askari shrine, which had remained intact since 944.

 

About the last thing Americans wanted, and their leadership, was for sectarian violence to blow the lid off Iraq.

It was originally built to house the tombs of two 9th-century Muslim scholars and descendants of Ali bin Abi Talib the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, whom the Shia consider as their first Imam, and blaming Muhammad's companions for not installing him as the first caliph after the prophet's death.

 

Al-Askari is the eleventh descendent of Ali, along with his son Muhammad al-Mahdi are seen by Shia as their twelve Imams and mentors. It is important here to say that none of those twelve scholars considered himself a Shia.  

Put a different way, al-Askari is a truly sacred shrine for both Sunni and Shia. This bombing occurred in the wake of the cartoon furore, and, when hearing about it, Americans murmured a collective "uh-oh".

 

Shia reacted against the perceived culprit, the Sunni, who disagree with Shia in taking the descendants of Ali as mentors and disagree with Shia that Ali should have been the first caliph after the death of Muhammad.  

 

The Sunni reacted in kind. Iraq blew up in a maelstrom of violence. The main targets became mosques, although there were many others. American, British, and Iraqi authorities lost control and Muslim clerics tried to quell the violence, with some success.

However, by the end of February the death toll ranged between 379, according to the Iraqi government, and more than 1300, according to the Washington Post using morgue statistics not death certificates, which are slowed by paperwork.

 

Who bombed the shrine? No one knows because no group has, at the time of writing, claimed responsibility. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian prime minister, true to form blamed the US and Israel.

 

Some Shia believe that the Sunni resistance is responsible, but it has enough on its hands with the American and British occupiers without taking on the various Shia militia, including Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army.

 

Not surprisingly, al-Sadr also blamed Americans. What is surprising is that little has been said of the most obvious suspect group, al-Qaida of Iraq.

Some sympathy for the Muslim world was lost, because what followed (violent demonstrations) was a classic example of the punishment far exceeding the crime, and that is true for both sides of the equation.

About the last thing Americans wanted, and their leadership, was for sectarian violence to blow the lid off Iraq. The same could be said for Shias and Sunni, most of whom wish only to rid themselves of the Western occupiers.

The same cannot be said for al-Qaida. It wants only turmoil and a civil war in Iraq would fit in with the group's grand scheme, embarrassing the US to the utmost. Moreover, this attack looks like an al-Qaida operation - well planned and executed brilliantly against an iconic target.

While all of this was going on, athletes from China to Britain, from Russia to the US participated in the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Men and women from nearly every ethnic group on the planet enjoyed each other's company in the spirit of Olympic competition.

In my ultimate fantasy, I want some day to see an Iraqi athlete take the gold in figure skating or the downhill. Considering the taxi drivers around here, how about the bobsled? Is that really so much to wish for?

For those who preach moderation, dialogue, understanding, and compromise, February was truly a rugged month.

Sandy Shanks is the author of two novels, The Bode Testament and Impeachment, a keen historian and a columnist.

 

The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.