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Given the excesses of the protests--which included retaliatory cartoons mocking the Holocaust--it's not surprising that some in Europe and the U.S. have lashed back. The Bush Administration initially declared the caricatures offensive while denouncing the violence. But as the protests turned violent and critics grumbled about the Administration's failure to stand up for free speech and the U.S.'s suddenly besieged European allies, the Bush team ratcheted up the rhetoric. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "There is no excuse for violence," and she accused regimes in Iran and Syria of deliberately stirring up anti-Western sentiment. Aboard Air Force One last Tuesday, President George W. Bush phoned Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, with whom Bush has a close relationship, to stress Washington's solidarity and "buck him up," says a senior Administration official. But Bush aides acknowledge that the cartoon uproar has been an unwelcome distraction at a time when the U.S. is fighting insurgencies in two Muslim countries and trying to build support to curb the nuclear ambitions of a third. "We all hope it calms down," says another senior Administration official.
Even if it does, the broader issues raised by the current furor are certain to persist. To some, the dispute over the cartoons is a bellwether of a deepening divide between Western societies and Islam, a civilizational clash on issues as basic as the role of religion in society and the limits of liberty. Although the controversy has revealed degrees of cultural ignorance on both sides, it has been fueled by a brew of willful misunderstanding, manipulation and opportunism--all of which became combustible in the political climate that prevails in much of the Middle East today. In that sense, the crisis may also offer a useful if sobering glimpse of the raucous, religiously infused brand of democracy that is emerging in the Muslim world. Says Joseph Bahout, a professor of geopolitics at the National Foundation of Political Sciences in Paris: "The Arab world keeps hearing the U.S. speak of democracy as one size fits all--but they don't like the size the Americans wear."