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Europe Being Drawn Deeper into Cartoon Firestorm

Since European newspapers began reprinting editorial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Europe is finding itself the target of Muslim ire.

Embassies set ablaze, goods boycotted, citizens warned not to travel to certain volatile regions for fear of their safety, this time the target is Europe, where more than a dozen newspapers have reprinted controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet, Muhammad.

Middle East and North Africa specialist at the International Study and Research Center in Paris, Luis Martinez, says it is a troubling sign for Europe. He says, until now, Europe has been able to convince Arab societies in particular to forget certain historical facts, such as the Christian Crusades and European colonization of their countries. Europe now has a more peaceful image as a soft power in the Arab world, which has functioned more or less successfully.

But that appears to be changing. In the past two weeks, angry protesters have torched and attacked European embassies and staged angry demonstrations in the Middle East, Asia, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Much of their ire has been directed at Denmark, where a newspaper first printed the cartoons last September.

Several Middle Eastern countries have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark to protest the drawings.

A Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Relations in London, Richard Whitman, says many of the protests target Europe as a whole.

"It does not matter, perhaps, if people in your country did not reproduce the cartoons. It looks as if Europeans collectively are being hit hard. And the response is going to have to be a collective one. All governments are going to have to decide how they want to respond to such strident public opposition in third countries," he said.

European leaders have joined pleas for calm by religious and other international figures. Many have balanced support for free speech with calls for the media and others to respect religious sensitivities.

The newspaper that published the cartoons originally, apologized, but Muslim anger against the cartoons does not appear to be dying down.

Some experts like Antoine Basbous, the director of the Paris Observatory of Arab Countries, believe that Muslim anger could leave a lasting diplomatic impact, particularly when it comes to Europe's ties with North Africa and the Middle East.

He says that, at the moment, relations between Europe and the Arab world are under control. But that may change, he says. And what he calls "regimes in difficulty", notably Syria and Iran, may try to use anger on the Muslim streets to suit their own, political purposes.

Publicly, European officials argue the cartoons are unlikely to erode their ties with the Muslim world.

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin notes these bonds are long standing.

"Our efforts to bridge across the Mediterranean, to deepen our links with the Islamic world are not something new, they are not something recent. They are something which stretches back over more than a decade. And our partnership is well known and well understood in Islamic countries, not only in the Middle East, but in Indonesia, Afghanistan. We have Islamic partners all over the world who know us as a major donor, as a major investor, as a major trade partner," she said.

Those ties include a Europe-Mediterranean partnership between the European Union and Middle Eastern and North African countries. Europe is also the Palestinian Authority's biggest source of foreign funds and North Africa's largest trade partner.

But Europe's relationship with the Middle East is changing, and not just because of the cartoons.

Just a few years ago, Europe split bitterly over the war in Iraq, with a number of countries joining in protesting the U.S.-led conflict. Now, the European Union has joined the United States in calling for sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program.

Washington and Brussels also have sharply criticized Syria for meddling in Lebanon, and expressed misgivings over Hamas' recent victory in the Palestinian elections.

The Royal Institute's Whitman suggests the cartoons push Europe and the United States closer in other ways.

"I do wonder whether the long-term consequence will actually be not to reverse the hostility the U.S. faces, but for Europeans to be bracketed much more closely with the United States in a kind of demonology of 'nasty forces' impacting on Islam. The United Kingdom already feels this of course, because it is already much more closely associated with the U.S. in the war on terror and the war in Iraq. And I do wonder now whether the honeymoon period for Europe's relationship with the Islamic world is now going to be over," he said.

The biggest impact from the cartoons on Europe has been economic.

There have been scattered boycotts of European, and particularly, Danish products. Iran has severed its trade ties with Denmark, and Iraq has refused to accept Danish transportation funds or give contracts to Danish companies.

Some analysts question whether there will be more severe, long-term harm to economic relations between Europe and the Muslim world.

But some experts doubt the cartoons will leave much long-term impact when it comes to Europe's relationship with Islamic countries. That includes University of Copenhagen International Relations Professor Fabrizio Tassinari.

"I honestly do not think this specific issue has to do with the European policy on, for instance, the Israeli-Arab conflict or generally speaking the policy of a number of European countries toward Arab-Muslim countries," he said. "It has to do with how to deal with issues of freedom of speech and freedom of press, and how to do that in a multi-cultural society,"

Many European countries hope Tassinari's predictions prove correct, but that still leaves them with the dilemma of how to calm the anger in the Muslim world.