Wikileaks on the religion beat

It's been a while since we discussed anything related to Wikileaks. A few weeks ago we looked at a story that discussed the morality of the Wikileaks model. When this got going, I wondered if any of the documents that would come to light would include religion news. A couple of days ago, I saw on Mike Riggs' Twitter that leaked cables gave some information on Syrian involvement in Danish cartoon riots in Damascus. You can read the two cables here and here. They basically report on suspicions and confirmations that the Syrian Arab Republic Government fueled the embassy protests.

I figured this would be worth at least a few stories but, as we noted just yesterday, many Americans are a bit internally focused with their news. At least Reuters filed a report:

Syria actively encouraged violent protests over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad four years ago in which European embassies in Damascus were attacked, a senior U.S. diplomat said in leaked cables.

Charge d'affaires Stephen Seche said Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari gave instructions for mosque preachers to deliver hard-hitting sermons at weekly prayers on the eve of the protests, according to cables released by the WikiLeaks website.

The article gives a good summary of what happened with the 2006 protests and what cartoons they were in response to. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Damascus of inciting violence at the time, which Syria disputed.

But the most important part of the story might be the part that gets at "why" SARG might have helped fuel these protests:

But it said the violence also helped the secular government of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect, by showing that Syria could "defend Islamic dignity," by distracting Syrians from recent price rises, and allowing Damascus to tell the West "we are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes."

"...Despite any miscalculation, loss of control, or embarrassment, the minority Alawite regime seems to have benefited from the rioting, enhancing its legitimacy in several ways," it said.

The other details are helpful but understanding why a government may have provoked this violence is key. I was surprised to learn only recently that the protests were not spontaneous reactions to the cartoons. The violence that broke out had a complex story behind it. What hasn't been explained well is that two imams living in Denmark created a 43-page dossier claiming to show images that had been published in Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper there. They did -- they included the 12 cartoons such as Kurt Westergaard's depiction of Mohammed's turban as a bomb. But they also included pictures from another Danish newspaper (which had actually been satirizing Jyllands-Posten's cartoons). And then they included some very offensive cartoons that never appeared in any newspaper. Here's how Reason magazine put it:

The images include an amateurish doodle identifying Mohammed as a pedophile, a dog humping a prostrate praying Muslim (with the caption, "This is why Muslim pray five times a day"), and a photocopy of a French comedian in a pig-squealing contest (with the phony caption, "Here is the real image of Mohammed")... . It is as if the pope created "Piss Christ" and then passed it off as the work of critics of Catholicism.

That dossier went on tour and populist protests broke out. The Wikileaked cables indicate that there may have been even more shenanigans at play in getting people to riot.

The complex story about how these riots happened (and remember that in addition to the building damage and economic boycotts, well over 100 people died in these protests, including a nun and a priest) has not been well covered, particularly in U.S. papers. I'm certainly not defending the riots, but knowing how much manipulation and political calculation went into them paints a very different picture than the one we had in the early days after the violence.

And with the news from yesterday that Danish police arrested five people (with a "militant Islamic background") accused of planning to attack the newspaper that published the cartoons, this story needs context as much as ever.

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