Richard North, 06/02/2006  


Although several European leaders have reacted individually to the events in the Middle East, noticeably absent is any sense of crisis in the European Union hierarchy itself, with the Austrian presidency having declined to call a meeting of member states to discuss developments.

Strangely from an organisation which devoted untold hours to tense negotiations on VAT rates for hairdressers, this issue it seems is not one that it is prepared to tackle head-on.

According to EU Observer, an Austrian presidency spokesman simply confined himself to the anodyne statement: "For the moment we have no plans to call for a crisis meeting. If we call upon the ministers of the 25 member states, we would like to see something coming out of it."

A half-hearted statement has come from the EU commission, which stunned to world with the statement that is was "aware that the cartoons ... have aggrieved Muslims across the world." This is from spokesman Johannes Laitenberg, who adds that, "no grievance, perceived or real, justifies acts of violence such as perpetrated on the weekend," saying that the EU condemned the weekend violence "in the strongest possible terms."

The same lack of resolution is mirrored in the one and only statement from Javier Solana - made via his spokeswoman - who, unbelievably, condemned against Europeans on the grounds that it could "only harm the image of peaceful Islam."

In an attempt to maintain that "image of peaceful Islam", meanwhile, protesters in Afghanistan today went on the rampage, leaving at least four dead after security forces opened fire.

The worst of the violence was outside Bagram, the main US base in Afghanistan, with Afghan police firing on some 2,000 protesters as they tried to break into the heavily guarded facility.

In Kabul, about 200 protesters tried to break down the gate of the Danish government's diplomatic mission office but failed. The protesters then threw stones at the mission and beat some officers guarding it, as well some guards at a nearby house used by Belgian diplomats. Police later used batons and rifle butts to disperse demonstrators walking toward the presidential palace.

Ironically, the protestors were not content with their usual chants of, "Long live Islam! We are Muslims! We don't let anyone insult our prophet!", adding to the litany with "Down with America!" and slogans against the Afghan and US presidents.

In Tehran, about 200 people pelted the embassy of Austria, current holders of the EU president, with petrol bombs and stones. The mission did not catch fire and police prevented people from storming it. Clearly officially sanctioned, the target of the EU presidency would have been unkown to all but a very few. Following that, hand grenades and cocktail Molotovs were hurled at the Danish embassy in Tehran as several hundred radical Islamists attacked the compound this evening. The protestors, members of the Bassij – an offshoot of the Revolutionary Guards – demanded that the Danish ambassador be expelled from Iran.

Elsewhere, in Somalia, a 14-year-old boy was killed and several others were injured after protesters attacked the police. Several thousand students massed peacefully in Cairo on the campus of al-Azhar University, the oldest and most important seat of Sunni Muslim learning in the world, and, the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir came to a standstill as shops, businesses and schools shut down for a day to protest.

In the Indian capital of New Delhi, riot police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of students from Jamia University, who chanted slogans and burned a Danish flag while, 500 Indonesian protestors rallied in front of the Danish embassy in Jakarta.

Palestinian police in Gaza City used batons to beat back stone-throwing protesters who gathered outside the European Commission building. About 200 protesters waved green flags symbolizing the Islamic Hamas movement and the yellow flags of the secular Fatah Party.

Of course, none of this is so important as to tear the EU away from its own internal preoccupations. Thus, in the wake of the hairdressing crisis, does even the Financial Times report: "EU looks to be grinding to a halt".


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